Orchid-Care Tips

They're not as touchy as you've heard. Here's what to look for and how to care for them.

Pink Orchids

Pink Orchids

Orchids are native to every continent except Antarctica. That's good news because it means that for any given setting and environment, there's probably an orchid that will feel at home. These beautiful plants may appear to be fragile and delicate, but they're actually quite durable. In fact, many orchids are even easy to care for. Before you bring one home, though, know what its light and care requirements are so you can give it exactly what it needs.

Selecting Orchids

Here's what to look for when shopping for an orchid:

  • Some roots should be visible at the top of the potting mix, and they should be whitish, firm and not moist. (As epiphytes, orchids can draw moisture out of the air through their roots.) Roots coming out of the bottom of the pot is also not a bad sign; you don't even have to repot it when you get the plant home.
  • Some buds should be unopened -- you'll get a longer display of first blooms.

Caring for Orchids at Home

The showiest orchids come from the humid equatorial regions of the planet, and once you get your plant home, much of your work will consist of approximating its natural environment. Here's what you need to do:

  • Mist frequently, but don't allow water to collect on the center area of the plant.
  • Place decorative pebbles in a tray and add water to the tray until it's just below the top of the pebbles; don't completely cover the pebbles. Sit the pot on the pebbles. The evaporating water will increase the humidity around the plant.
  • Avoid placing orchids near drying elements such as heaters and fireplaces.
  • Provide good air circulation to avoid heat buildup and bacterial infections.
  • Never leave plants sitting in water. All leaf surfaces should be dry at night to avoid spotting and bacterial growth.
  • Water plants with a weak solution of a high-nitrogen fertilizer.

Repotting Orchids

Although orchids enjoy being root-bound, they'll need to be repotted when the potting mix has broken down, usually every two years. Choose a time after the orchid has finished blooming; flowers could fall because of the stress of repotting.

Here's how to do it:

  1. Remove the plant from the pot, using a kitchen knife to separate the outside of the rooting medium from the pot. (It's a good idea to first dip the knife into alcohol and water to make sure it's sterile.)
  2. Remove all the old potting medium from the roots, remove obviously dead roots (they feel soft or hollow) and dunk the root mass in a tub of water to finish cleaning.
  3. Select a pot that's only a little bigger than the one the orchid has been in. The pot should just accommodate the root mass. Plastic pots are usually used in nurseries, but terra-cotta pots are a good option because they dry out quickly. Ample drainage holes-preferably in both the bottom and the sides-are desirable.
  4. Use fir bark -- never potting soil -- to half-fill the pot, arrange the roots in the pot, and then add the rest of the bark. Tamp to settle.
  5. Water so that the water comes to the surface of the pot; let it drain through, and repeat two or three times.

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