Top Ten Orchid Growing Tips
Everyone likes Top Ten lists, so why not have one for orchid growing? These tips should help your success rate on orchid growing.
1 – Know your orchid
With nearly 30,000 species of orchid (growing on six continents) and many times that in hybrids the question of “How do I grow this orchid” could have many, many answers. It is best if you know the exact name of your orchid, or if that’s not available, what type of orchid it is (what “genus” or “alliance”). If you have no tag and are unsure of this, why not bring the plant to your local orchid society for some identification?
Once you know what type of orchid(s) you have you will need to find out what the requirements are in the basic categories of LIGHT, WATER, TEMPERATURE and if there are any other special requirements for that orchid such as a dry winter spell. This will include the best way to pot or mount your orchid considering where you grow. We have a chart that covers some of the orchid groups on our website here.
2 – REPOT YOUR ORCHID!
We don’t repot our orchids to get them into bigger pots. We might need to do that, but orchids like Phalaenopsis (monopodial orchids that grow straight up and not out) will almost never need a bigger pot. The purpose of orchid repotting is to keep the potting media fresh. When the media breaks down its chemistry changes which will affect the plant. Also, it becomes less like bark and more like dirt – which essentially strangles the roots that, in the wild, grow out in the air. Most, not all, orchids would benefit from an annual repotting. This is often done after blooming to avoid stressing out the plant or affecting it’s growth cycle which typically happens between blooms. Regardless of when you’re repotting, you should always do so if the media has gone bad – and be aware that many of the mass-produced, grocery store orchids are purchased in poor or old media and should be repotted as soon as possible! We hear a lot of people say that they’ve “killed orchids”. Consider the suboptimal conditions that the orchids were in when they were sold and it might just be that the orchid was, without some very special treatment, doomed from before they bought it. Our video tutorial page has a repotting video that we did on Garden Time TV.
3 – Don’t use ice cubes
Let’s just dispel this rumor at the start: orchids are tropical plants, watering them with ice cubes is not just counter-intuitive, it’s a sure fire way to shorten your orchid’s life. Most orchids live in tropical areas and are drenched daily with lukewarm water (rain, that is) – and see high humidity the rest of the day. Not every orchid is the same so tip number 1 (above) should be heeded here, but we want to mimic their natural conditions which we do as closely as possible with a good potting mix (bark and perlite in many cases) that will allow airflow around the roots and then water them liberally once a week to soak the bark thoroughly. This will give them the drenching they want (though it’s not daily) and the humidity they also require as the bark dries out during the week. Your growing space may require watering more or less often. Orchids generally want a wet-dry cycle of some sort (to mimic the rain). For plants like Phalaenopsis, you should water when the mix has become dry (not BONE dry, but “unmoist”). Stick your finger into the mix to see if it is still moist near the center. If it is, don’t water it. If it’s dry then it’s time to water – and if your conditions are consistent you will probably be watering at that same interval down the road (but do the finger test often just to be sure). If you’re still convinced about the wonders of the ice cube on orchids, you can read more here.
4 – Grow orchids that fit your growing area
Orchids have a wide variety wants and needs since there are so many species. They’ve evolved over millions of years to like very specific things. Some of them are better than others at being flexible with what they want, but most species orchids are very particular. Hybrids are usually less fussy and in that regard easier to grow. Your orchids are going to be happiest if they don’t have to live in conditions that are very different from what they naturally want. So when you purchase orchids you should think about where you’re going to put them. If you have a greenhouse, you potentially have a lot more control than someone growing in the home. In the home consider the amount of light that you can provide, the temperature that you keep your house at (day and night), the amount of humidity that your house has (air conditioning and heating remove humidity) and the quality of your water. These are all things that you could change if you wanted to put some extra work into it (like buying supplemental lights or collecting rain water) but if you simply want an orchid without putting out all that effort, you should look for one that likes what you already have. The great thing about orchids is that there are so many types, so there should be a wide selection of orchids that will be fine in your conditions, but you are setting yourself up for potential failure if you buy orchids that want the opposite of what you can provide. Here’s a link again to our chart of basic orchid wants and needs: Orchid Cultivation.
5 – Fertilize weakly, weekly
Fertilization is not an incredibly important piece of orchid growing because orchids get very little fertilization in the wild, but it is something that will help your orchids grow well and vigorously. Keep in mind that orchids are very sensitive to salt and fertilizers are generally salts. So when you fertilize, which should be done during the growing season (summer), use the fertilizer at 1/2 the strength listed on the package – even if it is labeled as “orchid fertilizer”. Do this once a week when you water (you might water first and then fertilize because that best insures that the orchid takes in the fertilizer). You’ll want to take a week off once a month and water without fertilizer to flush the salts from the pot so they don’t build up and hurt your plant. Only Cymbidium orchids would want fertilization at full strength. Also, your orchids would benefit best from fertilizer labeled as “urea free” since it can take that in more readily.
6 – Buy from quality suppliers
Buying orchids from the grocery store is by no means a recipe for failure but it is likely going to require that you take some extra steps to insure success. This is mainly because the orchids from these places tend to be potted in less-than-optimal potting media. Its an extra step to have to repot these orchids as soon as possible and you never know what kind of additional stress the orchid has experienced in transportation and/or care at the store (where they don’t always know how to take care of orchids). When you buy directly from a professional orchid vendor or an experienced grower you should expect that the plant is much less stressed than the mass-produced ones and it will be potted in proper mix – all of which starts you off on a better footing! A great place to find quality suppliers is at an annual orchid show.
7 – Ask questions when you buy
When you buy orchids from an actual grower, you should ask questions about the orchid. You should know what that particular orchid likes – and the best source of that information is the person you’re buying it from since they’ve been successfully growing it. You may also benefit from knowing exactly what conditions the plant has seen recently. For example, if it has been growing under lights and you set it in your south facing window it may get burned even if that type of plant could normally handle that light because it needs to put out stronger foliage to be able to handle that light.
8 – Recognize pests, diseases or problems quickly
It’s not necessary that you become an expert in all pests and disease, but you have better success if, at the very least, you can recognize when something doesn’t look quite right. The sooner you can recognize and deal with pests and disease, the better it will be for your plant. Advanced disease stresses out the plant and can lead to secondary issues. Click here for more info on orchid pests and disease or use the dropdown menu above (under “Cultivation”) to look into a specific pest or disease.
9 – Air and Airflow
This is one topic that isn’t often pointed out in the “orchid how tos”. Airflow is probably more of an issue when you’ve gotten many orchids, especially if they are growing in a crowded space. Airflow should be very light, but present. Stagnant air can benefit bugs in the crevices of your orchids. Keep in mind, though, that airflow will also dry out your orchid quicker. Stick your finger down into the media a few times a week to see if it has dried out.
Also, orchids like FRESH air. Many tropical orchids LOVE to live outside when the temperature conditions allow it. If you do this, remember that bugs also live outside and even though your orchid has had an easy time of fighting off any such bugs because it is happy in the breeze, a few critters might come in with the plant when you bring it back inside. Vigilance and possibly a pesticide treatment (just before bringing it in) are good ideas.
10 – Use your local orchid society as a resource
Across the US almost every region (even Alaska) has a local orchid society. These groups exist to help you grow orchids. If you’re in the Portland area, we’d love to help you grow your orchids better! We meet once a month on the third Tuesday of the month and we have a “questions” email that anyone can use with orchid-related questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re also available for questions at our annual orchid show and sale – a great place to ask questions, find quality orchids and meet experienced vendors.