Learn to Grow Orchids the Easy Way

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Robert Pavlis

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 - the basics
Orchid Care – the basics

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.

Microbe Science for Gardeners Book, by Robert Pavlis

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.

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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.

Watering Orchids

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.

YouTube video

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.

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 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.

Repotting Orchids

You can read all about it here: Repotting Orchids

Or watch the video:

YouTube 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

 

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Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. 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!

43 thoughts on “Learn to Grow Orchids the Easy Way”

  1. Hi Robert.
    Should I spray my moth orchid roots daily to moisten the vellum, even for a short period?
    Thank you, Faith, Toronto.

    Reply
    • No – they don’t need it. Besides you only see the surface color – deep inside the vellum stays moist longer.

      Reply
  2. Robert, thanks for all the concise and easily understood information. After reading your posts on orchids, I was relieved to confirm that most of my potted orchid practices were fine. That said, can you provide advice on how to determine when air grown Vandas need watering? I one outside, hanging on a tree facing east where it gets quite a lot of morning and midday sun. Watering used to consist of a daily pouring over the roots with a watering can. I fertilized monthly with Miracle Gro All Purpose using the recommended outdoor concentration levels (1 Tbs/Gal). The bottom leaves kept looking ever more ragged, until they’d shrivel up, turn brown, and fall off. An entire year and a half went by with no sign of new leaf growth or blooms. Thinking that it wasn’t getting enough water, I started dunking my Vanda roots in a 30- gallon waste bucket filled with water for an hour a day. Once a month, I’d add the Miracle Gro to fertilize. I was told by an attendee at another orchid show that she heard dunking Vandas was not good practice because that is not how they are naturally watered. She said she sprays her Vandas up to three times a day in the summer but conceded that there are many ways to achieve success with orchids. Nevertheless, my regimen resulted in multiple blooms last year (twice with two spikes and once with one). While the huge blooms are striking and elicit many complements from neighbors/passer-byes, the plant itself continues to appear very distressed. The stem looks dry and feels hard; nearly brittle. The leaves are light green (almost yellow) with signs of burning. Furthermore, not a single new leaf has grown since I brought it home. It’s gotten to the point that I’m dreading the appearance of new spikes. I’m thinking that the non-stop flowering is draining the life out of my Vanda and my watering routine may be contributing to its poor health. I reduced the time in the water container to about five minutes; how long it takes for all the roots to turn from white to green but I’m just guessing. With no bone-dry medium to alert when it’s time to water, I’m using the roots themselves to give me a clue. Any suggestions would be most appreciated. Thanks.

    Reply
  3. Hi Robert, thanks for the article. It’s very useful for a beginner like me.
    I don’t have a good window available, but I do have a bright grow lamp – it’s bright enough I was able to grow chilli peppers under it quite successfully.
    You said orchids are high-light plants, do you think Phalaenopsis would do well under this lamp?

    Reply
    • Orchids need more light than most houseplants. Phals need less light than most orchids, but more than a lot of houseplants. If you can grow chili peppers it should be fine.

      Reply
    • Hello Robert,
      Orchids aeem to thrive easily in my apartment. After watching your videao on watering I made some small changes. The orchid is sending out new root growth is all directions only after two weeks. Thanks for your direction. Lana

      Reply
  4. Me and my orchids thank you for this information. Great video! Where do you find the decorative pots for your orchids? I’ve been looking for years and have yet to find decorative pots of that shape.

    Reply
  5. Hi Robert
    My phal has tons of new shoots this fall and 4 nice big healthy looking leaves. No buds yet. When might I expect it to bud, then bloom here in southern Ontario? Could too many shoots be a concern? Thanks!
    Waiting for blooms in Milton.

    Reply
    • As long as the leaves are healthy, the plant will deal with the shoots. If too many buds form, some will be aborted by the plant. Buds usually develop once the flower spike is about 1/2 fully grown. Smaller flowered falls bloom on shorter stems and larger flowered phals bloom on longer stems. Orchids are slow growing.

      My large white flowered phal has had a spike for 2-3 months and no sign of buds yet.

      Reply
  6. I’ve mastered benign neglect to the point that I get lovely flower spikes but haven’t seen a new leaf in 3 years. And the leaves I do have got a bit damaged when I moved. Can I encourage leaf growth in any way?

    Reply

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