CARE & FEEDING YOUR ORCHIDS
Our intention here is to give you some very basic guidelines on how we manage to water & feed our orchids. As many of you already know, there are many variables that can influence this perfect state of balance. I hope you find this information useful, but please understand that our growing conditions probably vary from yours, so please keep that in mind. Careful observation of your plants, your daily weather and what type of orchids you are growing, coupled with appropriate care will have your orchids not just thriving, but flowering.
Quick and dirty orchid growing advice:
Sparingly, long before nighttime so they dry off, and don’t let plants stay wet. If the media looks moist, don’t water it. Try to water at the base of the plant, avoiding the leaves and flowers. Rain water or distilled water are best.
Potting Mix and Repotting
Use new media to repot, around every 2 years and after flowering. Bark and sphagnum are good - don't use potting soil.
Bright and indirect light - think: sunshine filtered through the upper canopy of a tree, blowing in the breeze.
High humidity, through evaporation or machine-generated, but also regular ambient airflow from fans or breezes.
‘Weakly, weekly’. Around ¼-⅛ of the concentration used for other plants, and look for equal numbers in the mid-teens (e.g. 13-13-13, 16-16-16, etc.). For slow-release, add 1-2 times a year.
Ideally between 60 and 80, dependent on the type of orchid. A night time temperature drop of 10 is good. Don’t let them freeze or burn.
More In-Depth Orchid Growing Info
How often you water your orchids comes down to 3 things: the type of orchid, the potting media it’s growing in, and the environment it’s growing in. We’ll go into detail for each of these, below. Water quality can be important to many orchids - if you have access to rain- or stream-water they’ll probably like it best. If you don’t live near these, or don’t have the time to collect it, tap water is fine, but you might need to ‘flush’ the plants with prolonged running water every few months to prevent mineral/salt buildup which clogs the roots. Alternatively, you can use distilled water to flush and water them, although this might be cost-prohibitive for large collections. If you only remember one thing about watering, have it be that orchids like high humidity and don’t like excessive watering. For the majority of languishing orchids we see, it’s because they’ve been overwatered and root rot is setting in (ironically, blocking the uptake of water into the plant). More on what to do about root rot in our Pests & Disease section. Along these lines, very few orchids like to sit in water long term - apply water at the base of the plant and let it run through. As you’ll see repeated many times below, keep your plants lightly moist, but not wet.
Type of orchid
Here are some general guidelines on water needs based on the type of orchid. More detailed guidelines are present on the product for any orchid not covered here, or which deviates from its type.
These like lots of water, frequently. However, they don’t like to have it stay around their roots. Let their roots roam free and water them thoroughly, until the roots turn from white to green. Minimal media is best, and it should be dry by the end of the day. As long as they aren’t staying wet you can water daily.
Cattleyas like to dry out a bit between waterings. Imagine them mid-canopy, getting lots of rain that mostly runs off. Once a week is probably enough, unless you’re in an area with low humidity, when 2-3 times a week might do it. Check down below the top layer of media and if it still looks kind of wet don’t water the plant.
These can stand a little more water, and the roots should remain gently moist (not sopping wet, please) - if you pick up some of the media you should be able to slightly feel the wetness but not have it leave drips on your hands. Many of ours are hybrids, and a little more forgiving than their species ancestors.
Many of these are native to cloud forests. So imagine them sitting in mist, with occasional bouts of rain. Wet, but not sopping. If you don’t live in a cloud forest, keep them gently moist and boost the humidity (more in ‘Environment’, below).
For the ‘hard cane’ types, they like it moist, but not wet.
These mostly grow on the jungle floor, rather than in the canopy. They like more moisture than most of the other types, and have fuzzy roots which are optimized for taking it up. That being said, they don’t like it wet and want enough water that they can slowly take it up at their leisure, but not be saturated.
‘Phrags’, the South American slippers, are the exception and often grow near water, so most tolerate sitting in water if it is clean.
In order to enjoy these types of orchids, with their pendulous flowers, we often grow these in hanging pots with open slats on the side and bottom. This gives them more evaporation than other potting situations, and they’ll appreciate being kept moist.
Potting and Potting Media
There are an incredible range of things you can grow orchids in. We’ll cover the more common options here but, as one of our orchid mentors used to say, ‘a good grower can keep an orchid alive in cigar butts and sherbert’ (not recommended for us mere mortals, though). Some orchid growers use elaborate recipes for each type of plant - one friend said he had 21 ‘ingredients’ in his ladyslipper mix!
This is rarely necessary though, unless you get into really specialized and rare types. Generally, plan to repot your orchid every two years or so and, ideally, just after it has finished flowering. For all types of media keep in mind that the part which normally retains the most moisture is just below the plant, and it is really important to remove as much old media from this area as you can, when repotting, since it will be the most degraded. To that end, please don’t reuse old media - it has normally started turning itself into compost and will keep way more water than you want around the roots. It can also harbor sizeable populations of fungi, bacteria, insect eggs, etc. which, combined with its retained moisture, gives your orchid an uphill battle as it settles in.
You can, however, reuse pots if you clean them well and disinfect them between orchid inhabitants - a soak in a mild bleach solution followed by a good rinsing and then letting them dry out is an easy and inexpensive way to disinfect pots before reuse. We grow almost all of our orchids in plastic pots, but you’ll occasionally come across ones in clay or concrete pots, or mounted (we’ll go into detail on mounting below). Plastic pots don’t let water evaporate through them, and so tend to keep the plants more moist. Clay and concrete pots can let water through, both to take it up and to let it out - leading to drying. Some of the water which gets into the pores of clay or concrete pots will also, inevitably, carry in minerals and salts which build up over time and sometimes show up as hard white deposits like you see in your shower or sink. These block the ability of the pot to let water through, and can also sort of burn the roots which come in contact with them through their high salt concentrations.
