Orchids are one of the easiest house plants to grow, but they remain a mystery for many people. In this post I will provide complete orchid care instructions that are foolproof. I have grown several thousand orchids, and this method works every time. My focus here will be on the phalaenopsis orchid, but the same orchid care methods will work on most of the orchids found in homes.
Orchid Care – Understand the Plant
Why do so many people have trouble taking care of orchids? I think the reason is that orchids are unlike other house plants, and when they are treated like regular house plants, they soon die. If you learn to understand the orchid, and treat them differently, they prosper.
The most common orchid being sold is the moth orchid, or phalaenopsis orchid as pictured above. Since that is a bit hard to say, most people call them phals. This orchid is a great house plant. It requires little care, and will flower for 6 to 12 months a year. I have had some of the smaller cultivars flower for 2 years straight. No other house plant can compete with orchids on flower power.
Orchids are native to jungles located in warm climates. They like humidity, warmth and a fair amount of light. They like more light than most other house plants, but they can be sun burned if they get too much sun, suddenly.
The main thing you need to understand about orchids is that they grow extremely slowly compared to any other house plant. They will sit for months and look like they are not doing anything. This is important because you need to match their care to their growth rate. You also need some patients.
Temperature and Humidity
The ideal temperature for phals is 80 F (27 C) during the day and 65 F (18C) during the night. They are considered to be warm growing orchids. The good news is that they will grow just fine in most homes and you do not have to try to match these temperatures.
Orchids like to have a lot of humidity and you simply cannot provide this in a home. Good thing they grow just fine with lower humidity.
Some people have come up with ways to increase humidity. You can put the orchid pot on some pebbles sitting in water. This seems to make sense, but when the humidity is tested, it shows that the water does NOT increase the humidity around the leaves. It is a waste of time.
Some people suggest keeping the plants in a terrarium. This certainly increases the humidity levels, but in a terrarium they don’t get adequate air movement, which is also important to orchids. Before long fungus infects the plant and they die. Don’t put the plant into a contain.
Should you spray your plant regularly to increase humidity? The simple answer is NO. Spraying increases the humidity for a very short period of time so it really does not do much. However, the extra water can get into the crown of the plant and lead to rot. The spray also leaves behind a salt layer on the leaves, and orchids are very sensitive to salt.
The best thing you can do for humidity is nothing. They will live just fine in your home.
Light for Orchid Care
Orchids are high light plants. They can take a lot of light and some require quite intense light before they flower. The palaenopsis orchid is not one of them. It actually likes less light than other orchids but more than most houseplants. This is one reason why it is very suitable for the home.
It is best to keep them in a very bright window, close to the glass. They can take direct sun, but in order for them to do well in direct sun you need to slowly condition them to it. When you get the plant home it has been used to very low indoor light. It can’t just go into a sunny south window and get full direct sun.
You can condition them for a south window over a period of a week, or place them in an east or west window.
More orchids are killed from too much water than for any other reason.
Why is this? Most house plants like to remain wet, and you can water them regularly. If you treat orchids the same way you will kill them. It is that simple.
As an experiment, I took a phalaenopsis orchid out of its pot. Took all of the bark off the roots. Then sat it on my desk for 6 weeks without any water. No spraying, no watering, and no special humidity. After 6 weeks, the leaves were starting to look a bit limp. They were clearly loosing water, but other than that the plant was healthy.
I potted up the orchid and started watering it. It was fine.
Orchids are killed by kindness. Do NOT water too much.
Some web sites and even orchid labels tell you to water with ice cubes. That is just stupid. Have a look at Watering Orhicds with Ice Cubes to read more about this.
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.
So how should you water them? Like any plant, you should water it 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, but 10 minutes is better. 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 and the crown.
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.
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.
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 provided all three NPK numbers are about the same.
Roots Outside Of The Pot
What do you do when a root starts growing outside the pot? Nothing. That is how it grows in nature. The orchid knows what it is doing. That root is able to pull moisture out of the air.
You can read all about it here: Repotting Orchids
Or watch the video:
If the above video does not work, try : https://youtu.be/JX4-GFdaEWM
Getting Orchids to Bloom
Fully described in my post: Blooming Orchids