Houseplants Orchids

Success With Orchids

Orchids are very popular … and not that difficult to care for! Photo: dalivl@yandex.ru, depositphotos

By Larry Hodgson

Nowadays, orchids are readily available at a good price, and they usually flower for a long time, even several months. But how do you care for them? And get them to bloom again? Those are questions that many gardeners ask themselves.

The Right Choice

Start by purchasing an orchid that’s already in bloom. Ideally, with one or two open flowers and lots of buds, as that will ensure a long flowering season to come. Buying an orchid that is already in bloom at least assures you that it is old enough to flower. (Most orchids produced from seed take 5 to 7 years to reach that stage!)

Pink phalaenopsis
Phalaenopsis. Photo: depositphotos
White dendrobium
Dendrobium. Photo: Laboko, depositphotos
Yellow cattleya, red labellum
Cattleya. Photo: takepicsforfun, depositphotos

Also make sure that your choice is suitable to your growing conditions. The easiest orchid for most people is the Phalaenopsis or butterfly orchid. It tolerates moderate lighting and the rather warm temperatures of our homes. If the location where you plan to grow your orchid is in the burning sun, then no doubt a Dendrobium or one of the many Cattleya hybrids would be a better choice.

Basic Maintenance

Orchids are not much different from other houseplants when it comes to their basic culture. If you are able to get an African violet to bloom, for example, you shouldn’t have a problem with helping an orchid flower.

Phalaenopsis on a windowsill.
Good lighting is essential for success with orchids. Photo: melanierom, depositphotos

To start with, you need very good natural or artificial lighting to make an orchid happy. That could be in front of a window facing east for a phalaenopsis, south or west for a dendrobium or cattleya. A spot 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 cm) below an LED or fluorescent plant light will also be suitable. In the summer, plants should be removed from overly hot windows and placed further back inside the room. Or draw a curtain or a blind during the heat of the day. 

In winter, it’s always a good idea to use a humidifier, as orchids require fairly high humidity (at least 50%) and the air in our homes is often very dry at that time of the year.

Watering orchids is rather unique, as they don’t grow in ordinary potting soil, but rather in a special, very aerated mixture often made from bark, sphagnum moss and perlite. This allows their thick roots, normally aerial in the wild and thus exposed to almost constant air movement, to breathe. 

However, the method of determining when to water an orchid is the same as for any houseplant: stick your finger into the potting mix. If it feels dry, water; otherwise wait. If you aren’t sure, wait another day.

You can also tell if your orchid needs watering by studying its roots. Nowadays, most orchids are sold in a decorative cache-pot with a transparent grow pot inside. That means you can readily see the roots of your orchid. Just take the grow pot out of the cache-pot and study them. If they’re whitish or grayish, it’s time to water. If they’re still green, wait.

Depending on the conditions and the season, it may be necessary to water an orchid as often as every 5 days or as infrequently as every 2 or 3 weeks! Always water in the morning if you can. That way any water that falls on the leaves or stems dries up quickly. Especially avoid watering in the evening as that can leave the foliage moist all night, leading to disease.

Orchid grow pots soaking in water.
Watering orchids by immersion is now considered the best method. Photo: alexytrener, depositphotos

You can water your orchid in the classic fashion, that is, by slowly pouring lukewarm water through the mixture, discarding any excess. Watering by immersion, however, is increasingly seen as the best method, because it ensures that all the roots get their share of moisture. This involves filling the cache-pot with water (or placing the grow pot in a bowl of water) and, after 10 to 20 minutes, taking out the grow pot and letting it drain well. You also need, of course, to empty the cache-pot of any water before slipping the grow pot back inside.

And forget about watering with ice cubes. That technique was very trendy in the 2010s, but is considered outdated nowadays. Watering the plant with just a few small ice cubes leaves the poor plant in a state of constant water stress!

You can add a very diluted soluble fertilizer to the irrigation water in the spring and summer. Orchid fertilizer is available, but an all-purpose fertilizer will work just as well.

Some orchids need a cold spell in the fall to stimulate bloom. This is usually the case for cattleyas and dendrobiums, but is not as essential for phalaenopsis. For those that do need some coolness, usually a small drop in temperature in the fall, down to 10 to 15 ?C at night, is sufficient. If that isn’t possible indoors, you could keep your orchid outside in the shade for a few days in the fall.

Normally, an orchid will bloom again at about the same time each year. So, if you bought your flowering plant in the spring, you should see a new flower stalk appear around that time the following year.

Repotting an orchid.
Repotting an orchid. Photo: svehlik, depositphotos

Orchids can remain in the same potting mix for several years. However, over time the mix will start to break down and need to be replaced. When the bark particles are soft to the touch, it’s time to change it. So, unpot your plant, remove the old potting soil and cut off any rotten or dried up roots, then repot in a mixture specifically sold for orchids. You don’t have to worry about your orchid’s roots sticking out of the substrate; it’s quite normal for an orchid to produce aerial roots. On the other hand, when you repot it, you can cover them some of them with the new potting mixture.

And there you go! The basics of growing orchids in just a few paragraphs.

Good growing!

Garden writer and blogger, author of more than 60 gardening books, the laidback gardener, Larry Hodgson, lives and gardens in Quebec City, Canada. The Laidback Gardener blog offers more than 2,500 articles to passionate home gardeners, always with the goal of demystifying gardening and making it easier for even novice gardeners. If you have a gardening question, enter it in Search: the answer is probably already there!

1 comment on “Success With Orchids

  1. Most of my orchids came from clients who discarded them after bloom. Cymbidiums perform particularly well, and are happy to live in rotten stumps. They bloom reliably about now.

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