How to Grow and Care for Orchids
Find out how to care for orchids with these tips from HGTV gardening experts.
To many, they’re addictive. To others, they’re intimidating. To most — they’re probably a little of both. Orchids are one of those paradoxical houseplants that many skilled gardeners kill while some beginners stumble upon success. Online searches often yield contradictory and myth-driven advice on orchid care. But some basic orchid growing facts can demystify the process and help even houseplant newbies gain confidence to care for orchids with ease.
Orchidaceae is the largest plant family in the world, with more than 25,000 species spanning the globe, according to the Rainforest Alliance. To grow any houseplant, it helps to understand its natural environment and try to emulate that indoors. Most orchids are tropical epiphytes; they live cradled by trees and other plants in midair, gathering nutrients and moisture from the detritus, rainfall and air around them. At home, these preferences translate to medium-bright light (free from direct sun), moderately warm temperature, ample humidity (some more than others), abundant air flow around roots, and superior drainage. Variability does exist in the orchid family, however — some come from temperate or arid regions, some are terrestrial and some store water better than others.
Atlantic Gardening Company in Raleigh, NC, features a lush greenhouse brimming with orchids of all shapes and sizes, and a helpful team that is generous with their knowledge. Courtney Belohlavek, Atlantic Gardening’s greenhouse manager, guides shoppers to the right variety of orchid for them by asking them "why orchids?" If you hope for a big show of long-lasting flowers, Phalaenopsis are probably the right fit. If you are interested in collecting an uncommon plant for enduring care, fragrance and unique blooms, she would guide you toward exotics. Also, consider your tendencies with houseplants. If you like low-maintenance, high-impact plants, go with Phalaenopsis or maybe Cattleya. If you’re the sort who over-cares for cacti, more attention-seeking exotics may thrive with you.
Types of Orchids
Thanks to their suitability for mass production, Phalaenopsis (or moth orchids) are what you’ll find filling grocery stores and garden centers in impressive volume. Moth orchids are treasured for their lengthy flowering window, range of colors and ease of home care.
Phalaenopsis are also notable for their large, silky, open-faced petals. Moth orchids should be considered their own category apart from the exotics, which have different characteristics and needs.
While easy-to-find Phalaenopsis are excellent choices for their enduring blooms, exotic orchids are worth seeking for their striking range of colors, scents, textures and shapes. Belohlavek favors exotics, which envelop rooms in heady fragrances like coconut, chocolate and vanilla. Blooms are more intermittent, however they’re unique in form — intricately chiseled like fine sugar sculptures.
Exotics require a bit more care than Phalaenopsis, which for some gardeners might make them easier (say, for those of us who love our succulents to death). The following list of exotics is not comprehensive, but it is a great place to start. Consult the American Orchid Society’s helpful culture sheets for tips on each type.
Among the most popular orchids according to the American Orchid Society, Cattleyas are Belohlavek’s favorite. Reminiscent of daffodils, these "corsage orchids" often feature central trumpets and ruffled petals.
Notable also are their pseudobulbs — water storage organs that balloon toward the base of each stem. Allow roots to dry between waterings as the pseudobulbs help them retain water relatively well. Cattleyas require bright light.
Because this genus spans sea level to the high Andes, sweeping statements do not apply to all. Slight variations in care based on each species’ origins make this one of the more challenging orchids for beginners; ask your garden center for recommendations.
These botanical treasures are worth seeking for their ornate, delicate inflorescences — well-deserving of the common name Dancing Lady Orchid.
Along with Cattleyas, Dendrobiums are available at most local garden centers. They also sport pseudobulbs, though theirs tend to appear more slender on tall, upright canes. Also known as the spray orchid, Dendrobiums are dotted with blooms in a linear formation — perfect for flower arranging.
Commonly bred with Phalaenopsis for a hybrid called den-phal, many cultivars’ blooms resemble those of moth orchids.
Cymbidiums are trendy in the floral trade for their luxe, long-lasting spray of blooms. These beauties like brighter light and slightly cooler temperatures. Cymbidiums are semi-terrestrial rather than epiphytic.
