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Watering Orchids With Ice Cubes

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.

Watering Orchids With Ice Cubes 2

Watering Orchids With Ice Cubes, by Robert Pavlis

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.

Watering Orchids With Ice Cubes

Phalaenopsis orchid

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.

Watering Orchids

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.

Fertilizing Orchids

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.

Growing Orchids

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!

References:

1) Photo Source; Eric Bjerke

Robert Pavlis
Editor of GardenMyths.com
I live in southern Ontario, Canada, zone 5 and have been gardening a long time. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

I hope you find Garden Myths an educational site that helps you understand your garden better.

59 Responses to 'Watering Orchids With Ice Cubes'

  1. Nicki Kreidermacher says:

    I just bought two orchids from a big box store and it already has some of the roots hanging out of the pot and they are dried out and look dead do I cut those off and is it time to repot?

    • If they are completely shriveled you can cut them off.

      Repotting should be done every two years. I like to report new plants as soon as they stop flowering. for more on this have a look at several posts on orchids here: http://www.gardenfundamentals.com/tag/orchids-repotting/

      • Nicki Kreidermacher says:

        When repotting do you increase the pot size by half a size bigger or full size. I know that you don’t want to go to big.

        • I go by the size of the plant. If the current pot is big enough – don’t go to a larger pot. You are never wrong by going smaller, but it might mean you need to water more. A 6 inch pot is lots for a large flowered phal.

          • Nicki Kreidermacher says:

            What does the size of the leaves mean on a Phil… if anything? I just bought a new one and it looks great but man the leaves are a lot. Offer than any of my other ones. They are healthy just wondering if the size means anything like the age of the plant or something like that? Thanks Nicki

          • Well grown plants have bigger leaves than those not grown well. More sun produces bigger leaves. However leaf size also depends on genetics. Plants with smaller flowers tend to have smaller leaves.

            Aim to keep leaves as large as when you buy them. Under low light that may not be possible.

          • Nicki Kreidermacher says:

            Should you water Phall before you fertilize them? I have read it both ways. I bought the fertilizer for Orchids, should you do full strength or half strength and should you dilute it?

          • It really depends on how you water. Some people run water through the pot for a while, letting the excess run out the bottom. The reason for this is to wash out excess salts. If you use this method of watering, and you fertilize first, you will wash out all the fertilizer. That does not make sense.

            If you set the pot into water to let it soak up water as I recommend, then you can add fertilizer before adding water or after – both ways result in a plant sitting in water with fertilizer in it. Both water and fertilizer are soaked up by the roots.

            I always use any fertilizer at 1/4 to /12 strength. You rarely do any harm bu using too little.

          • Nicki Kreidermacher says:

            How often do you fertilize?

          • Every 3 weeks or so – if I feel like it. But I use small amounts – just a pinch in each pot at watering time.

  2. juan says:

    Hello, I live in Miami , Florida is very hot here, i would like to know how encourage reeblooming in my phall, because I dont had temperature changes (always 84*!),,,thanks in advance,,,juan

  3. Tt says:

    I really enjoyed reading the article. I have had my orchid since I received it as a gift for Mother’s Day. I knew nothing about orchids but always thought they were beautiful. Right on the instructions that came with the orchid, it stated to feed the plant 3 ice cubes weekly. I followed those directions every week. My blossoms stayed full bloom for at least 3 months. After i did extensive research to make sure I’d have a spike come back. After the blossoms wilted, i cut the spike down to about 2 or 3 inches and covered it in cinnamon(to prevent infection). I noticed the roots starting to climb out of the pot more, so i repotted my orchid and since have been feeding it 5 ice cubes weekly. After 3 months or regeneration a new spike has been growing 1/2 inch daily. So, although i enjoy your article, I have to respectfully disagree with your statement that feeding an orchid ice cubes is dumb.

    • The fact that your orchid is blooming well has nothing to do with ice cubes. Mine grow well and flower regularly without ice cubes. They do need water – they don’t need ice.

