Many of you think orchids are difficult plants to keep in the home – they are not! The correct amount of water is critical, and to try and simplify watering someone came up with the bright idea that if you put an ice cube in the pot once a week, the orchid would prosper. The intent here was good. Make the watering procedure as simple as possible, so people can follow it. Unfortunately, it is a really stupid idea!
I’ll show you a much better way to water your plants – a method that keeps my orchids blooming all year long.
Orchids – Basic Care
Before I talk about taking care of your orchid, lets set the stage. There are more orchid species in the world than any other plant group. They are not all the same – no surprise there. If you are an orchid enthusiast, and grow the weird orchids, you don’t need to read this post. This post is written for the person who bought an orchid at the local grocery store, or nursery. It’s probably a phalaenopsis because they flower for a long time. Although most of the advice in this post is also valid for other types of orchids – this post is focused on these very popular phalaenopsis.
At one point I grew over 1,000 orchids in my home – I know a bit about this subject.
The problem with orchids is that they want to be treated different than most other house plants. Phalaenopsis are epiphytes which means that in nature they live in trees and not in the ground. They grow in warm climates which are fairly humid. In temperate regions of the world, our homes tend to be cooler and dryer than their homeland. The temperature difference is not a big deal, but the dryness certainly is.
Orchid roots like to be watered, and then allowed to almost dry out, before the next watering. If roots are too wet – they rot and die. If roots die – so does the orchid.
Phalaenopsis don’t like too much direct sun, but can take a bit if they are exposed to it slowly. They need very little fertilizer – if a bird poops on them once a month that’s lots. The only tricky part to growing orchids is the watering and with my method even that is easy and fool proof.
Orchids and Ice Cubes
In nature, phalaenopsis grow in warm jungles. Why would anyone think they want to be covered with ice water?? That is the dumbest advice I have ever seen.
So how should you water them? Like any plant, you should water when the plant needs water. I know that doesn’t help you very much so I’ll give you a simple way to water properly.
Don’t water if there is any moisture in the pot. How do you know? You can stick your finger into the pot and if it feels wet – don’t water. You can also lift the pot. When the pot is dry it gets very light. It takes a bit of practice to use the lifting technique, but it works very well once you get the hang of things. Until you do – use your finger.
When the orchid is dry, set it into an outer pot that has no drainage holes and fill it with water. The orchid is now swimming in a pot full of water. Go have breakfast or a cup of coffee. When you are done, drain the water out and watering is complete.
Contrary to what is written in a lot of places, submerging the orchid roots fully in water will not harm them unless you leave them for many hours. A 1/2 hour soak works well, but 10 minutes is enough time. I have forgotten them for several hours will no ill effect.
Try not to get water in the crown of the plant. If you do, use a paper towel to dry the leaves.
What happens to the roots when they sit in water? Orchid roots are covered by something called velamen, which is a spongy material. It soaks up water quickly and turns a greenish color. The root is actually very thin and is only a very small part of what you think is the root. The thick root like structure you see is mostly velamen. By letting the orchid sit in water, the spongy velamen soaks up a lot of water, and then roots can use this water for days.
How Often Should You Water Orchids?
Water when the orchid needs water. Following a routine of a fixed number of days does not make sense because orchids can use the humidity in the home as a water source and that changes throughout the year. In winter the air in homes tends to be dryer and you need to water more often. In summer it is more humid and you can water less often.
Where I live, it is quite humid in summer – they don’t need to be watered as much. If you live in the desert, it might be very dry in summer and you need to water more often than me.
What happens if the orchid gets dry, and you forget to water it? I am conducting an experiment now to test this (I’ll post results in a couple of months). I have had a phalaenopsis sitting on my desk with no potting medium and no water for over a month now, and it looks great. I am quite sure it will be fine for another month or two without water.
If you forget to water for a few days, or you are away on holidays for a couple of weeks, don’t worry. Being dry for an extended period of time will encourage your plant to flower sooner.
If you killed your last orchid I suggest you wait until they are completely dry, and then wait another day or two before watering. You have been watering too much – or you might have been using ice cubes.
Common advice says orchids need about 1/4 as much fertilizer as other house plants. I have never given them that much. About once a month, I add a very small amount of soluble fertilizer to the pot while I am watering them. A pinch of fertilizer – as a cook would say – is all you need. Too much salt – fertilizer is a salt – kills orchids.
Do you need ‘orchid fertilizer’?
Of course not! There is no such thing as orchid fertilizer. Orchids use the same nutrients as all other plants. Orchid fertilizer only exists in the minds of marketing people selling products and in the minds of gardeners with too much money to spend. Use whatever you give other potted plants.
I found this recommendation on the internet “Some growers like to give the plant a boost of blooming fertilizer in September or October to provoke a flower spike.” A healthy plant does not need a boost of fertilizer, and extra fertilizer will not induce flowering, unless you have not been fertilizing. Besides that there is no such thing as “blooming fertilizer” – that is a marketing myth. See my post called Bloom Booster – Fertilizer Nonsense #5. Flowering in orchids is mostly triggered by a change in temperature, usually a drop in temperature. A few nights next to a cool – not freezing – window will do the trick.
Orchid Potting Medium
Phalenopsis do not grow in soil. They need lots of air around their roots, or the roots rot. There are several things you can do to prevent this.
When you buy the orchid there is a good chance that it has been potted in sphagnum moss. I think orchid sellers use this because it kills orchids, and they really want you to buy new plants every few months. I hate it because it is very difficult to water sphagnum properly – it is either to wet or too dry. It also breaks down quickly, and then it stays too wet and rots roots.
When your new plant is finished flowering, repot it immediately. Then repot every 2 years with no exception. Old potting medium kills orchids. Write the repot date on a small plastic label, in pencil, and stick it in the pot – that way you know when to report again.
For potting medium, I suggest either bark chunks or coconut husk chunks. Get the medium size. You don’t need to add anything else to the potting medium.
Does this method work? It certainly does. My phalaenopsis bloom almost continually. One of them has two flower spikes and has been in bloom for about 18 months. I am getting sick of the flowers!
1) Photo Source; Eric Bjerke