Repotting Orchids

Home » Blog » Repotting Orchids

Robert Pavlis

Repotting orchids is critical to maintaining and flowering them but this needs to be done differently than other house plants. Once you accept the fact that orchids are different, then the care of orchids becomes simple. Regular orchid repotting will ensure a good root system and lots of flowers.

Orchid repotting - coconut husk, by Robert Pavlis
Orchid repotting – coconut husk, by Robert Pavlis

Repotting Orchids – When?

When should you repot an orchid? The golden rule is every two years – see the next section for some exceptions. If it is done every two years and you do not over water, your orchid will always have a good root system. It is important to do it regularly because the orchid media – the stuff in the pot – breaks down and becomes too fine. It then holds too much water and not enough air. The media also starts to accumulate salts which are deadly to orchids. A repotting every two years solves both problems.

What about repotting a newly purchased orchid? You don’t know how long it has been in the pot. If you bought it from an orchid grower, the repotting date will be on the plant label. If not, ask them when it was repotted last. If they don’t know you might thick twice about buying orchids from them.

Should you repot when it is in flower? It would be best to wait until flowering is over, even if you have to extend the 2 year rule by a few months. Repotting orchids at 2 1/2 years is OK. But if you need to repot for some emergency reason, it will not kill the plant, or shorten the flowering period. Just handle the plant carefully so you don’t knock off any blooms or buds.

Building Natural Ponds book, by Robert Pavlis

Repotting Orchids Video

If you prefer to view a video on this topic, have a look at this:

YouTube video

If the above video does not work, try : https://youtu.be/JX4-GFdaEWM

Repotting Orchids Sooner

There are times when you should not follow the above 2 year rule.

Orchids sold in grocery stores and big box chains are usually imported into the country bare root and repotted just before they are sold. So in theory you have 2 years from the purchase date before it needs to be repotted. The problem is that many such plants are potted in sphagnum moss, and this material is real hard to water correctly and it breaks down quickly. If it is in sphagnum, report as soon as the orchid stops flowering.

Recently I bought an orchid and when I got it home I realized the pot had no drainage hole! This orchid was doomed to die unless I watered it very carefully. I immediately repotted it into a pot with holes – even though it was in full flower.

The other exception for the two year rule is when your roots look like the picture below. If you have a lot of rotting roots in the pot it is a clear sign that you have been over watering, or that the potting media is no longer drying out fast enough. In either case I suggest repotting immediately to try and save the plant.

Selecting the Right Potting Media

The potting media is the stuff in the pot. It is not soil and soil should never be added to an orchid pot.

Orchids in the wild live in trees. Their roots grow in the grooves of bark and are completely exposed to the air. They get very little fertilizer this way and only get watered when it rains. Orchid roots have been growing outside of soil for millions of years and it is important to treat them the same way in the home.

Since you probably don’t have a tree in your living room, you can simulate the tree by using pieces of bark in a pot. Bark works well and has been used for many years. Unfortunately, good quality bark is now very expensive. Thankfully, orchid growers have found a good substitute – coconut husk – see the picture above. Coconut husk is the outer shell that is left over after processing the coconuts. It holds a lot of air and water which is exactly what orchid roots like. It also breaks down very slowly so you don’t have to repot more than every 2 years. And it is also relatively inexpensive.

Microbe Science for Gardeners Book, by Robert Pavlis

Many other media have been used for orchids and some web site promote them, but I suggest you stick to coconut husk. When you buy the media, make sure the chunks are about the size of your baby finger nail. Larger is OK, but much smaller is too fine and will not hold enough air.

A new trend in orchid media has started in the last few years which is a problem. Manufacturers are packaging the media in white, opaque plastic bags so you can’t see what you are getting. Don’t buy these. You want a clear bag so you can see the contents and confirm the size of the chunks.

If the mix has a small amount of perlite or charcoal in it, that is OK too, but you don’t need these things. I have been using straight coconut husk for 10 years now and it works great on its own.

WARNING: Some orchid media is sold in white plastic bags. You can’t see what is inside, so don’t buy them since it might not be suitable for Orchids. But product in clear bags so you can see the course chunks.

Cleaning the Orchid

To start repotting, take the orchid out of the pot. Shake off all of the old media and don’t reuse it for orchids. It can be added to the garden or to the soil of other house plants, but don’t use it for orchids. You will probably find that some of the material is stuck to the roots. Try to gently pry it off. Don’t pull so hard that you damage the root, but try to get most of it off the plant.

Examine the roots. If the plant has been growing properly, the roots should be a white or green color, and they should be solid and roundish. Healthy roots will have a green tip where it is growing. Keep all of these good roots.

Repotting orchids before root rot sets in
Repotting orchids before root rot sets in

Look for dead and dying roots. All orchids will have some old roots that are dying, but most should be healthy. If the root is black, or mushy it is dead. If is white, flat and has no substance, it is dead. If you can see wrinkles, it is probably dying. All of the dead and dying roots should be removed.

In the above picture the green arrow shows a healthy root – it is nice and yellowish-green. Leave these roots alone.