      You refer to ‘feeding ice cubes’. the ice only supplied water – no nutrients. They still need small amounts of fertilizer.

      I have several other posts about orchid care here: http://www.gardenfundamentals.com/orchid-care/

    • Betty says:

      I agree with yu my orchid does perfectly fine with ice cubes & i think is doing much better now tht i have switched to ice cubes& id alot bigger then when i got it..

  4. Beck says:

    I live in a dry desert and we just recently moved into a new home with central air conditioning (former house had a swamp cooler). My orchids seem to be the members of the family that are not adjusting well to their new home and my guess is the new lack of himidity. I had three orchids suddenly drop all of their flowers and one that had a leaf yellow. I am also concerned that they are not getting as much light as they were. Is there anything that I can do to help them adjust? I have always water them where I let them soak for 15 min and then dump out the water but now they are drying out super super fast. Would it be better to let them soak a bit longer? I have closed off the cooler vents by them and added a small humidifier but they still seem “sad”. Thanks for this great article. I am probably a bit too attached to my orchids. 😉

    • Soaking longer than 15 minutes will not change much unless your media is not taking up water.

      If the air is dry outside, I don’t think an air conditioner will make it much dryer although it does remove some moisture.

      It is probably the change in light or temperature. Just give them time to adjust to their new home.

  5. Deborah Schubert says:

    Love your web site, very informative. I have a question…I’ve had an orchid for some time and it has never put up a new spike, what am I doing wrong? I’ve also given on to a relative that had beautiful blooms but has never put up a new spike. HELP!!

  6. Desi says:

    awesome article! i enjoyed the reading and when you said “if you killed your last orchid…” i looked behind me to see if you were there. (ive killed two) but got a third for mothers day and i really really want to do better. have you written any books, if not please please beginners like me need a handy bedside reference!

  7. Thomas says:

    Hi really enjoyed reading your advise. I have read on various sites that it is a good idea to cut the stem down to the bottom or between two knodes after it has flowered. Do you recommend this or is it best to leave it?

  8. Joyce Kobetz says:

    You are making total sense to me. I was about to give up and just repurchase my orchids to have blooms. I pot in firk bark chunks. That I have right. But I’m guessing by soaking the pot in water every week may be too much water?? I do fertilize weakly, monthly. They reside in a south window thats “low E” maybe I should move them to a southeast window. West did not work (no direct sun due to tree outside) I will label all my pots and repot every two years. Thank you for that advice. I nearly lost my Psychopsis due to decaying monkey bark it came packed in. i now have just bark chips and shes sending up her first spike in 4 years. I’m so excited. As to moving or rotating. Do you mean exact orientation needs to be maintained?

    Joyce
    joycekobets53@gmail.com

  9. Bonnie says:

    Thank God there is someone speaking sense about orchid care. I answer a lot of customer questions about orchids here at a garden center–and I repot customers orchids for them. I’d guess that almost all of the problems I see with orchids have to do with the customers overwatering–or using ice cubes!

  10. Basil says:

    Hi Robert, I always wanted to know how an orchids can produce 2 or more new healthy spikes with lots of branches of new flowers just like the orchids I see from the store? How does that happen? Also thank you for your honest advise how to take care of our orchids.. I repotted my orchids a year ago in a glazed clay pot but left a little of that sphagnum with the orchid before I added the bark mix. So you’re saying to take out all of that sphagnum completely before adding the bark mix? Please advise. Thanks again.

    • Never use any of the old media when repotting. See my post called Repotting Orchids for more details. it is a post on my GardenFundamentals.com blog.

      The problem with orchids in the store is that they have been grown in some warm, humid country. probably in Asia. We can’t give them that perfect growing condition in the home. But you can certainly get one flower spike. Here is info on general Orchid Care. My next post on GardenFundamentals.com will be on flowering orchids.

