Lighting for Terrariums: Best Natural & Grow Light Solutions

Honestly, lighting for terrariums is the most overlooked / misunderstood issue I see in terrarium care.

Watering for example, is something that everyone is at least mindful of. Whereas lighting is one of those things that you generally don’t know that you don’t know.

It’s not just you, we’re simply not designed to eyeball good light conditions.

And, we all know that direct light is the bane of tropical plants – so we often undershoot lighting with our terrariums… by a lot.

In this guide, I’ll take you through the practical steps of choosing the right spot for your terrarium, and how to choose a grow light if you want an easy life.

Let’s do it! 

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Understanding Terrarium Light Requirements

Lighting is an essential part of terrarium plant care. It’s arguably the main driver of plant health, and to be frank, we’re not biologically built to interpret it effectively.

Our eyes are designed to adapt to lighting conditions, not to quantify them. What looks bright to you is not necessarily bright to a plant.

Plus, we’re not particularly good at communicating it either.

What exactly does “partial shade” mean to you?

In reality, terrarium lighting is relatively straightforward on a practical level but one of the more difficult care requirements to master

This is especially true of artificial lighting, i.e., grow lights.

Any LED grow light near a terrarium is most likely going to do the trick (provided it’s a regular size).

closed terrarium under growlight
Here’s a flexible terrarium lighting setup I use (usually just in the Winter).

But, if you’re trying to fully optimize a system or looking to light a particularly large or complex container – then it becomes a lot more complicated and… mathematical

I know (internal scream).

Truthfully, terrarium lighting is a deep rabbit hole if you really want to explore the science behind light brightness, intensity, absorption, etc.

So, on the whole, I prefer to keep things as practical as possible.

The Best Natural Lighting for Terrariums

Sure, low-light terrarium plants do exist, but that’s often taken too literally.

Low light does not equal no light.

As true terrariums grow plants of a tropical nature, it’s natural that they should thrive in conditions that mimic that of their natural rainforest environment.

This can be simply expressed as bright indirect light.

It’s what I call the “tropical gold standard,” but let’s be honest – it doesn’t paint a very clear picture.

So, here are a couple of practical ways to achieve this:

  • Choose the right spot in the home – The location of your terrarium is critical in supplying it with adequate lighting conditions. The direction of the window and its proximity to the plants are the main factors, but the time of year, the weather, and your location all play a part.
  • Filter natural light – Strong direct light can quickly scorch delicate terrarium plants, but if you’re able to put up a screen or some blinds, then you can weaken those rays to a healthy intensity.

Assuming you’re in the Northern Hemisphere (like myself), this is how I’d approach the window situation.

  • North – This is the ideal spot. Northern-facing windows never see direct sunlight and enjoy indirect light throughout the entirety of the day. Feel free to put your terrarium as close to the window as possible (i.e. on the windowsill) to maximize the amount it gets.
  • East – The next best, East-facing windows receive some weaker direct sun in the morning, then bright indirect light throughout the day. 
  • West – West is a little risky, with your terrarium seeing some strong full sun in the afternoon. Delicate plants should be shielded, and realistically, only the more tolerant plants will do well here.
  • South – South-facing windowsills are pretty much a no-go I’m afraid. Your terrarium will experience full sun throughout the hottest parts of the day. In rooms with a South-facing window, you’ll need to move your terrarium several feet away from the light source.
terrariums with lightmeter
I keep my terrariums on a bookshelf several feet away from the window in my South-facing office, and the light isn’t too harsh.

Terrarium Grow Lights

If you have a typical tabletop terrarium, then any sort of grow lamp will do.

Personally, I don’t bother with the multi-colored purple and blue lights. Any benefit for the plants is marginal, and I find the lighting unsightly and jarring.

White light has everything a plant needs, and let’s be honest, it’s what we want to illuminate our home with.

Grow lights tend to be harsher than warmer, but that’s the nature of having light intense enough to produce growth.

I use a relatively inexpensive Sansi grow bulb that I purchased from Amazon that’s fitted into an Ikea lamp. Nothing fancy!

Sansi grow light
My grow light bulb is in a cheap adjustable floor lamp. Maximum versatility, minimum fuss.

LED Terrarium Lights

For those with a “tank” setup, an aquarium light is an easy fit.

They’re typically strip lights designed to hook onto the side of an aquarium tank. Being a bar, they can illuminate evenly down the full length of the container.

Fish tank terrarium with lighting
Here’s a friend’s terrarium tank setup, fitted with an aquarium strip light.

Generally, any aquarium light that fits should do the trick – I believe my friend used a Fluval light.

Vivarium Lighting

Lighting planted vivariums for the benefit of animals is a very different ball game and perhaps the most challenging to fully understand.

In addition to the typical growth conditions, you’ll also likely need to consider unique day-night cycles, basking light and temperatures, thermal gradients, and the creation of shaded areas.

For these reasons, I’m afraid I can’t advise on any of these in this article. 

There’s too much to cover, and they’re ultimately unique for every animal setup. 

Over to You

Do you struggle with getting the right lighting for terrariums?

Let me know in the comments.

12 thoughts on “Lighting for Terrariums: Best Natural & Grow Light Solutions”

  1. I just purchased a terrarium for my wife for Christmas and this was extremely helpful, thank you for the informative article.

  2. Hi Dan,
    If I am using a Sansi grow bulb for my bioactive terrarium, how many hours should I keep the light turned on, or should it stay on 24hrs? Thanks!

    1. It depends on your plants and how much natural light they’re getting, but I just tend to put my grow lights on in the evening when it’s getting dark.

  3. Hi! When using grow lights, should I ignore the “indirect” part of “bright, indirect light” and place the light directly above the terrarium? Thank you!

    1. Pretty much! You don’t want them super close (like practically touching) because heating can be an issue, but otherwise there’s no risk of the intensity of light harming the plants.

  4. Ah! Thank you for this post. I made my first closed system terrarium over a year ago and it’s seemed fairly healthy. I’ve been moving it between my east facing window and north-facing window. Good to know that both of those are viable options!

  5. I have a question which I’m not sure is stupid or even possible?!
    I would like to fill my very small downstairs loo with terrariums but there is no light source is it even possible

    1. It could work if you choose super low-light plants and either have a strong bathroom light (that’s on a lot) or a dedicated grow light.

  6. I’m new to terrariums and have made several already. I don’t have a good place to display them where they’ll get bright, indirect natural light. I’d like to put them all in a tall shelving unit, but I’m confused about the distance between the terrariums and the LED strip grow lights I’d like to mount on the undersides of the shelves. I’m afraid the light will be too close to the plants. For instance, if I place a 12″ tall terrarium on a shelf and the shelf above it is 14″ from the bottom shelf, that means the strip light will be only 2″ from the top of the terrarium. Do you think that will be ok? Or too much light? Thanks for any input you can provide! P.S. I love your website. So informative!

    1. Hi Dave, my understanding is that it should be just fine on the lighting front – you’ll just get super fast growth. I’d keep an eye on how hot the lights get though – it’s the only thing I could imagine being an issue.

  7. Was going to make a terrarium for an art show, but it will be in 24 hour light for about two to three weeks. Will that be ok?

    1. Hi Traci, I’d imagine it would be fine. There’s not really such thing as too much artificial light, more that it needs to be the right kind of light for the plants to photosynthesise.

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