These blooming beauties may seem challenging to grow because they often need different care than many other houseplants. But once you know the basics, you can keep these gorgeous plants thriving with confidence.

By BH&G Garden Editors
Updated January 10, 2020
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Orchids have a reputation for being tough-to-grow houseplants. Sure, they may require specialized potting mix and a certain amount of water to thrive, but this large, diverse group of plants includes many species that are easy to grow indoors. And in return for your efforts to provide what they need, they will reward you with their exotic-looking flowers for years to come. To help you gain confidence caring for these beautiful flowering plants, we rounded up some of our best tips for keeping them happy and healthy, including how to water orchids, how to fertilize them, and what potting mix to use.

Peter Krumhardt

How to Water Orchids

The most common cause of death for orchids (and most houseplants) is usually overwatering. Instead of watering your plants on a strict schedule (every other day, or once a week, for example), pay attention to your orchid's needs and how much water it uses. This can vary based on the humidity, light, air movement, and potting mix its roots are growing in.

The easy answer for when to water most orchids (including Phalaenopsis and Cattleya) is just before they go dry. It could be every few days, or even every couple of weeks depending on the orchid species and the environment in your home. The potting medium you use plays an important role in how much water your orchid needs—bark dries out quickly, while moss soaks up water and holds onto it for a long time.

To tell if it's time for a watering, stick your finger in the potting mix, then pull it out and rub your fingers together. You should easily be able to feel if there's any moisture. If you don't feel any, it's time to water your orchid, and if your fingers feel moist, check again another day. Over time, you'll start to develop a sense of how often your orchid usually needs water, and how conditions like seasonal changes can affect the frequency. You'll also start to develop a "feel" for how light the pot gets when the bark or moss is dry, which is another handy way to tell if your orchid needs a drink.

Watering is as simple as pouring water into the potting mix, and letting any excess drain through the bottom. Just make sure you pot your orchid in a container that has a drainage hole. It's a lot more difficult to water plants in containers without drainage because the water can collect at the bottom, so if your pot doesn't have a hole (or a few), consider repotting or drilling one yourself.

Editor's Tip: Sometimes you can find clear plastic pots for sale online or at garden centers. When moss and bark are 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.

How to Choose Orchid Potting Mix

Potting mix plays a huge role in how often you need to water orchids. Usually, orchids are potted in either sphagnum moss or bark chips, which both work well but need slightly different care. Moss acts like a sponge, soaking up water and taking a long time to dry out. Because it'll hang on to moisture for a while, you can wait longer between waterings, but moss is also less forgiving if you overwater your orchid. Bark doesn't hold much water and drains quickly, which makes it a good choice for orchids like Phalaenopsis and Cattleya that need to dry out between waterings.

Other orchids such as lady's slipper and nun's orchid like more dampness, and will do better if you don't let them dry out. Moss is a good choice for these species because it'll supply them with moisture for a longer period of time between waterings. You can also grow these water-loving orchids in fine-textured bark, but it still won't hang on to moisture as long as moss, so you'll have to water them more frequently.

Left: Step 1: Remove dead roots when repotting an orchid. Peter Krumhardt
Right: Step 2: Place the orchid into a slightly larger pot filled with fresh bark. Peter Krumhardt

Your potting material will eventually start to decompose, especially bark. You should repot your orchids in new bark every year or two, because it won't drain as quickly as it decomposes. Remove the orchid from the old bark (which you can toss on your compost pile!), and clip off the dead roots. You should be able to spot any dead roots right away—they'll be dark and shriveled, compared to the firm, light-colored healthy roots. Place the orchid back in the pot (or repot it) and refill with new bark.

How to Fertilize Orchids

The American Orchid Society recommends feeding your plants regularly with a 20-20-20 fertilizer with little to no urea. Another recommendation is to fertilize with quarter-strength, water-soluble fertilizer each time you water your plant. That means use just ¼ of the amount that the label recommends, and mix it with water. You can give this mixture to your orchid on a weekly basis (though it's better to under-fertilize than over-fertilize). Also, make sure the potting mix is a little damp before fertilizing because it can burn the roots if they're completely dry.

Peter Krumhardt

How Much Light Do Orchids Need?

From a plant's perspective, houses usually have dim light, so you'll usually have better luck with orchid varieties that tolerate low light levels. East-facing windowsills are great spots for orchids; an unscreened south-facing window can be a little too bright and hot, but a sheer curtain can add just the right amount of filtering. You can also set the orchid back from the window by a few feet so it's not constantly in strong indirect light.

West-facing windows are usually too hot for orchids, but with some filtering (a sheer curtain again), you can sometimes make them work. We wouldn't recommend try a north-facing window, because they're usually just too dim for orchids to succeed.

Your orchid doesn't have to be glued to the same spot though! If you want to use a blooming orchid as a table centerpiece or display somewhere other than a windowsill, there's no harm in moving it. Just take it back to its spot by the window once it's done blooming.

Peter Krumhardt

Orchids and Humidity

Most orchids are tropical plants, but that doesn't mean they need rain forest humidity to grow in your home. The dry atmosphere of an air-conditioned home can be challenging though, which is why a daily mist, or setting your orchids on a moist bed of gravel can help create the humidity they crave. If you decide to use gravel, just make sure the pot is sitting on top of the rocks, not nestled in them. Otherwise, moisture can seep into the pot and drown the roots over time.

Orchids might have different needs compared to most of your plants, but if you can master the basics of their care, they can be easy-care houseplants too. Since they're unique, you can display them in fun ways too, like creating hanging planters to show off their eye-catching blooms. If you haven't tried growing an orchid before, stick to something simple, like a moth orchid, before working your way up to fancier varieties.

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