  11. Judi says:

    Hi Robert,things are going from bad to worse for my Phal. Thank you for your advice on watering. I’m getting obsessive about this orchid,on further inspection of the bowl I find(and I bet this doesn’t surprise you) that there appears to be at the base of the bowl Phalaenopsis leaves!!! then the spagnum moss. I’m thinking they have bulked out with it to use less moss? I had chosen the option to wait until the blooms go before repotting,but the leaves at the base will allow rotting I’m presuming? I’ve only had my beautiful moth since Mother’s Day. I appreciate your advice.

  12. Judi says:

    Fascinating website,I found you by researching ice cube watering. My daughter has given me a white Phal. It is in a glass fish bowl in spagnum moss,no drainage. It looks magnificent. Any way I can keep it in this container and keep it healthy?

    • I have bad news for you. Sphagnum is hard to use for an orchid medium, and any container without holes is probably a death sentence.

      You can repot it in flower, but you can also wait. I would change the watering as follows. Add water to the container, let it sit for a couple of minutes, and then dump all of the water out. If the sphagnum stays wet for more than 5 days try taking some out – too much will keep the roots too wet.

      Then report once blooms are done. See http://www.gardenfundamentals.com/repotting-orchids/ for more details.

  13. Nancy says:

    One of my students gave me an orchid about 3 years ago to show her appreciation for my teaching skills (& probably to get a good grade). She would have gotten an A anyway. She is Vietnamese and told me to be sure to put in an ice cube to water it. At first I didn’t do this, but then read a lot of the “expert” advice on the Web that said that ice cubes were the way to go. Sure does sound crazy. The blooms fell off which is natural and I thought it would die, but this year it made a small recovery with four blossoms, two of which didn’t last a week! I am going to quit this ice cube nonsense & try your method. It is in a real orchid pot with holes and potted in large orchid bark. I keep thinking it should have some dirt too. Having been born and raised on a fruit & vegetable farm I feel really dumb that I can’t figure this out!

    • if the orchid is 3 years old it should have been repotted at least once since you got it. Do it every two years without fail. Do not add soil. the roots need lots of air. Repotting also tells you how well it is doing. If the roots are rotten – it is getting too wet.

  14. Floretta Sutter says:

    how do I know how old my orchid is, I bough it from a big box store (bought 3 of them) and the flowers are dropping and I don’t know when to cut the stem back to allow for new growth. Can you please help, I ask how old, because I don’t know how long the orchid is, to re-pot, please help, I love my orchids and don’t want to lose them, they are my new hobby and my center for peace and serenity.

    • Most orchids in North America, and I assume Europe as well, have been grown in warm climates and are imported. They are bare rooted when they import them. Once they land here, they get potted up. It is not the age of the plant that is important, but when it was repotted last. So in theory you should report 2 years after buying them.

      However, the plants sold around here get potted in sphagnum moss which is very hard to water properly. I would replace that stuff as soon as the orchid stops blooming. Then report every 2 years.

      If the purchased plant is in bark or coconut chips, then report 2 years after buying.

  15. Donna says:

    My daughter gave me a small orchid for Valentine’s Day. It said to water with ice cubes…so glad I didn’t! I do have a question..does my orchid need to be in a pot with drain holes in the bottom? Your expert advice would be greatly appreciated. Thanks

    • Absolutely – without question! Orchids are killed by kindness and too much water.

      You have two choices:

      a) repot now. Since it is in flower it is not the best time to do this, but if you are careful you will not damage the plant or flowers.
      b) water very carefully. Make sure no water sits in the bottom of the pot. Report when flowering is done. The orchid is better completely dry for a few days than watering too much. This is probably the best option for a new orchid owner.

  16. Steve says:

    I just bought my wife an orchid at the local mega store and thought the ice instructions were a little confusing. I am glad we found your site. I have a question about crowded roots. It looks like the orchid may be planted in the correct media or something similar to it but there are so many roots it almost looks root bound. Actually, it looks like the roots are coming out of the media and pot, how much space or how crowded to they like their roots to be?

