Blog post

How to care for orchids

March 19, 2020

Orchids are so astoundingly beautiful that people often assume they must be challenging to grow. Nope. Well, not most varieties. A few are tricky to grow — as in almost impossible to keep alive. But it’s easy to enjoy many varieties of orchids without being up to that challenge. 

Exotic as they look, most of the orchids you’ll find at your local nursery or even grocery or hardware stores are hybrids that have been developed to be pretty easy-going houseplants. The moth orchid (Phalaenopsis) and slipper orchid (Paphiopedilum) are good examples. It helps to know a few things about them, of course, so you can give them the right growing conditions. Even ideal growing conditions, if you want to dote on them! But really, they’re pretty adaptable. 

About Orchids

Orchids are fascinating and wide ranging — some sport tiny flowers and others boast enormous flowers; some have no scent while others are wildly fragrant; some have little, feathery leaves while others have big, smooth leaves. Many bloom once a year, for one to ten weeks, while many others rebloom throughout the year. (I had an orchid that bloomed nonstop, year round, for years. I still have it; it’s finally taking a well-deserved rest.)

Some interesting facts about orchids:

• There are over 880 genus and 30,000 species of orchids. According to The Missouri Botanical Garden, one out of every eight plants alive today is an orchid. 

Yellow speckled orchid blooms

• An orchid plant can live a very long time. There are specimens from the 19th century that are still flowering.

• There are two basic types of orchids, sympodial and monopodial. The sympodial is more common. It grows horizontally, sending shoots out from the rhizome. Leaves and flowers form at the end of these new shoots. Cattleyea, Cymbidium, Dendrobium, and Oncidium are examples of sympodial orchids. Monopodial orchids have a single, upright stem with leaves that grow just opposite each other on the stems. Vandas and Phalaenopsis are examples.

• The white you see on the roots of orchids are cells that absorb water and protect the roots from heat and moisture loss. They’re called velamen.

• Some orchids grow in tropical treetops while others grow in the loamy jungle floor. Lady slippers are a type of orchid that grows on the forest floor. 

• Some orchids are epiphytes, which means they grow hanging on to tree bark. They’re not parasites, though — they don’t take anything from the tree. Others are lithophytes, which means they grow on rocks or stones. 

• Orchids grow around the world, in every country.

• A keiki is the little plantlet that sometimes grows on an orchid flower spike. “Keiki” is Hawaiian for “baby.” After it grows leaves and roots, you can cut the keiki off and plant it to make a new orchid. Be patient though; it could take a couple of years to flower. (Always use a sterile knife when cutting orchids, because they’re susceptible to viruses.)

Potting

Pot your orchids in a small pot — something that will hold the roots but not much more. To pot, drape the orchid over the top of the pot, with the crown just below the ridge. Fill with growing medium. If the plant seems wobbly or the stem needs support, stake it. Be careful when you put the stake into the growing medium that you don’t injure any roots! 

Small pink orchids growing in a class container with metal rim

Some people like to grow orchids in clear glass or white pots that allow light to pass through — the roots of orchids engage in photosynthesis, the way leaves do. The clear pot also gives a good view of how the roots are doing. 

Orchids don’t love to be disturbed, so don’t repot them until it’s necessary. Wild as they look, it’s normal for the roots to grow out of the pots. You don’t need to tuck them back in. (Imagine those roots clinging to a tree bark, as they might do in the wild.)

So when should you repot? Every couple of years seems to be a good guideline.  If the medium has broken down, or if the roots are creeping far out of the pot, it’s time to repot. A good time to repot — to provide fresh medium — is when the plant stops blooming. Water your orchid sparingly after repotting, to give it time to adjust to its new home. Heads up: your orchid may not bloom for a year after it’s been repotted.

Planting medium

Orchids are practically air plants. They don’t need soil to grow. In fact, regular potting soil is too heavy for their roots. 

What they need is something that will provide good drainage and air flow but will also hold moisture. It’s also helpful if the medium provides something for the roots to cling to. There are lots of possibilities, including peat moss, fir bark, dried fern roots, sphagnum moss, rock wool, perlite, cork nuggets, stones, coconut fiber, lava rock, and blends of these and other materials. Orchids can even be grown hydroponically. 