The two purple arrows show two roots that are dying. They are white in color but they are getting soft and mushy. If you feel them they are mostly flat and empty. Black spots and shrinkage lines are starting to develop on the roots. The one on the right has a black tip which indicates it is no longer growing. These should be removed by cutting them all the way back to the plant.

The black arrow shows a root where the back portion, the green part, is healthy. The front part of the root is dying – it is turning black. Cut it back to the green part of the root. There is a good chance that it will start to grow again at the point of the cut.

If a good root breaks, just leave it. The root is the thin part inside and is probably not damaged. Read more about velamen in Orchid Care.

Dead and dying roots will just rot in the pot and may cause problems for the good roots. No matter how cruel this process might seem – cut the bad roots off the plant. they provide no benefit to the plant.

Look for Scale and Mealybugs

While you have the plant in your hand, look under the leaves, and in any cracks between leaves. This is where scale and mealybugs start to grow. If you find some, spray the plant with rubbing alcohol before you repot it.

Select the Right Pot

Traditionally, orchid growers have used clay pots and these do have some advantage in the greenhouse, but in the home it is best to use standard plastic pots. The best ones are the ones with holes in the bottom and along the side, near the bottom. Never use a pot without drainage holes and more holes is better.

If the orchid roots were very crowded in the old pot, move up to a larger pot by 2 inches, but no more that. You will never kill an orchid in a pot that is too small, but you might if the pot is too big because a large pot stays wet longer.

Repot the Orchid

With one hand hold the orchid at the right height in the pot and with the other hand fill in the spaces between the roots with the potting media. Use a gentle pressure to pack it in. This packing will help hold the plant in place.

What is the right height for the orchid? When you are done, the potting media should go up to where the newest root is coming out of the plant, but not much above that. On a palaenopsis, the leaves should not be covered. The video below shows this well.

Some times the orchid will be a little loose after repotting, until it make new roots. You can add a rhizome clip to the pot as shown in this video.

YouTube video

Watering

Your orchid is now potted. If it has a label write the repot date on it, so you will know when it needs to be repotted  again – two years from now.

The last step is to water the orchid as explained in Orchid Care.

Since the potting media is new it will dry out faster than the previous old material. Keep an eye on this. You might have to water more often than you expect for the first couple of months.

Blooming Orchids

Now that the orchid is repotted you will want it to bloom again. To find out how to do that have a lot at Blooming Orchids .

References:

  1. Photo sources – second photo; Scot Nelson

 

If you like this post, please share .......

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!

27 thoughts on “Repotting Orchids”

  1. I just found you! Yay! I’m so grateful. I’ve loved to death some of my beautiful orchids while trying to nurture them. I’ve “inadvertently exterminated” over half of the 15 or so orchids I’ve been parenting for over 3 years. Most I’ve put in Orchiata bark – some with a bit of sphagnum. And I just moved an “old” orchid from a friend to into water culture. But, after reading your posts about water culture vs coconut bark, I will find some coconut husks ASAP and steer very clear of the water method now. You give me hope!

    Reply
  2. Great article! Thank you for sharing information. I was going to get some coconut husk chips, but not sure what size for my phalaenopsis orchids (available in Fine 1/4″ or Medium 1/2″). Also it says that these coconuts were grown by salt water and will need to be soaked and flushed a few times before using them, I know that salt will kill orchids, so that makes me wonder if I should just skip the coconut husk chips and get their phalaenopsis bark mix (with sterilized Rexius fir bark, washed coconut husks, hydrocks and AAA long-fiber sphagnum moss). But not sure about sphagnum moss in it, my orchids from a store were planted in some kind of bark/moss and I see moss starting to rot… What would you recommend? Thank you for your time!

    Reply
    • Go with 1/2″. Just wash it a bit. Most commercial products are already washed. If you can get orchid bark – that works well too, but in the last 20 years its been impossible to get around here.

      Reply
  3. I have a question, you said that u can use coconut husk right, today I took out the old media that came with it when I bought it last year, my cats kept knocking it over lol, so just say there wasn’t alot of media left at all, I’m really surprised that the roots was very green still, and I ended up cutting some of the leafs of, to the middle, they aren’t dehydrated, anyways I bought a hanging basket at Dollar general yesterday, and inside of it, it is coconut husk, so can I use that, if so should I tair it up or cut it up, it’s shaped into a pot

    Reply
    • Coconut husk comes in chunks. It may be a bag of compressed chunks, but as soon as you open it, they should fall apart.

      Reply
  4. Hi, thanks for the article! I have some orchid bark leftover from the last repotting two years ago. Can I use it again this time around? Will it harm my orchids if i do?

    Reply
    • If it has not been used – it can be stored for many years provided it is kept reasonable dry. Once it has been used, don’t use it for orchids.

      Reply
  5. Thanks for the tips! I have some orchid bark leftover from the last time I repotted my orchids two years ago. Can I use this again this time around or should I buy fresh bark? Will using the old bark harm my orchids?

    Reply

Please leave a comment either here or in our Facebook Group: Garden Fundamentals