    • Orchids really don’t get root bound – not like other house plants. Crowded roots are fine as long as they are healthy.

      Roots growing outside the pot are fine also – the orchid knows what it is doing.

      Report Orchids every two years. If they are in sphagnum moss, I would report as soon as the flowers are done. Sphagnum usually ends up being over watered to the point where it kills the roots.

  17. Sevda Onen says:

    Thank you so much for your straightforward, no nonsense explanation of how to water orchids. I had read about people putting ice cubes in order to water their orchids, but it just did not make sense to me!

  18. tom says:

    when the blooms fade, how far back do you cut the stem? I cut mine back just above the “eye” or so I thought. no blooms yet

    • The point at which to cut the stem depends on the type of orchid and what you want. It is a good idea to give an orchid a rest after flowering. If this is the goal, cut it back right to the point where it comes out of the leaves.

      If you want more flowers right away – try this. Large flowered phals, especially the large white ones, will rarely branch out from a flower spike so you might as well cut them right back. Small flowered phals are more likely to branch from an existing flower stem. Can these cut back to an eye. How well this works depends on the genetics of the plant – some work well, others don’t. If the flower stem starts to go brown, just cut it back.

  19. Melle says:

    I actually have a question that I can’t seem to get a straight answer on. So I’m new to the whole raising orchids thing we bought the plant using the flowers for my wedding and keeping the plants as keepsakes. Well one of them ended up with Mealybugs on it and as I searched for answers that I can afford, my husband decided to submerge the whole thing in out 75 gallon aquarium and let the fish have at the bugs infesting my plant. This morning when we looked it was almost completely clean of these bugs but not in the main places like where the new growth is coming in and some of the roots. How long would it take to completely drown them the bugs if the fish can’t get them all?

    • Mealybugs are covered with a hairy surface which makes it hard for water to penetrate. You may have trouble getting all of them in the aquarium. You also don’t want the plant submersed in water too long.

      There are two easy and effective ways to get rid of mealybugs.

      1) spray on some rubbing alcohol so it gets into the cracks and small places. Use rubbing alcohol (70% isopropyl alcohol) on a cotton swab on larger surfaces.
      2) Mostly fill a spray bottle with water and a couple drops of dish soap. Then add about 20 mls baby oil. The amount is not that critical. Shake and spray the plant thoroughly. The leaves should end up looking shinny, but not be sticky. If they are sticky, you used too much baby oil, in which case you can wipe some off. If they are not shinny you either used to little or you did not shake enough. This works great at killing not only the adults, but also the eggs – and it makes your plant smell like a new born baby.

  20. MaryAnn Hardy says:

    I have a question. Could you explain the comment you made: “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.”

    I’ve never tried growing orchids but I am fascinated with their beauty….so I just might! I just want to know why “old potting medium kills orchids.”
    Thank you very much.
    MaryAnn Hardy
    Nanoose Bay (Vancouver Island), BC

    • Orchids roots are extremely sensitive to salts – more so than other house plants. A 2 year old media is starting to degrade and produces more nutrients than the orchid wants. After 2 years you are also getting a build up of fertilizer salts that have not flushed through with watering. And orchid roots need lots of air. As the media breaks down it tends to settle, it stays too wet and it keep out the air.

  21. janet says:

    I have had good results with the ice cube method. I was careful not to have the ice directly on top of the roots. As long as there is a bit of bark between the ice and the roots it will be sufficient to insulate the plant from the very localized cold temperature. That being said, I do not like to risk putting plants into cold shock by pouring ice water on them. Thanks for the better method of orchid watering. I will give this a try.

  22. That’s good info about watering – thanks. As for the myth, it’s hard to believe someone would even think to associate orchids with ice, in any form, but I believe you.

  23. Rick Nelson says:

    Interesting post which probably explains how my house orchids thrive on neglect.

  24. Roger Michalski says:

    I always wondered about the ice cubes. A warm air plant. Thanks. I’ll try your way for a while

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