Posted by: Michelle Mitton | September 17, 2008

A Quick Start Guide to Growing Orchids

How to Grow Orchids-PhalaenopsisOrchids are simply the greatest houseplants you can grow.

Sorry if that offends but I’ve found it to be very true nonetheless. Orchids are perfect for decorating, there are enough varieties to match most any condition, they are easy to grow (some varieties more than others) and you get the benefit of flowers and foliage over and over.

They have this nagging reputation of being temperamental and perhaps there is some validity there but I’ve been growing my collection for over 10 years now and have 10 growing right now (I’m pretty much guaranteed one blooming at any given time) and my mortality rate is pretty good–probably 20%–and I haven’t lost any in quite a few years.

Here’s a few tips to get you started growing orchids. Go ahead and buy one at the grocery store, you know you’ve always wanted to–because I’m going to tell you how to keep it alive.

Choose the Right Orchid
Once you understand the basic differences in species choosing the right one gets much easier. In nature orchids are either epiphytic or terrestrial. Epiphytic means that they grow on a host, not as a parasite but as an anchor. Orchids can grow on trees, rocks, bark, all sorts of things where they’re free to catch the tropical rainfall over their large roots.

In nature Terrestrial orchids grow in the ground as you’d expect from the word “terrestrial.”

What does this mean? Well the orchids that are epiphytic will require regular and more frequent waterings over roots that are free to dry out in between. Their growing medium is big and chunky so that the roots have anchors and are free to catch the water coming through the pot just as if they were growing on a tree in a rain forest and catching the water cascading over the trunk in regular intervals. Get the picture?

How to Grow Orchids-PaphiopedilumTerrestrial orchids require less frequent watering and are grown in a medium that is more like soil–though it is still chunkier and more full of bark than traditional potting soil.

So if you have trouble remembering to water your plants, forget the epiphytes and stick with a pretty little terrestrial model which is much more resilient to drying out–I water some of mine as little as every two weeks.

Then there’s the light issue to consider. Some orchids require lots and lots of light–cattleyas, dendrobiums or oncidiums for example. Many of the gorgeous corsage varieties you see are ones that need strong southern exposure. But there are many that you can get for shady areas. Phalaenopsis, or the “moth” orchid at the top requires little enough light that I can grow them here in Alaska in a south-eastern window. Knowing how little light we get in winter, that’s saying something.

Paphiopedilums–or lady’s slippers–are terrestrial and because they’re used to growing on a forest floor they require very little light. Quite shady in fact. I have two flowers in a basement north-western window that’s shaded by a deck above it and not only do they survive they bloom regularly.

So do a little bit of research after evaluating how much light and water you have to give and choose accordingly.

How to Grow Orchids-OncidiumHumidity Is Your Friend
Pretty much all orchids need humidity–it goes back to their natural forested environment–and while some like the terrestrial varieties don’t require high humidity, many epiphytes do require it and all varieties will do better with it.

Now if you live in a place that struggles for humidity (we do in winter with our heaters drying everything out) then the easiest solution is to set your orchid pots on a tray of pebbles with a bit of water in the bottom. The water evaporates right up into the flowers and gives them a bit more moisture. Easy schmeezy.

One thing to consider with orchids is the container the plant uses. Epiphytic orchids such as the yellow and purple varieties pictured here (not the blackish lady’s slipper) have roots that need access to oxygen. It’s helpful to use a clear plastic pot then cut several small holes around the pot so that air can get to the roots and circulate freely. I then stick the plastic pot inside a ceramic cache pot that’s made for orchids and has holes around the pot, once again for air to circulate.

Water Weekly Weakly
The larger your orchid the less it will need watering–mostly because larger pots hold more moisture and smaller ones dry out quicker. If you have orchids in small pots (I have one miniature variety of oncidium) then you might need to water once or twice a day but if you have a medium sized plant, particularly one with a psuedobulb at the base of the leaves where it can store up water, then once a week is usually sufficient.

You have to kind of keep an eye on things because your household conditions can vary from season to season but if the pot feels light it’s time to water. Water it by allowing slightly warm water to run through the pot freely for 15-30 seconds then allow the pot to drain of excess water before putting it back into its cache pot.

When you water you should use some basic plant fertilizer but water it down to half-potency. If the plant has a flower spike it’s particularly important to fertilize because the flowering process requires so much extra energy.

How to Grow Orchids-DendrobiumTroubleshooting
Most of your issues will be light and water (and over watering more than under watering) but if you start out with the orchid varieties such as paphiopedilum and phalaenopsis which are less particular about getting lots of light and water you’ll have a good shot at success.

Sometimes however, the watering and light aren’t the problem. Sometimes your plant gets horrid spots or other pests and when that happens you need to know when it’s time to cut your losses.

Whenever you get a new plant keep it separate from other plants until you’ve had enough time to determine that the new guy isn’t carrying disease. If the plant has a fungus it’s pretty much impossible to cure and the best thing to do it toss the offending plant and container out, sterilizing any scissors or tools that might have touched it.

If you have a plant that develops bugs this isn’t as much of a problem. A weekly misting on the soil with my favorite homemade bug juice after a watering is guaranteed to kill the pests in a couple doses. The simple recipe is this:

1/4 cup Formula 409
1/4 cup liquid dish soap
1/4 cup rubbing alcohol
1 cup water

Mix it all together in a spray bottle then go kill them bugs.

Flowering
Most orchids flower about once a year and the blooms last anywhere from 2-8 weeks usually. You can get the flowers to last longer if you move the plant away from the light source while it’s blooming (light makes the flowers fade quicker) and once the flowers have withered the plant spike can either be cut back to the base or left to wither as well (I cut mine back).

The thing about orchids is that getting an orchid to survive isn’t too hard but getting an orchid to bloom again can be tricky–or at least trickier. Some orchids such as the phalaenopsis prefer to have the nighttime temperature drop a bit to flower. They like regular house temps but at night if it goes down to the low 60s it’s better. This is perfect for Alaska but may not be good for Arizona.

If your orchid isn’t blooming it’s probably an issue of not enough light or no weekly fertilizer but following the steps I’ve outlined above should solve any problems. A blooming orchid is a happy orchid.

Repotting
Finally, orchids should be repotted approximately once every one and a half to two years. Doing it right after a flowering before a bunch of root growth is a good time–usually in the spring. The bark medium that orchids typically use starts to break down and if it isn’t replaced regularly then the orchid won’t get the nutrients it needs.

When you’re repotting you don’t usually need to go to a bigger pot but instead just throw out the old medium and give it some new stuff. A repotting is a good time to check and trim the roots. On epiphytes the roots should be white and plump, if they’re dark and shriveled it’s a sign of rot and though there will always be a certain amount of browned roots if there are many of them then you’re probably over watering.

Trim off the rotted roots and repot in a plastic pot with holes in the sides for ventilation. I tend to put a package of sphagnum moss around the base and stuff the whole flower package down into the pot followed by pouring the bark/moss/charcoal mix (a commercial variety is fine to use, just check to see if it’s marked for terrestrial or epiphytic orchids) down around the rest of the roots. Pack the medium in there firmly enough that if you were to lift up the plant by the stem that it won’t lift out of the new pot.

With a little care and you can have beautiful flowering orchids all winter long–like a little piece of the tropics to get you through.

***

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