Many orchids reveal their unique beauty this time of year. You can see the elegant spikes loaded with intricately designed blooms at many places – flower shows, orchid shows, garden stores, grocery stores, even big box stores.
And if you are living in a region where February is still Winter -no way around it- these delicious blooms are just what you need to get through the last weeks of it. Every glance at the fabulous blossoms is a reminder that Spring is on the way and there will be many more in the days to come.
So if you happen to indulge yourself with an orchid or maybe receive one as a gift but are unsure how to care for it, read on. You CAN get it to re-bloom next year (just when you need to see those fantastic blossoms the most). Orchids really are no-fuss, very adaptable, peaceful beings just requiring the basics of water, food and shelter.
I’ve grown orchids in my home for the past 12 years while living in some very different climates (OR, PA, CA, ID). Some of my orchids have been with me for the full 12 years, making two cross-country moves via truck! Although the climates where I’ve lived are very different I have learned to stick to the same basic care, making a few small adjustments per area.
Here’s my take on caring for commonly available, easy growing orchids such as cattlayas, dendrobiums, phalaenopsis, paphiopedliums, oncidiums and cymbidiums.
WATER. A basic need for any organism right? Orchids make it easy though – they need a good long drink once a week. Water them individually (if you have more than one) by putting them under the faucet and running a tepid, medium flow on them for about 30 seconds. They need to be well-saturated. Every 2-3 months give your orchid an extra long drink (running water through pot for about 2 minutes) to get rid of any salt build-up from fertilizers.
FOOD. Orchids are capable of so much more beauty than a pot of greenery like many house plants provide. But to reach their potential, orchids NEED food, just like you and I do to reach our potential. However, orchids only need to eat once, maybe twice a month. (Yippee, that’s easy compared to everybody else in our household right?)
It’s simple, get some orchid food a.k.a. fertilizer. You can find orchid fertilizer at places like Home Depot/Lowes, local nurseries that carry in-door plant supplies, orchid shops, on-line, etc… Most orchid fertilizers are very easy to use and designed to mix with water to dissolve and then pour atop your orchid. Some brands I have used and like are Dyna-Grow, GROW MORE and Schultz.
Some lines offer different types of “food” depending on what stage of growth the orchid is in. For example, GROW MORE has different orchid fertilizer formulas depending on the stage of growth. I have been successful by keeping it simple and using a general purpose bloom formula.
SHELTER. I’d like to say this is less important than food and water but it’s simply not, especially for getting your orchids to re-bloom. The right place for an orchid in your home will likely require some thought and you may have to place it in an area to meets its cultural requirements and then move it to a special display area once it has new blooms that are ready to open.
Think about shelter in terms of ‘light’ and ‘temperature range’.
First the ‘light’ – A general rule of thumb for most orchids grown in homes is that light should be bright and diffused. No direct sun. Remember orchids are from the forests, not the plains so they always have a canopy protecting them from direct sun.
A key point, typically speaking, is orchids do not do well when placed in an unshaded, south or west-facing window sill. It took me years to realize that even in a lower-light climate such as Portland, OR a south-facing window sill gets too hot and too much sun for many orchid varieties. It is best to have most orchid types located about two or three feet away from a south or west-facing window.
An east-facing window with a few hours of morning sun could be a different story and I would give that window sill a try. North facing windows can be good for phals and paphiopedliums but I would have them as close to the window as possible since northern exposure is low light year-round.
Now the second part of shelter is ‘temperature range.’ In their natural environment orchids experience a difference between night and day temperatures (nighttime temps being around 10 degrees lower) and this is how they initiate the flowering process.
Coincidentally, this is a plus for growing orchids in a home. Most homes daytime temperatures are somewhere in the low 70s and the nighttime temperatures usually drop to high 50s or low 60s. If this is not the case in your home try to manipulate temps so there is at least a 10 degree drop at night, especially in fall and winter. This provides a much better chance at getting your orchid to re-bloom.
Overtime, your orchid will give signs as to whether it is happy or in hardship. If the leaves get wrinkles and begin to look shriveled the temperature may be too hot and likewise too much light. If new leaves begin to appear that is a good sign. However, if over a few months (6-9) you do not see a spike (inflorescence) start to grow you may need to place your orchid in a spot that receives more light.
Inadequate light prevents an orchid from flowering although it will continue to grow new leaves. Another way to determine if more light is needed is by the color of the leaves. They should be a grassy, medium green color vs. a dark forest green which is another sign of inadequate light.
Humidity. Orchids enjoy humidity much more than we do! And with the automatically controlled temperatures in our homes, humidity does not usually reach the level orchids prefer. Therefore, raising humidity levels around orchids will result in better flowering. One popular method is to place the potted orchid on a bed of pebbles set in a tray or slightly larger pot. Fill the tray or pot with water to the level where it almost covers the pebbles.
Be careful that it is not covering the pebbles as the fastest way to kill an orchid is to have some of its roots in constant contact with water.
If the tray seems like more effort than you want to put forth, another option is to place your orchid in a spot that is conducive to more than normal humidity like a bathroom or near a kitchen sink. If light levels are appropriate these are very good spots for orchids to grow. I currently grow my orchids on the rim of the fancy tub in the master bath. It’s gets much more use as an orchid growing station than it ever would as a luxurious bathing area!
Outdoor Summers. If you live in a climate with a good measure of humidity in summer, take your orchid outside. Find a spot with no direct sun (especially initially or the leaves will burn, just like any plant that is grown in-doors) and continue standard care of watering once a week and fertilizing once or twice a month. Your orchid will thank you for this outside time and begin to grow at a faster rate, most likely looking very healthy.
Potting Medium. Orchids are not like other house plants and do not grow in soil. If you plant an orchid in soil it will most definitely die. In their natural habitat, orchids grow around something and are not rooted in soil. Their roots are exposed to air while being in contact with bark from trees, etc… An orchid gets nutrients from what it is in contact with as well as the air and water in its environment.
In the house, orchids are grown in pots filled with a mix of fir bark chips, pumice, sponge rock (perlite), charcoal, coir, tree-fern etc… This type of loosely packed growing medium keeps the roots aerated and allows water to drain quickly. You can easily buy pre-mixed orchid growing medium at garden stores and one-stop-shop stores.
Orchids like to be in tight containers, another difference compared to regular plants, so do not feel the need to re-pot your orchid to a bigger container in the first year. In general, orchids should be re-potted every 2 years and this is mostly to add fresh growing medium with a new supply of nutrients.
I hope this is just enough information to get you comfortable trying an orchid in your home. They really are quite easy and it is so rewarding to see the beautiful blooms year after year. For more information on growing orchids in your home and especially for re-potting, here are a few resources I like.
American Orchid Society – Orchid Basics
Oregon Orchid Society – Re-potting Videos
For local readers, check out the Treasure Valley Orchid Society for event information and other orchid happenings!