Watering Orchids With Ice Cubes – Does It Harm orchids?

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Robert Pavlis

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.

Soil Science for Gardeners book by Robert Pavlis

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.

That is what I wrote when I first made this post. Since then there has been some research to see if ice cubes harm phalaenopsis orchids. It turns out that the cold does not harm the roots, nor does it shorten the flowering season.

I still think it is a dumb idea, but if you can’t stop yourself from watering too much, it is a simple way to control watering. Three ice cubes once a week and you are less likely to rot the roots.

Warning: ice does not damage roots, but it will damage the leaves. The ice cubes should not touch the leaves or the stem of the plant. Set them on roots or on the potting media.

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.

I show you how to water orchids in this video.

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.

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!

Tips and Tricks for Watering Plants

Here are some more posts about watering plants.

Watering Houseplants – Top or Bottom? Which is Best?

Watering Plants in the Sun – Do Water Droplets Damage Leaves?

What is the Best Watering Schedule for Your Garden

Watering Plants Correctly – When and How to Water

Best Way to Water Indoor Plants

Gray Water – Is it Safe for the Garden?

References:

1) Photo Source; Eric Bjerke

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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!

97 thoughts on “Watering Orchids With Ice Cubes – Does It Harm orchids?”

  1. Now I now why I killed many orchids. I thought you should watering them with consistent intervals. I never thought of the roots and the pot must be dry before watering them. Thank you so much for all these information. I will do my best to grow the best orchids.

    Reply
  2. I think there is a misconception regarding Ice. People who use ice don’t do it because they think the orchid needs ice. They do it because it is a slow way to water the orchid-as the ice melts, and prevents people from overwatering. Really has nothing to do with cold water etc. Just slow release watering.

    Reply
    • I don’t think anyone said they do it because they need ice. It is a way to get people not to overwater – I agree.

      That does not make it a smart idea. Why not teach people to do it properly?

      Some research that was done after I wrote the above shows limited damage of the roots from the cold – need to blog about that some day.

      Reply
  3. Am an avid gardener, but have killed orchids in the past. Thank you for your sensible, detailed advice. The current one will live!

    Reply
    • It looks like a good study. It only looked at Phalaenopsis which tend to have a thicker velamen coating. It also looked at a bark mix and most orchids sold here are in sphagnum moss. What it shows is that the cold from ice cubes probably does not harm the roots of Phalaenopsis. But why not simply learn to water when the pots are dry?

      Reply
  4. May 2017. I got a phalaenopsis for Mothers day. the instructions say water every 21 days. doesnt say how much. I like the soaking idea. There is another plant surrounding the orchid. a green leaf prolific vine like plant that will be hanging below the pot soon. I know it requires more water and space. im wondering why these 2 plantz were put in the same pot. diffenbacia? I dont know
    Kitty

    Reply
    • They are in the same pot because people are trying to sell stuff and they know nothing about plants.

      They need completely different growing media. Separate as soon as possible and throw the instructions away.

      Reply
  5. 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?

    Reply
      • 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.

        Reply
        • 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.

          Reply
          • 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.

          • 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.

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

  6. 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

    Reply
  7. 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.

    Reply
    • 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/

      Reply
    • 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..

      Reply
  8. 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. 😉

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply

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