They enjoy consistent water and evenly moist potting media during active growth. Reduce watering drastically in winter (say, from twice a week to twice a month).
The ephemeral Masdevallia hails from cool, misty tropical mountains. Pointed sepals and slender, blade-like leaves set this genus apart. They prefer slightly cooler temperatures and are prone to heat stress.
Frequent watering and high humidity is needed to keep Masdevallia happy, as they have little capacity for water retention. Provide exceptional drainage, maintain consistent moisture and sustain humidity with a humidifier or tray of moist pebbles.
Also called pansy orchids, Miltonias have friendly, beaming faces. Pansy orchids prefer relative shade as they sunburn easily. There is some variability in this genus, with some preferring cooler temperatures and others consistent warmth. Most pansy orchids like to have their roots fully saturated every few days. However, those from warmer locales enjoy drying between waterings.
High humidity (70 percent) is essential for healthy growth. Ask your garden center about care for your chosen variety of Miltonia.
The Vanda genus is notable for its balmy, full-sun-loving orchids with bright blooms. Vandas enjoy growing in a hanging pot with their roots free. Since they also need warm temperatures, very high (80%) humidity and frequent watering along with ample air flow, they grow best in a greenhouse or bathroom (even inside a shower).
Home gardeners may try growing in a basket set atop a tray of moistened pebbles and misting for added humidity (though hanging is Atlantic Gardening’s favored approach). To water, Belohlavek recommends submerging the roots regularly in water and then re-hanging.
Shopping for Orchids
Now that you’re up to speed on orchid types, it’s time to shop. While Phalaenopsis are widely available, your best bet for unique exotics is a local garden center with a dedicated greenhouse program, like Atlantic Gardening. There are also online nurseries that ship nationally, including Palmer Orchids, Brookside Orchids, Orchids by Hausermann or Logee’s.
How to Care for Orchids
When an orchid drops its blooms and completes a cycle of flowering, it goes dormant for rest and renewal before (hopefully) blooming again. A dormant orchid is also known as a "sleeping orchid." While it's easy to mistake an orchid for dead at this point, take a close look at the plant's roots and crown (the part connecting roots to leaves). A living, sleeping orchid will still have green, plump roots and crown. A dead orchid's roots and crown, on the other hand, will appear brown and may be mushy (a sign of rot).
Keep monitoring a sleeping orchid to keep it hydrated, checking it as you would a growing orchid for silver roots or wrinkled leaves (which are both signs of thirst). Provide bright light during this phase, and take care not to overwater, as sleeping orchids are susceptible to rot.
How to Water Orchids
Belohlavek recommends two methods for watering orchids. Dropping an ice cube into the pot is not one of them — this commonly touted practice actually shocks the roots and rarely provides enough water. Instead, water your orchid either by soaking the roots or by carefully drenching the soil from above. Use distilled water, or let tap water sit out for 24 hours to let minerals dissipate — orchids are sensitive.
To water by soaking, fill a shallow dish with a couple inches of water and set your orchids (in their clear pots) upright in the bath. Allow them to sit and drink for about 15 minutes before removing them and allowing excess water to drain. Once fully drained, return orchids to their decorative pots, if using.
Or, set orchids in the sink and use a narrow-spouted watering can to drench the soil’s surface evenly, allowing it to quench the roots without getting water between the leaves (which causes rot). This method is particularly efficient if plants are displayed in trays of pebbles that catch draining water and provide humidity. Drain any excess water so the roots can breathe.
When to Water Orchids
If you’re unsure whether or not to water, observe the roots: thirsty roots appear silver while hydrated roots are green. Frequency of watering depends on the potting medium, the type of orchid and the plant’s life cycle.
Orchids grown in bark should be watered once a week. In sphagnum moss, which is absorbent, check for dryness every 10 days but expect to water every two-three weeks. Many exotics require more frequent watering than Phalaenopsis, or those with water storage capacity. Sleeping orchids should be watered less frequently than those actively growing and blooming.
Generally, orchids enjoy bright but indirect light in a south or east facing room. When in flower, orchids may be moved into lower light spaces. If kept in low light when in bud, immature buds may not bloom. Phalaenopsis tolerate low light better than other orchids.
