Beauty on the Sill: Tips for Growing Orchids

An in-depth look at easy-to-grow orchids.


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This story (from the January 2010 issue of Better Homes and Gardens® magazine) introduced orchids that would succeed in a typical home environment. I wanted to address the issue of orchids' reputation -- often well earned -- as difficult plants, which results in many people being afraid to try growing them. But this is a large, diverse group of plants, and not all of them are difficult. Some are quite easy. I want to give you the confidence to try these plants. To do that, I'll to steer you to the types that are easiest to succeed with.

+ enlarge image Tropical lady slipper orchid

When I say "succeed," I mean that they will survive, and also grow and eventually rebloom indoors, with no special lighting, no greenhouse or sunroom, and no advanced skills required. An important resource for me in the development of this story was Dr. Ron McHatton, an expert with the American Orchid Society. He provided a list of orchids that fit the above criteria, and those that we show you are from that list. If you want to give orchids a try, the types we're covering are good ones to start with.

The Easiest Orchids for Novices

+ enlarge image Yellow nun orchid

Three orchids noted by McHatton are especially commendable (from a novice's perspective): the nun's orchid (Phaius); a closely related hybrid, Phaiocalanthe; and the tropical lady slipper orchids (Paphiopedilum, not to be confused with Cypripedium, a related but distinct type of lady slipper). They thrive with care similar to that of many houseplants: regular water and average light. If you can grow a ficus or a pothos, you can probably grow one of these orchids. It would be hard to overwater these moisture-loving orchids, which is important because that's perhaps the most common way that people kill orchids.
Learn tips to keep your indoor orchids healthy!

+ enlarge image Phaiocalanthe orchid

As an aside, I wonder why we don't see more of these lovely moisture-tolerant types in stores. Everyone I've spoken with who has grown these orchids agrees that they are easy plants to grow, but they seldom appear in retail outlets. The orchids you see in retailers these days are nearly all Phalaenopsis. They're easy to grow and ship, they're inexpensive, and they're gorgeous. So this isn't a complaint about Phalaenopsis. (Costa Farms, based in Florida supplies most of these nationwide, and generously provided some of the plants we photographed for this story.) I just wish there was more variety in retail stores. For now, you generally have to obtain Phaius, Phaiocalanthe, and Paphiopedilum, from online retailers (which we share on page six of this piece).

+ enlarge image Moth orchid

Two other orchids we covered in the print story are Phalaenopsis (the moth orchid) and Cattleya hybrids (the "corsage orchid"). These orchids prefer dry roots, so are vulnerable to being "loved to death" with too much watering, but are otherwise reasonably easy to grow. I should make a distinction here between pure unhybridized Cattleya orchids and Cattleya hybrids. The former are more difficult to grow. Fortunately, most of the Cattleya you find for sale are hybrids that are a bit more domesticated.

Learn more about moth orchids in Plant Encyclopedia.

+ enlarge image Corsage orchid

Another orchid worth noting is the Cymbidium. It's a great orchid for Northerners because, as McHatton told me, it responds to the short days of winter by flowering. In the South, with its relatively long winter days, it can be difficult to get to bloom. And like the other orchids we covered, Cymbidium can succeed in a home environment.

How to Water Orchids

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As I mentioned above, overwatering is a common cause for dead orchids. People typically ask about a plant's water needs by inquiring how often they should water, and it's this "how often" mindset that is a big part of the problem. How often you should water a plant depends on how much water it uses, which is a function of humidity, light, air movement, and what its roots are growing in. Watering by the calendar rather than a plant's needs is a recipe for failure.

So the short answer to the question of when to water most orchids, including Phalaenopsis and Cattleya, is: Just before it goes dry. How often is that? In practice, it can vary from every few days to every couple of weeks. It depends on the orchid and on the conditions in your home. One of those conditions -- an important one -- is the medium the orchid is growing in.

The best way to judge moisture is the old-fashioned way -- stick your finger in the planting medium. Pull it out, then rub your fingers together. You can easily feel if any moisture is present. If you don't feel any, it's time to water. Eventually, you'll develop a sense of how often to water, and how conditions (seasonal changes, for example) affect frequency. You'll also develop a "feel" for how heavy the pot is when the planting medium is dry, another way to gauge moisture levels.

