Beginner's Guide to Orchid Care: Basics You Need to Know

Basic Orchid Care

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Orchids have a bad rep as finicky plants better off in the waste basket once their blooms are spent. Don't throw your prize away. It's not that hard to keep an orchid thriving and healthy enough to rebloom each year for many years to come, so long as you know the essentials for orchid care.

Most orchids are sturdy perennials that add sparkle to your home with gorgeous, exotic flowers up to three months at a time. You'll get bragging rights to boot.

Types like Phalaenopsis are popular gifts found at all kinds of retailers. Its a great easy-care orchid for beginners. Once you find out just how easy, chances are you'll want to branch out and add to your collection. Observing your plant will inform you when attention is needed. If you buy your orchid at a garden center or florist, ask about its specific needs to give yourself a head start.

Here's our guide to orchid care for beginners to keep your plant going.

Choose the Right Planting Material

Starting out, it's easiest to grow your orchid in a pot with good drainage, specially made for orchids. Special orchid potting mixes are widely available at retailers, nurseries and on-line. You can also make your own orchid potting mix with combinations of mosses, shredded bark, dried shredded leaves, sand, small rocks and perlite. Some orchids prefer to grow in moist sphagnum moss, so do some research on what's ideal for your orchid before you go straight for the bark.

The main principle is to keep the mixture loose and light. You want the roots well-hydrated, but not soggy, with room to breathe and take up nutrients. Epiphytic orchids are plants with aerial roots that cling to trees and other structures, but they can be acclimated to growing in pots. Even orchids that grow in the ground require little soil and thrive in shredded bark, fungus, moss and rock.

Provide the Best Light

Almost all orchids need indirect light in varying amounts. Some require less light and more shade. Others prefer dappled light through a window blind or shade cloth. Still others need bright light to thrive and bloom. The important concept to remember is that light should be indirect, which, in the case of natural light, means the sun does not shine directly onto the plant.

Full darkness at night, as well as a drop in temperature, encourages bloom. A good starting location is near a southeast facing window in a room that does not use fluorescent light at night.

Maintain Temperature and Humidity

The best temperatures are often a little higher than average household temperatures during the day and a little cooler at night. Getting at least close to ideal temperatures is important, but even more important is avoiding wide fluctuations, and you can make subtle adjustments that encourage the orchid to adapt. First, avoid placement near HVAC vents and other heating sources, such as stoves and fireplaces. Make sure to give the plant the right kind and amount of light. Both artificial and natural light can raise the temperature. Placement near a window can both slightly raise and lower the daytime and nighttime climate for your orchid.

Humidity levels are key to orchid health and encouraging blooms. Many are tropical plants that grow naturally in steamy, moisture laden environments. Lowering humidity is rarely an issue, and there are several ways to raise it.

  • Place the pot on a tray of pebbles with water. Keep the bottom of the pot above water level and periodically rinse and sterilize the tray and pebbles.
  • Place one or more ferns around your orchid. Fern fronds release water, which can increase humidity.
  • Purchase a mister or use a spray bottle to add moisture to the air around your orchid. Avoid directing mist onto the plant itself. Misting is best done in the morning, which allows any water drops that might accumulate to dry before nightfall.

Develop a Schedule for Fertilizer

Orchids need supplemental feeding because it's not grown in soil with readily available nutrients. (Some orchid bark mixes contain fertilizer, so check your potting mix's bag before adding more fertilizer.) Roots are sensitive to salts in many commercial fertilizers so choose one formulated specifically for orchids. Even then, a diluted application of 1/2 to 1/4 strength is often recommended.

A good starting point is to fertilize your orchid once a month. When you see new growth like a leaf, root or bud forming, increase applications to once every two weeks. The orchid is approaching bloom time and will benefit from additional nutrients. Reduce post-bloom fertilizing back to once monthly. Watch for signs of overfertilization which include discolored leaves, straggly growth and and salt buildup (white chalky deposits.) Flush the plant with clear water and consider replacing the potting mix. Allow the plant to recover before started a reduced fertilizing schedule.

Give Your Orchid a Rest Period

Once the gorgeous flowers fade and drop, it's a common mistake to think these unique and highly collectible plants are done. Cut the flower spike back and give the orchid a rest. It takes a huge amount of energy to support a bloom period of up to three months, so don't worry if your plant appears to do nothing for a few months. Keep up a consistent maintenance schedule and soon enough it will produce a new node for a leaf, root or pseudobulb. Then, it's just a matter of time until it blooms again.

  • How long do potted orchids live?

    With proper care, in a household environment, potted orchids can live from ten to 15 years.

  • What should I do after orchid flowers die?

    There are several options. You can cut the flower spike 1 inch above the main stem or pseudobulb. If the spike still has an undeveloped node, you can cut 1/2 inch above the node and wait to see if it produces a flowerbud. Or you can let the spike dry up and fall off naturally. However, if the flower spike turns dark or shows signs of rot, remove it immediately.

  • How often should I water my orchid?

    You should water an orchid often enough to keep the potting medium consistently moist but not soggy. This may entail watering more often during active growth but less often during the orchid's rest period.