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.

Building Natural Ponds book, by Robert Pavlis

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. Robert, a good read – thanks.

    I have a few too many fertz, 18-18-21, 24-8-16, 15-30-15 and some ‘Orchid’ fertz.

    My roots and leaves are very healthy, but I swear, I missed a spike this past fall. £
    I’m in Southern Ontario as well, east window, so morning indirect filtered sun. I soak the pots once a week for 20 minutes and usually fert, every other week.

    Any idea why the Orchids decided not to grow a flower spike?

    Reply
  2. You clearly said you let the water run over the fertilizer that you added. I was double-checking if the outer pot is ever filled first and the plant takes water from the bottom.

    Reply
  3. Hello,

    I just got a new Orchid. I do not recall ever caring for an orchid in my entire life. I want these to last a long time. I have zero experience with plants (only flowers In a vase). I am also scared of plant roots because of bugs etc. Do I need to change the pot, do anything with the roots, or fertilize it at all? Also, when do I water next? I got this plant on Friday (yesterday). The plant has a card that says “add three ice cubes once a week.”. I need help caring for this orchid, because I do not want it to die. Your post says ice cubes are a bad idea.

    I googled ‘should I water orchids the day I receive them or seven days later ? And I came across your post. Please help.

    I enjoyed reading your post. Thank you.

    Sincerely,

    Dia

    Reply
  4. The phalenopsis I’ve had for over 20 years had a flower spike with at least a dozen buds & flowers. About half had opened up but the rest were buds. It had been several weeks since watering but when I watered all the flowers that were opened fell off. The buds remained & subsequently opened & are doing fine. Now I’m afraid if I water again I will lose the rest of the blooms. Can you explain why the opened flowers fell off & give any recommendation about watering while the plant is in bloom. I had similar results when I watered another orchid as well as in previous years when the plant was blooming. It’s very disappointing to see the flowers die so quickly. What happened?

    Reply
  5. Hi there, I live in Mozambique (Southern Africa) and have three orchids. Two mini ones and one medium sized one. The mini ones keeps on producing new leaves and roots (covered in velamen). It doesn’t seem to be producing new stems from which flowers can come? From where does a new stem grow? And are stems initially also covered in velamen? I might be mistaking new stems for roots due to the velamen covering.

    I am definitely taking and using your advice on all three orchids from now on forward. Going to lose the the sphagnum asap and going to repot the one that is over two years old. Also going to follow your watering and fertilizing advice.

    But any additional advice on stem growth? That’s after all where the flowers come from.

    Reply
  6. Do you have to wait until the orchid is finished flowering before you repot?

    I just bought a grocery store one on sale a few days ago, of course in sphagnum. The growing medium looks pretty condensed and roots are circling the bottom of the pot. The flowers are almost done, but there is more growth getting ready to go at the end of the spikes.

    Also, when you repot, do you upsize the pot?

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • You don’t have to wait, but it is the best advice for new gardeners – less stress on the plant.

      Pot size should be fitted to the plant. It is better to be in a small pot than one too large. Having said that a lot of newly purchased orchids are in very tiny pots and should be moved into larger ones. None of mine need more than a 6″ pot.

      Reply
  7. I am contemplating purchasing a programmable drip watering system designed to be used to water houseplants so my 6 orchids (4 four inch pots and 2 six inch pots) will be watered when I take a 3 week vacation to Japan this fall. Is there a rule of thumb regarding how many milliliters (or ounces) of water should be given to these plants per week. I was thinking I would dispense a small amount of water each day but I don’t know how much should be provided weekly.

    Reply
  8. omg you are so informative. Love it . Yet my friend and at Fred meyer store clerks suggest ice cube for watering orchids. Yes it works couple weeks but then after flowered they started not doing well. Your method is very realistic and true. Thank you so much for caring people who loves orchids like me. Thank you so much and greatly to you.

    Reply

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