McHatton offers a useful suggestion: A few suppliers (Charley's Greenhouse, for example) sell clear plastic pots. When moss or bark -- the best planting media for orchids -- is moist, you'll see the condensation on the inside of the pot. When it's dry, you won't, and you'll know it's time to water again.

Watering is no more complicated than pouring water into the potting medium and letting the excess drain through the bottom. I've noticed that some orchids available in stores are in pots with no drainage holes. That makes it far more difficult to water properly, so I'd suggest repotting in a different container (or drilling holes, if you have the tools).

Why Potting Mix Is Important

It's impossible to properly discuss watering without considering rooting media. Orchids are commonly potted in one of two media: moss or bark. Both are perfectly good materials, but they require somewhat different care. Moss acts like a sponge, and it takes a lot longer to dry out. Thus, for orchids like Phalaenopsis and Cattleya that need to dry out thoroughly before watering, moss requires a longer wait before watering and is less forgiving of too-frequent watering. Bark, which holds little water, poses less risk for these orchids. The rule of thumb for these orchids is: Water the day before the medium is completely dry.

Lady slipper and nun's orchids, as I pointed out above, enjoy conditions on the moist side and they'll do better if you don't let them go completely dry. Moss is a good choice for them, supplying adequate water for longer intervals between watering. Can these moisture lovers be grown in bark, too? Sure, if it's fine-textured. But be prepared to water more frequently.

+ enlarge image Step 1: Remove dead roots
when repotting an orchid.

Orchid media decomposes over time, especially bark. When this happens, the bark loses the fast-draining properties that many orchids prefer. That's why it's necessary to repot in new bark every year or two. It's a simple two-step process. Just remove the orchid from the old bark, which you can just throw on the compost pile. Clip off dead roots (which will be dark and shriveled, compared to the firm, fleshy, light-color healthy roots). Place the orchid back into the pot and refill it with new bark.

Fertilizing Orchids

+ enlarge image Step 2: Place the orchid
into a slightly larger pot
filled with fresh bark.

A common recommendation, and the one I offered in the print story, is fertilizing with quarter-strength, water-soluble fertilizer each time you water. That means whatever the fertilizer label says to mix into the water, use only one-fourth that amount, and add it every time you water. This constant "spoon-feeding" is good for plants and ensures you never have to worry about when you fertilized last.

Orchids and Light

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Homes generally have dim light (from a plant's perspective), so orchids that tolerate low light levels stand a better chance than those that require strong light. As the print story noted, an east-facing windowsill is a great spot to grow your orchid. The sunshine from an unscreened south-facing window can be a bit too bright (and hot), but a sheer curtain offers just the right amount of filtering. Or set the orchid back away from the window so that it's not constantly in strong indirect light.

West-facing windows make it simply too hot for orchids, and McHatton doesn't recommend them. However, with some filtering (as you would with a south-facing window) you might make a go of it. The light at a north window is usually just too dim for orchids.

You may want to use a blooming orchid as a table centerpiece, or put it somewhere away from a window. There's no harm in doing so, as long as you return the orchid to better light once it's done blooming.

Orchids and Humidity

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These orchids don't require rain forest humidity, and may do OK in your home without extra measures. But the dry atmosphere of an air-conditioned home can be challenging. That's why a daily mist, or setting orchids on a moist bed of gravel, helps success.

One precaution: Orchid pots should sit atop the gravel, not nestled within it. Otherwise, you risk wicking moisture up through the bottom of the pot and saturating the roots.

Resources

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Interested in the clear plastic pots I mentioned? Try Charley's Greenhouse Supply: charleysgreenhouse.com.

To purchase orchids try the following companies that provided the ones we photographed.
EFG Orchids: efgorchids.com
Orchids.com: orchids.com
Costa Farms: costafarms.com (They supply the orchids sold in Lowe's, The Home Depot, and other retailers.)

Learn more about growing and choosing orchids from the links below.
The American Orchid Society: aos.org

Plant Encyclopedia

More Easy Orchids

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