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Tips for Successfully Growing Orchids

The Orchid Whisperer

It suddenly dawned on me recently when I was visiting my mother that I’ve been watching her grow orchids for many years—with great success—but have never actually asked her how she does it. After seeing some gorgeous orchids for sale at a local nursery, I thought I would gather up Mom’s best advice before getting some plants of my own.

While many orchids are not that pricey unless they’re rare, it would still be ideal to give them a happy home and have them last for years while enjoying a whole bunch of beautiful blooms along the way. I wasted so many good plants in my early gardening years that now I really prefer to learn before I leap. Keep in mind that my mom does not consider herself an orchid whisperer by any stretch of the imagination. But that’s why I wanted her guidance—I didn’t want the entire encyclopedia of how to grow orchids, but simply to know what she does and why because it works. Her orchids are gorgeous, long-living, and multiply.

I’ll walk you through the basics so you can decide if you might want to grow orchids too. I’ve also added in some additional comments from my mom, the ever-so-humble orchid grower.

Choosing Your First Orchid

The easiest orchids to grow are Phalaenopsis, or moth orchids, which are readily available in houseplant shops. You can find them in a range of colors and patterns. The appeal is the bloom cycle, which can last for months and sometimes years, only to rebloom again just months later. Instead of going nuts buying several at once, try caring for a single moth orchid for a year or so and see if you get the hang of it and enjoy it. Gardening and plant care is all about paying attention and picking up on all the little signs and signals that plants give us. I think this is why my mom has done so well with her orchids—she notices all of the changes and nuances that go on and responds accordingly.

Other orchid species, such as the lady slipper (Paphiopedilums or “paphs” as they are commonly known), are quite tempting because they’re so quirky-looking, but it may be a little too challenging for the first-time grower. Figure out the moth orchid first, and then add to your collection. Also, keep in mind that each species has different growing habits and care requirements, so the advice here is specifically applicable to moth orchids (Phalaenopsis).

Where Do Orchids Come From?

It’s helpful to understand where orchids originate in nature to understand the care they need. Because they are tropical, orchids cannot withstand cold or freezing conditions. Orchids are what we refer to as “air plants” and grow on rocks or trees in their natural habitats, taking most of their nutrients and water from the air, not soil.

As houseplants, they are grown in a potting mix made specifically for orchids, often containing things like bark, moss, vermiculite, and perlite to provide similar conditions. Do not use regular potting soil or container mix intended for other types of plants. These air plants need their own special growing medium with plenty of air circulation.

In general, orchids growing as houseplants bloom in the colder months (fall and winter) and grow more leaves in the warmer months. If you can buy your orchid at a sale hosted by an Orchid Society, there’s lots of expertise there (maybe more than you want—lol) and you’ll get lots of help choosing a good plant.

Examining the Roots

Moms says, “What you really want to know is the condition of the roots when you buy a new plant. Some sellers will find it insulting if you try and check the roots—either they know their plant is in top shape and how dare you doubt them, or they’re hiding something. And how can we know which it is unless we check?”

Also, check what the orchid is planted in. They are air plants, so they should not be packed in soil like other houseplants, as this can cause the roots to rot. The roots need air and should be settled in orchid growing medium or bark. Once you know what healthy orchid roots look like, it becomes much easier to assess a plant.

Lighting and Temperature

Orchids burn easily, especially if any changes they experience are too quick or drastic. Avoid direct sun—indirect works well. Early morning or afternoon sun is ideal. You can also grow them under fluorescent lights with T5 or T8 bulbs, keeping the unit about 12 inches above the tops of the plants.

Orchids like humidity, so do what you can to keep their room humid. 50% is ideal indoors as a compromise for people and plants. You will often see orchids sitting on a drip tray, but those are good for water spills, not actually hydrating the plant leaves.

The main thing to be aware of is that orchids do not tolerate cold conditions. It varies with each species, but generally, a typical household temperature in the range of 70-80°F (21-27°C) is fine. Some varieties benefit from a slightly lower temperature at night—something that may occur naturally in your home anyway. Most importantly, avoid cold and abrupt temperature changes.

Watering and Feeding

Over-watering is the number one cause of houseplant deaths. That said, orchids cannot be left to dry out. It will vary by the conditions in your home, but in general, they need watering approximately once a week—but always check first.

To water her orchids, my mom submerges the entire pot in warm water for approximately 30 minutes. It’s a learned art to know when the plant needs it, but it does work out to around once a week, depending on how dry the air is in the house.

Mom occasionally uses a high-nitrogen fertilizer as well as fish emulsion. She applies the fertilizer to the water bucket, so the plant will receive a lower dose than recommended on the product label—but that’s good. You want a quarter dose or so. Add fertilizer during the vegetative growth season when leaves are growing, not when the plant is flowering.

Outdoor Time

During the warm months, Mom puts her orchids outside in a sheltered location. You don’t ever want the bright sun on them, but they do love the warmth here in Canada and a fine summer breeze. And as always, make all light and temperature changes gradual. They can adapt to some change if done carefully over time.

Reblooming and Propagation

After a moth orchid is done flowering, the flower spike can be trimmed to encourage reblooming in just a few months’ time. Look up diagrams online to see the precise way to trim the flower stem. You can also try propagating baby orchids on a flower spike using keiki paste.

For moth orchids, repotting is necessary when the roots start to look crammed. The timing varies with each plant—could be every 1-3 years or so. You can do it yourself or take the plant to a nursery and have them do it.

And that’s the basics! I hope you’ve found it helpful. I know I’m ready to get started with my first one, and you can bet I’ll be calling the orchid hotline (Mom) as any questions arise. And her reply will be, “I always just look it up on Google.”

Enjoy these wonderful plants, and thanks, Mom!

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