By Carol Allen, Orchid Specialist
I was in an upscale nursery the other day and I overheard two women talking….
“Oh my gosh! Look how beautiful those orchids are!” One woman gushed to her companion.
Her friend replied, “I always kill them. How do you suppose people do it?”
“No, get them to bloom again!”
Never one to be shy, I broke in on their conversation. You see, I am passionate about orchids and I take great delight in turning orchid killers into orchid growers. Blooming orchids? EASY! ….as one, two, three!
Start with the right orchid for your conditions. The most common orchid found in nurseries is the Moth Orchid (Phalaenopsis). Fortunately this is one of the most responsive orchids to grow on a windowsill.
Now here is the one, two, three…..
Number one: Sunlight! For growing and blooming Moth Orchids in the Mid-Atlantic States, they need direct sun. An east facing window that receives one to two hours of direct sun is perfect. Filtered (like through a shear curtain) south or west will also work, but you want to bathe the plant in very, very bright light for at least half of the day. If you have low-e glass, south or west is probably preferred. The light should be bright enough on a sunny day to make you squint.
Number two: Proper watering. Always make sure your orchid is in a container that drains. Standing in water – in the bottom of a cache pot, saucer, or in pebbles is a no, no! Florist presentations in glass cubes or bowls are recipes for disaster and the plant rarely lives to see a second blooming unless soon repotted into a pot with drainage holes.
Proper watering is a two-step technique. First you need to identify the type of potting medium and second you need to apply a sufficient quantity of water such that the potting medium is adequately moistened. The type of potting medium makes a tremendous difference in how often you water your orchid. Once a week no matter what is not correct!
Most Moth Orchids found today are potted in a golden, mossy substance. This substance is a species of tropical sphagnum moss and when an orchid is properly potted, it is nearly a perfect growing environment. However watering is a bit tricky. You must allow the top half-inch (in a 5” – 6” diameter pot) to go crunchy dry and I mean really, really crunchy dry. The top of the moss will no longer be soft and in the typical home, ten to fourteen days will have gone by. …and that’s O.K.
If your potted orchid is in a coarse bark material that looks something like mulch, then watering every 5 – 7 days is good. Unfortunately in this type of medium it is very difficult to tell when it is wet or it is dry. You will have to remember when you watered last and while the medium is great for growing in the greenhouse, it is not so great for growing in the home.
Sometimes Moth Orchids are potted in a combination of fine peat moss and bark chips. In this combination, when it is dry to the touch one half inch deep, it is time to water.
When you water you want to water thoroughly and deeply. Take the potted orchid to the sink and allow a moderate stream of tepid water to run through the pot. Run the water around the entire surface of the medium. Continue to allow the water to run for a full minute by the clock. The pot will have gone from relatively light in weight to profoundly heavy. If in doubt, run more water into the potting medium. Allow to drain for a few minutes and then return it to the windowsill. Blot out the center where the leaves join so there is no standing water there either!
Number three: Re-potting! ….as soon as it is out of bloom it needs to be re-potted! Gone are the days when a houseplant came from the grower happily re-potted and ready to go for another year or so! Plant production facilities produce a plant that is appealing to the customer’s eye. Consumers are no longer content to grow their own, so plants come to market overgrown in their pots. This is particularly applicable to orchids. Orchids are grown to be admired for a few weeks or months and then thrown out, just like poinsettias and florist mums.
When you buy your new orchid the potting medium will have already composted and degraded. Orchids complicate matters further by being very sensitive to salt build up in the medium. The salts come from fertilizers and our regular tap water. Salts prevent normal root growth and will burn existing roots. For these reasons, it is imperative to repot your new orchid as soon as it is out of bloom.
That sounds so ominous! If orchids are so delicate, why should I even attempt to grow them?
Because they are not delicate, but are rather tough customers that will survive even poor conditions! But you want them to not just survive, but grow bigger and bloom even more every year! And that is as simple as one, two, three!
I started on my orchid journey when I was barely a teenager and went on to enjoy excellent tutelage from an orchid curator at the United States Botanic Garden in the 1980’s. More recently I returned to school, attended the University of Maryland, and achieved a Bachelor of Science degree in plant science.
Holding orchid diagnostic and re-potting clinics was an idea I had when I was managing partner at a local orchid firm in the 1990’s. Since those days I have repotted too many orchids to count and have guided thousands of ‘just folks’ to successfully grow and bloom their own orchids.
So come on down and visit me at one of the orchid clinics! Bring a few of your orchids (preferably out of bloom) and let me show you how to amaze your friends and neighbors with your orchid blooms!