Most people know that I love orchids and, fortunately for me, Leslie developed a love for the plants too (although she loves to look at them more than care for them). We now have 49 orchids in our house! They are growing next to our bigger windows and in a bookshelf that I modified with LED lights to accommodate the plants’ needs.
When I mention to anyone that I love growing orchids, the general response is some variation of “mine always die” or “I can’t keep them alive!”…and that’s the main reason for this post. Before I go too far, I’d like to issue this disclaimer: I have killed my fair share of orchids, and this is general advice that will not apply to every orchid out there since there are thousands of different species of orchids.
The most popular kind of orchid out there is the phalaenopsis orchid or moth orchid, so I will focus on how to care for that particular kind of orchid in this post. This is the orchid that you usually receive as a gift, or that you’ll see in grocery stores or in hospital gift shops. The phalaenopsis flower has five petals; three in the back and two large ones in the front with a pointy tip in the middle and structure that sometimes resembles a bird. The blooms can last from a few weeks to several months.
For the plant to thrive, our goal is to provide an environment as close to its natural habitat as possible. In nature these plants live attached to rocks or trees, using the host as support (note: they are not parasites!). To imitate their natural environment, we have to pay attention to these variables: water, light, temperature, humidity, airflow, “food” and potting media.
Water: The roots are often exposed to air and are able to absorb and retain water quickly. They get drenched with rain and dry out completely until the next downpour. The key to keeping these plants alive is to refrain from watering them until you are sure the roots have dried completely, otherwise the roots will rot. We kill the orchid faster by overwatering than by not watering enough. So the rule here is: if you think the roots are dry and ready to water, do it tomorrow.
Light: The phal orchid usually grows under a tree canopy. They need filtered light, or bright indirect light. The plants are adaptable and can communicate whether they are receiving too much light or not enough; with the latter, the leaves turn very dark green, with the former the leaves turn a shade of red (sunburn!).
Temperature: These plants live in many different temperature zones, but normally they don’t do well in extreme cold or extreme heat. What does this mean for us? They like the temperature in our house! If you keep your house at a temperature that’s comfortable for you, it’s probably comfortable for the phal orchid.
Humidity: The ideal humidity is about 50% to 70%, but in our homes the humidity tends to be closer to 30% or 40%. To help the plant, we can put the plant in humid areas of the house (near the kitchen sink or in the bathroom) or we can use humidity trays. I place the pots on top of bowls with pebbles and then put water in the trays around the pebbles (make sure the pot is not in direct contact with water). Also, placing a few plants in one area increases the humidity in that particular spot.
Airflow: In its natural habitat attached to a tree, the phal orchid enjoys moving air. We don’t need to place a huge fan in front of it, we just need to make sure the area were they are growing is not “stuffy” – keep doors open and make sure the room has ventilation. Again, if its comfortable for you, it’s comfortable for the plant.
Food: These plants like to be fertilized occasionally. In nature they probably catch a dead bug stuck between their roots, or tiny pieces of decaying tree bark. I use liquid fertilizer at ¼ strength when I water the plants…feed them weakly, weekly (that has a nice ring to it, but it is more accurate to say feed them weakly when you water them…it doesn’t have to be weekly).
Potting media: This is very important! The roots need airflow, so if we pot this plant in regular potting soil they will die. They must be potted in orchid mix, which is usually a mix of ingredients such as bark, charcoal, perlite, coconut husk, moss, clay pellet, etc. You can find it online, nurseries, or in big box stores.
So that’s it! These are the basic needs of phalaenopsis orchids. They are forgiving plants, they don’t mind a little neglect. They don’t need to be watered often, and once they get used to an environment they will thrive and bloom. Another key factor in caring for these plants is PATIENCE. They normally bloom once a year, sometimes they don’t bloom for a few years, and that could be due to us not providing the right growing conditions. If that happens, I encourage everyone to keep trying and not give up, because when they bloom you will understand why these plants fascinate so many people!