Light

Some orchids like more light than others. (Remember, some grow in the tropical treetops while others grow in the loamy forest floor.) But, in general, they’ll do well in an east- or south-facing window. (You may need to provide a filter, such as a sheer curtain, in a south window, especially on sunny summer days.) You can also give a bright west window a try (again, providing a filter if the sun gets too direct in the afternoons). North windows usually don’t provide enough light. And if your orchid doesn’t get enough light, it won’t bloom!

Orchids also do well under artificial lights. Place them six to eight inches from full-spectrum bulbs. Since most orchids like 12 to 14 hours of light per day year-round, you might consider supplementing natural light with artificial light during the short-day seasons. 

Climate

Orange and pink orchids with backlighting

You guessed it, different orchids like different temperatures. Some prefer warm while others prefer cool. But no worries — an intermediate temp, not too hot nor too cold — will be okay for most. As long as they have good air circulation and humidity, most orchids do best in environments between 70 to 80 degrees F., though of course they can survive cooler and warmer temps. (While high temperatures — say 90 to 95 degrees F — won’t kill them, they will stress the plants over long periods of time.)  For best blooming, orchids ideally need to be around 10 to 15 degrees cooler at night than in the daytime. 

You’ll want to boost the humidity for your orchids, too. Fifty to 70 percent is ideal. If your home isn’t tropically humid, you have a few options: One is to place your orchid pots on top of a tray of stones with water below the surface. Another is to run a humidifier in their room. And a third is to mist them. Grouping them together also helps, though keep in mind that if they’re too close you’ll reduce the air circulation, and they need good air circulation. And don’t overdo the humidity. Too much moisture will rot the plants. 

Watering

If there’s one key takeaway, it’s this: Don’t let your orchid roots get soggy. Orchids like things moist but well drained. Which means you’ll want to water the plant just before it completely dries out. I generally water mine once a week, though depending on the medium you’re growing yours in and your climate, it may need more frequent watering. (Hot weather usually means more frequent watering.)

Morning is the best time to water orchids (and other plants, for that matter). That way the water will evaporate before evening. Use room temperature water, not cold water (and definitely not ice cubes! No plant likes ice water, least of all a tropical one!). Pour water through the roots, drenching them thoroughly. Allow to drain. (You’ll want to do this in the sink.)

Feeding

Orchids need to be fed because the medium they grow in contains very few nutrients. Experts recommend fertilizing them “weakly, weekly.” A regular houseplant fertilizer will work just fine.

An arched branch of white orchid blooms

Some orchid growers recommend fertilizing orchids once a week when they’re growing and then monthly after they’re established. I simply add a pinch of fertilizer (not full strength) to my watering can once a month. When the plant is dormant (not producing leaves or flowers), stop fertilizing. Also don’t fertilize your orchid right after repotting. Give the plant some time to settle in before feeding it. 

Pruning

I always wondered if it was safe to cut off the orchid spike after it flowered. It is. Cut it near the base of the stem. Leaving the stem on won’t hurt the plant, but it might result in smaller flowers. Besides, it’s not pretty, and most orchids don’t rebloom on old spikes. (The moth orchid is an exception.) 

Problem solving

Wrinkled leaves. This is probably a sign that the plant isn’t getting enough water. Another possibility is that the plant doesn’t have enough roots to take up water. Give the plant more humidity and/or nurture the roots by repotting in fresh medium.

Buds fall off before blooming. You’re either watering too much or too little, the temperature is too hot or too cold, or there’s not enough humidity. (Helpful, right?) Make sure the plant’s not next to a blowing heat or air conditioner vent. If the room is dry, mist the plant. Also keep it away from produce, because the ethylene gas that much produce gives off can keep your orchid from flowering. 

Bugs. The bugs most likely to bug your orchid are aphids, mites or thrips. Wash them off with warm water. You can also take a cotton swab soaked in rubbing alcohol and touch the affected area. Repeat this several times a week for a couple of weeks. Wipe off any remaining alcohol, as the plant might not love the cooling effect.

Sunburn. If your plant gets too much bright light, it can get white or brown spots on the leaves. This is sunburn, and it isn’t pretty. If your leaves start turning a little yellow, it’s probably getting too much sun. Move it to a less sunny window, or add a sheer curtain between the plant and the window.

If you love orchids, be sure to check out the “Collector’s Items” on The American Orchid Society’s website. They provide photos and detailed descriptions of a variety of stunning orchids.

You might also like: TLC for your Tilly — How to care for your air plants and How to care for succulents.

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