16 Tips to grow and care for orchids

We purchased some orchids from Costco and have had them for about three weeks, indoors. They are beautiful plants, with magnificent purple blooms. I noticed that one of the flowers is now wilting, so I fired up the search engine and tried to gather all the tips for taking good care of these gorgeous indoor plants.

Linda Matchan from BostonGlobe says that "Orchids are more like Cacti". They are robust to neglect, can be left uncared for, unwatered for about 2 months. Orchids have a fairly long history, with Confucious, the well-known chinese philopher having written a poem about them. Orchid USA has a great page about many facts and trivia about orchids.

1 All orchids are not the same

Although this is a general list, there is nothing general about the over 3000 kinds of orchids.

2 Growing medium for orchids

Nikki Phipps of GardeningKnowHow recommends that orchids be grown in moist and well-draining growing medium. Most commonly recommended media are a mixture of sphagnum peat moss, coarse perlite, fir bark, charcoal, sand and potting soil. Since most people purchase pre-potted orchids, we do not have to worry about this, until the next re-potting, which happens every other year.

3 Water infrequently

Do not ever let orchids sit in water. Its a sure shot way of letting an orchid die. Water just enough, every 20-25 days. Its actually better if you let the orchid dry out between waterings. Put your index finger into the medium about an inch deep to check for moisture. Add water if it feels dry. Another trick is to check the leaves - if they are turning yellowish or are shriveling, then the plant is not getting enough water.

4 Lighting

Orchids like medium to bright indirect light. Never put is on the window sill that receives direct sunlight. The leaves tend to dry out. Instead put it slightly indoors where it can receive some light from the east or south facing windows. Some orchids, such as the Dendrobrium, do best in bright light, but not direct sunlight. If the leaves are turning yellower, it means the orchid is getting too much light.

5 Use ice-cubes

We have reported earlier that overwatering is one of the main causes of houseplant deaths. Instead of directly pouring a can of water, put a large ice-cube, or several small ones into the container every time the plant almost dries out. The slow melting ice will give enough time for the roots to absorb the water. It will also avoid the watery mess. Just Add Ice Orchids, a seller of Phalaenopsis Orchids, recommends how much ice to add every week -- 3 ice-cubes per week.

Interesting to note however is that Orchids are exotic plants and ice-cold water can actually be harmful for them, or so says OrchidGirl in her video (bottom of this post).

6 Control light

If the plant is only producing foliage but no flowers, move it to a slightly brighter spot, but never in direct sunlight.

7 Know when orchids bloom

Orchids bloom when the difference in day and night temperatures is about 10 degrees.

8 Encourage new blooming

When all the previous blooms have died out, count the nodes along the stem and prune just above the fourth node. This is the recommended method by Roger Cook of This old house.

9 Repotting

You need to repot the plant every other year. Since you will be water infrequently, it is better to use a plastic pot, since that retains moisture well. Most importantly, you want to constrain the orchid to the smallest pot possible, never overpot them.

10 Fertilizers for orchids

Orchids need a low-phosporus fertilizer, that is applied very rarely. Maybe once every nine months. Yellowing leaves are also indicative of need for fertilizer, especially nitrogen.

11 Humidity

OrchidUsa reports that orchids need a humidity of 60-80%, to retain their blooms for longer and to maintain optimal growth. While these are conditions that typically humans find comfortable (about 40-70%), if in doubt, you can always invest in a accurate hygrometer or humidity monitor and place it near the orchids to actually measure the humidity. This could be needed in winter when the forced hot air might mean dry interiors. For regions with consistently low humidity, you can get a simple mist humidifier to remedy the situation. Alternatively, you can use the easy trick of setting the pot on a tray filled with pebbles, with just enough water to cover the pebbles.

12 Infections

Clear or watery spots are the result of bacterial infections that can be remedied by repotting, treating with a fungicide, keeping letting the plant dry out. If the leaves are turning yellow, then brown and dying, that would indicate a fungal infection. Fungal infections are typically the result of excessive humidity, cold temperatures, and over-watering. Black streaks on leaves could be a viral infection. Viral infections also lead to brown streaks on the flowers. This is time to say goodbye to the orchid plant as plants cannot be recovered from viruses. Be sure you do this quick, as the viral infection might spread to other plants in the vicinity.

13 Leaf indications

Leaves of the orchid are quite indicative of what the plant is going through. I have already written about lighting, watering, and bacterial infection issues. The tips of leaves getting burnt or turning black is the result of a fertilizer burn due to overfertilizing. Rapid, soft growth is indicative of overfertilizing.

14 Bloom indications

  • Yellowing buds that drop away quickly are indicative of extreme temperatures, insufficient light, dry air, insufficient watering, or a weak root system.
  • Flowers that do not open up fully are the result of extremely low temperatures or low humidity.
  • Insufficient light can lead to small less-vibrant flowers
  • If flowers are fading too fast, then it means that the humidity is not enough, very high or very low temperatures, inadequate watering, or a weakening root system due to pests.
  • Phosphorus deficiency can lead to very few flowers.

15 Root conditions

  • Rotten or fungi-ridden roots turn black or brown. Cut away the rotten portions
  • Pests can lead to chewed up or missing tips

16 Watch the experts

Finally, it helps to understand what the experts would do for various issues in growing orchids.

And then there is this video about the top 10 don'ts when growing orchids.

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