Fertilizing your orchid isn’t totally necessary. If you choose to fertilize, take notes from horticulture pros and feed orchids "weakly weekly" — use a diluted liquid fertilizer in your watering can once per week at 1/4 the recommended application rate. Atlantic Gardening recommends Dyna-Gro Orchid-Pro. If your orchid’s roots are dry, drench them with a bit of water before feeding as fertilizer may burn dry roots.
Applying the diluted fertilizer via a misting bottle (known as foliar feeding) may help generate a second flower spike or keikis (baby orchids), from Belohlavek’s observations.
A urea-free fertilizer with a balanced NPK ratio is best. Some apply a formula slightly higher in phosphorus (the middle number in the ratio) as plants are preparing to flower, as this essential nutrient aids flower production.
Most casual orchid-keepers need not worry about repotting. Orchids enjoy being pot-bound. When you purchase an orchid, it will come in a clear pot with either coarsely ground bark or sphagnum moss. It is important to keep orchids in these clear containers as their roots need light for photosynthesis. Display orchid plants in just the clear pot while photosynthesizing and move into a decorative (or "catch") pot only while flowering.
Every year or so, when roots start to push up and over the edge of the clear pot, your orchid needs repotting. Only repot while the orchid is sleeping. Remove the orchid from its clear pot and snip away rotten inner roots. When repotting, either orchid bark or sphagnum moss may be used; roots will dry more quickly in bark, whereas moss will retain moisture a bit longer.
If you’ve snipped out a fair amount of rotten roots, the orchid will likely fit back into its original clear pot; if not, fit it into a new clear pot that is just slightly larger than the original.
Reblooming a Sleeping Orchid
Typically, sleeping orchids should be kept at a steady 65-75 degrees for six-nine months (even a year) to photosynthesize. When sufficient time has passed, you may try to coax new blooms by moving the plant in and out of 55-65 degree conditions for a two-three week period.
Depending on the time of year, move the orchid onto a shaded porch or unheated room for exposure to cooler temperatures. Those with mild winters could move orchids outside during 60-degree days and bring them inside at night. Or, move outside during cool nights and in during hot days. Either way, avoid temperatures below 50 and over 80, as well as direct sun. Introducing temperature changes mimics seasonal shifts, hopefully signaling orchids to rebloom.
Signs of Stress
One common pitfall with orchids is called bud-blasting — buds shrivel and turn orange or pink, and flowers droop. This is an indication of stress brought on by rapid changes in the environment like humidity, temperature or ethylene exposure during shipping. There is no way to revive a bud-blasted orchid.
Signs of Thirst
Wrinkled leaves, silver roots and drooping leaves are all signs of underwatering (however, drooping leaves can also signal over-watering). Water well to revive your orchid; once leaves regain plumpness and roots turn green, it’s sufficiently rehydrated.
Signs of Sunburn
Orchids experiencing sun stress may show purpled foliage or even have holes burnt through the leaves. If your orchid is receiving direct sun, move it to a bright but shielded spot.
Orchids Dropping Leaves
If an orchid drops leaves, it may be natural leaf loss from aging. On the other hand, it could be a rot issue from getting moisture in the leaf joints when watering— take care not to get your orchid’s leaf nodes wet.
Orchid Pests and Disease
If you tend to orchids for any length of time, you are likely to encounter some kind of pest or disease. Some issues that may arise, cited by the American Orchid Society, include aphids, botrytis, black rot, mealybugs, thrips and viruses.
Watering properly, draining well and ensuring ample airflow should keep fungal issues in check. To manage insect infestations, neem oil is recommended, along with hand-picking bugs off the leaves.
Create a foliar spray solution with neem oil by mixing 1 tsp of neem and 1/2 tsp of natural dish soap with 1 quart of warm water in a spray bottle. Shake well and apply this solution to both sides of the leaves. Monitor for improvement, repeating weekly as needed (with a fresh batch each time). This solution can also be used for insect issues out in the garden. Neem oil can be found at most garden centers or online.