Consider retiring pots which have a decent amount of this build-up. However, retired clay pots can be smashed to provide filler at the bottom of plastic pots for decreasing trapped moisture, much as styrofoam is used for (more details on this below). And smashing the pots is often therapeutic when dealing with a tough day or a plant which refuses to flower. If you’re feeling less violent, these pots often make good ‘sleeves’ for slipping plants in plastic pots into, which can provide a solid base for top-heavy plants prone to tipping over.
A good all-purpose medium. For orchids which don’t like staying moist (like Vandas or Angraecoids), large chunks are best. For orchids which like it really moist (like slippers), small chunks are best. Medium chunks are the most common, and good for the majority of orchids. You can also mix bark with other types of media to decrease or increase the amount of retained moisture. Some folks swear by soaking bark beforehand, others insist on using it dry - we split the difference and recommend rinsing it briefly, to remove dust and debris, shortly before repotting.
Very common for orchids you buy from supermarkets, and for baby orchids - where drying out might lead to death. This medium holds a lot of water and, if not monitored, can lead to rot. That being said, this is a good option for growing orchids which like it a little more moist or for folks who can forget to water their orchids for weeks at a time (no judgment here!). It’s sold dry and then needs to be rehydrated by soaking in water. After soaking it is critically important to squeeze out as much water as you can and then fluff it up - please, for the love of all that’s holy, don’t put your orchid in dripping-wet sphagnum! For orchids growing in sphagnum it is particularly important to check the moisture before you water it; if you look below the top layer it should be just barely moist by appearance or touch, to the point where you’re second-guessing yourself about whether it’s moist or if you’re just imagining it. If the sphagnum looks moist, hold off a little longer before watering.
Lava Rock / Cinder
This medium doesn’t break down, but the many pores can hold a little bit of water (although way less than plant-based media like bark or sphagnum). It’s often mixed in to provide more air/drainage space when potting in bark. You can grow a plant which likes just a little moisture in pure cinder, but since it doesn’t break down into nutrients you’ll need to fertilize it a little more. There are also some trace minerals, which might be uptaken by the roots. The edges of cinder are often rather sharp, and can scratch you up a little bit while repotting - consider using gloves and/or protective nail polish to protect your hands and fingernails, especially if you don’t have a lot of callus.
Another media which doesn’t break down, and with fewer pores than cinder so it tends to retain less water.. This is a common addition for ‘lightening’ media, to increase air and water flow. It’s also generally cheaper than most of the media covered here, but rarely used as the sole ‘ingredient’ in potting mixes. Handling perlite often creates small clouds of white powder, which is easy to inhale and then leave you coughing or sneezing it out for the next few minutes (or hours). We strongly recommend either wearing a mask when handling it, or wetting it down before, and as, you work with it.
Styrofoam / Packing Peanuts
Many a new grower has been surprised, when repotting an orchid, to find styrofoam packing peanuts in the very bottom of the pot! These are provided to create a little space at the bottom of a pot, to prevent the media/roots there from staying wet from the pooled water when pressed up against the plastic. Even orchid experts sometimes use these for species which need really good drainage. They can be reused if you clean and sanitize them, or you can rinse off others you have lying around and put them into the potting before adding the plant or media. Please only use styrofoam packing peanuts for this; we encourage you to use the eco-friendly peanuts for shipping things, but in the bottom of a pot they break down into a mush which is a perfect breeding ground for diseases.
If you don’t have clean styrofoam lying around, and don’t want to buy something which can outlive you and be a blight on the landscape, there are a range of other things you can use to provide this space at the bottom of the pot. Shards of old clay pots are a very common substitute, when cleaned off, and can wick some of the water away. Cinder also works well, or even the ‘blue stone’ used for driveways. Clay shards, cinder, and stones can also help anchor a pot which is in danger of tipping over. Beyond these the sky's the limit, but try to stick with things which are inert and inorganic.
Good for orchids which really hate staying wet, or for landscaping in the tropics. The most important thing is securing the plant to whatever you want to grow it on. Common techniques involve tying the plant flush against the mount using fishing line, tight string, or even strips of old pantyhose! You want something which will not break down for at least 6 months to a year, giving the plant time to start anchoring itself with its roots. Wire can constrict the plant as it grows, so not ideal unless you want to remember to remove it. Small dabs of strong commercial glues, or low-temperature glue guns, are also good, and less conspicuous. However, check to see if the glue has toxicity warnings - if it is toxic to animals there’s a good chance it could be at least slightly toxic to the orchid. Mounts are generally plant-based: slabs of bark, sticks, pressed fern fiber, even timber (some folks say this should be non-pine though - we haven’t experimented enough to weigh-in on the subject).
For folks in the tropics a tree branch is the most common substrate, but large rocks or concrete walls are also used quite a bit. Unlike mounting on moveable objects, take some time to consider the long term conditions for a plant mounted in this location. How bright is the light, and is your plant already used to this level? (or does it need to be slowly adapted to it?) How hot or cold does this area get? Does it get regular rainfall in this location, or is it close to a hose? Is there decent airflow in this area, or do things quickly stagnate and rot there? Is it in the path of weedwhackers, destructive pets/kids, salt spray, etc.? And, perhaps most important: will you be able to easily enjoy seeing it there?
Please, please, please don’t subject your poor orchid to this. There are a small handful of orchids which tolerate potting soil, but most get waterlogged and die.