8 Ways to Kill Your Orchid
It’s just not fair: Orchids have this bum rap for being some of the most finicky plants to grow. And don’t even talk about getting a second bloom out of them. Most frustrated indoor gardeners just toss them once that last flower’s gone.
Yet, the truth is orchids are some of the easiest plants to grow if given the proper exposure, potting mix and right amount of water. Just ask Becky Brinkman, longtime manager of the Atlanta Botanical Garden’s Fuqua Orchid Center, home to one of the country’s largest collections of species orchids. There, envious visitors corner her every day for advice on what they’re doing wrong with their own plants. So much so, that Becky has come up with her Eight Ways to Kill Your Orchid:
1. Water it every day.
The most frequently asked question is “Do you water the orchids every day?” The answer is, “No, but we check them every day.” Checking means looking at the potting mix to see if it’s dry. A good grower learns to recognize the change in color that accompanies the drying process.
2. Establish a watering schedule for your orchid. Make it conform to your schedule. Water it on the same day of the week that you go to the gym, or the grocery store, or the car wash.
This one is really tempting. But let’s say it’s September. Did you notice that yesterday was one and a half minutes shorter than the day before and that the sun is now lower in the sky than it was in July? Your plant did. So, two months from now, when your orchid receives one less hour of light and considerably weaker light intensity, does it make sense to water with the same frequency?
3. Water your orchid whenever you water your other plants.
Convenient, yes. Good horticulture, no.
4. Water your Phalaenopsis orchid with ice cubes.
Tell me you don’t do this. In nature a moth orchid seldom experiences temperatures below 60 degrees. And you’re thinking about applying ice water to its roots? Why not just put it in the freezer for a day?
5. Find out where your orchid is native to and water it when the Weather Channel says it’s raining there.
This strategy wouldn’t work even if you and your houseplant lived in its country of origin. Microclimate matters more to an orchid than macroclimate. Even if your condo is located in the rain forest, the kitchen window microclimate where your potted orchid resides is different from the microclimate within the tree canopy outside.
6. Force it to live its entire life in a beautiful pot with no drainage holes, in a dense soil mix, and smothered with florist’s moss.
I know you received it from the florist this way, and it looks great, I admit it. But shouldn’t they know better? The florist’s priority is how the plant looks, not how well it grows.
Repotting Orchids 03:24
7. Force it to live its entire life in the same soil mix that the grower put it in.
After two years an orchid mix is history. Orchids in conventional peat moss-based houseplant soil should be sold with “Buyer Beware” stamped on the pot. The structure of peat moss (and composted pine bark) is too fine and too dense to be a good long-term medium for plants that in nature grow in trees. It retains loads of water and breaks down quickly. Peat-based mixes are cheap, widely available, uniform, sterile and lightweight (meaning inexpensive to ship). Young orchids reach flowering size rapidly in this mix, saving production time and labor, and then can be swiftly passed along to the consumer.
8. Bring your orchid to the Garden’s Orchid Care Clinic on the coldest day in January. On the way home leave it in your unheated car while your visit every store in the mall.
Oh no. More blood on my hands.
Becky’s bottom-line basic advice is this:
- Plant your orchid in a coarse-textured potting mix that promotes air circulation, such as the combination of bark/charcoal/perlite.
- Give it intense sunlight (an east-facing windowsill is good).
- Let the plant dry out a little between waterings.
- Don’t overdo it with the fertilizer (cut the dosage by half for these light feeders).
Choosing Plants and Pots
When choosing an orchid, select one that enjoys conditions that you can provide at home, such as a moth orchid (Phalaenopsis) or a boat orchid (Cymbidium). If you can keep your plants in a heated greenhouse, your choice is wider. Hybrids of the following orchids are generally reliable, given the right conditions: Cattleya, Dendrobium, Epidendrum, Oncidium, and the slipper orchid Paphiopedilum.
Before buying an orchid, look over the plant for any signs of pests and diseases, and make sure it has plenty of flowers and firm buds. Check that the aerial roots are firm and pale with green tips, and that any roots visible through a clear plastic pot (in which orchids are often grown) are equally healthy, and not black. Most tropical orchids have aerial roots that absorb water and photosynthesize like leaves, taking energy from the sun and converting it into food. As a result, they can survive in very little soil, and require only small containers. Some should be grown in transparent pots to enable the roots to absorb sunlight.
Buy your orchids from a reputable source, such as a specialist nursery. Avoid those that have been sitting around in a drafty store for weeks, because they may not survive for very long.
Watering and Feeding
The most common cause of an orchid's early demise is over-watering. Although different orchids have different needs, most require watering once or twice a week in spring and summer, and once every two weeks in winter. In the case of Cattleya, water just enough to prevent the pseudobulb (the swelling at the base of the stems) from shriveling. Keep Dendrobium almost dry in winter. Use a can filled with rain- or filtered water at room temperature, and pour it into the pot until it runs from the base. For plants with congested roots, submerge the pot to just below the rim in a bowl of water, and leave until the soil surface is damp, then remove and allow to drain. Also provide some humidity by misting the leaves with rain- or filtered water, avoiding the flowers; or sit the pots on a tray of damp pebbles or gravel.
Orchid soil contains no nutrients, so start feeding your plants with an orchid fertilizer as soon as you get them home, following the instructions on the package. Some, such as Phalaenopsis, should be fed weekly, while others need less frequent applications.
Wipe Away Excess Moisture
After watering your plants, leave them to drain and wipe off any excess moisture on or between the leaves with a soft cloth to prevent rotting.
Positioning Your Orchids
As with watering, the light requirements of orchids differ depending on the type. Epidendrums grow on tropical tree branches in the wild and like bright, indirect light. Cymbidium hybrids also prefer bright light, and should be set outside in a sheltered spot during the summer, then given a bright, cool position indoors out of direct sun, such as a conservatory or a frost-free porch, in autumn and winter. Cattleya and Oncidium prefer a bright position that offers some shade at midday, such as an east- or west-facing windowsill, but move them to a bright spot that receives sun all day in winter when light levels are significantly lower. If you don't have a light area in which to keep an orchid, choose a Phalaenopsis or Paphiopedilum hybrid. These dislike strong sunlight, preferring a shady site from late spring to autumn.
The large exotic blooms of the moth orchid belie its easy-going nature. It requires soft light and is quite happy in a warm room.
Before buying, make sure you can give your chosen orchid the temperature it needs. Remember that most require a 10 degrees F drop between day and night.
Tender orchids, such as Dendrobium hybrids and Phalaenopsis, require warmth all year, with a minimum winter temperature of 61-64 degrees F. They will tolerate occasional dips, and are fine in centrally heated houses, if moved away from cold windowsills at night.
Cattleya, Epidendrum, and Paphiopedilum require more warmth in winter than cool-growing orchids, but will tolerate slightly higher temperatures in summer. Most grow well indoors, but should be moved away from cold windowsills at night during winter.
This group includes Cymbidium and Oncidium, which prefer low temperatures all year. Stand them outside in summer in a sheltered spot in cool climates, then bring them in to an unheated room, such as a cool conservatory or greenhouse, for winter, keeping them at around 46-50 degrees F.
With its spidery green and maroon flowers, the cold-growing orchid (Cymbidium kanran) is a fantastic orchid for those with a cool room to keep it in throughout winter.