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How to Care for a Phalaenopsis Orchid

Amber is a single mom on a fixed income, a couponer, a DIYer, and an accounting student who knows the value of her pennies.

Get advice for how to care for a Phalaenopsis or moth orchid, as well as what not to do.

Get advice for how to care for a Phalaenopsis or moth orchid, as well as what not to do.

Learning About Orchid Care the Hard Way

My first experience with orchids was not a good one. The plant was in poor shape when I got it—no, it was in terrible shape—and despite all of my efforts to save it, it shriveled up and died.

But then, I purchased two more dying ones from Walmart. That time, I only killed one of them. So it was a pretty steep learning curve for me.

I learned tons about care and cultivation along the way, and my surviving orchid eventually put out a spike for me. I can't tell you how excited I was to see what color my blooms would be.

Terra-cotta pot and sphagnum moss:  Certain death.

Terra-cotta pot and sphagnum moss: Certain death.

The Ugly Truth About Retail Orchids

Everybody's seen the orchids in the big box stores. They always look so beautiful, blooming out of season. They seem to sell, but I don't too often see orchids doing well in homes. I hear a lot of people say they bought one and it died two months later. Then the orchid is blamed for being "fussy" or "difficult."

What good would it do the big box store to sell a plant that is set up for success? If everyone who brought an orchid home put it on his or her shelf and had a beautiful plant that bloomed every year, the big box store might not sell more orchids. And, in my point of view, they charge way too much. The containers are usually the most expensive part of the package.

What to Look for When Buying an Orchid

One thing that is very important to remember when you're purchasing an orchid from a big box store (although greenhouses and local sellers usually do a better job of selling a plant that will survive) is to make sure your plant is healthy. Make sure there are no dead flowers or leaves laying in the medium; they rot and cause disease.

How to Check the Roots

Before you decide on a particular plant, lift the sphagnum and dig gently into the pot.

  • If the roots are plump and green (or silverish) in colour, you have a healthy root system.
  • If they are, on average, yellow and a little mushy, you might salvage the plant. Don't pay more than 25% of what the store is asking for it, though; you may just end up with a pot in the end.
  • If the roots are brown and mushy or the crown is black, you will not save the plant. It's already gone.
Unhealthy roots: These are not the roots you want to bring home.

Unhealthy roots: These are not the roots you want to bring home.

Healthy roots: This looks better!

Healthy roots: This looks better!

Repotting Your Orchid

There are ongoing debates as to whether you should repot your orchid as soon as you get home. There are pros and cons to doing it immediately:


  • An orchid's roots are green because they perform photosynthesis. They need sunlight and air just as much as they need water and nutrients.
  • Sphagnum moss harbours tons of bacteria and diseases.
  • Sphagnum moss stays wet for a long time. This can lead to root rot and asphyxiation.


  • You will lose your buds. If conditions are favourable, however, you may get a new spike.

Why Is Sphagnum Moss Bad for Orchids?

Orchids don't survive long when they're in sphagnum moss because it totally chokes them out. As mentioned above, the roots need sunlight and air to thrive. If you want to keep your orchid in sphag (not recommended by many growers), make sure to loosen it up a lot. Orchids like to dry out between waterings, but sphag likes to stay wet for weeks.

What Medium Is Best for Orchids?

The best medium I've read about seems to be a mixture of coconut husks and coarse bark. I use a commercial orchid mix, and my plants love it. I've heard styrofoam popcorn works well, too, in wetter areas. Who'd have thought styrofoam would be beneficial to plants?

I've read books and seen people on TV talk about using a well-draining cactus soil and orchid bark mix. I see it being beneficial because orchids are hungry little guys and cactus soil has more nutrients than bark mix, but again you're using something that is going to stay wet for too long and is going to restrict air flow from the roots.

Should You Trim Dead Roots and Spikes?

I've heard controversy about trimming dead roots. Some people do it to stop rot and disease; some (myself included) leave them in case they aren't dead. I also leave them for anchoring purposes. I do trim my dead spikes, as they are no longer doing anything for the plant.

What's the Best Pot?

Now let's talk about pots.

Orchids are often sold in terra-cotta and glass pots with no drainage. That isn't good for any plant. When you pick a pot, keep in mind that your roots need the sunlight and proper airflow. I like clear plastic. I got a pack of ten pots for $5.00 or so from Lee Valley. The have slits all the way around from top to bottom. They work beautifully.

There are some plastic nets you can use. I've heard great success stories. There are terra-cotta pots at Walmart labeled as "Orchid Pots," but I wouldn't recommend them because they only have one puny drainage hole in the bottom and don't allow proper air flow.

Other Requirements for Moth Orchids: Light, Humidity, Food, and Water

Below are some other care considerations for growing a healthy Phalaenopsis.


Phalaenopsis Orchids like bright filtered light. You will know if you have them in too much sun because their leaves actually sunburn.


I grow my Orchids in a greenhouse with a relative humidity between 65 and 90% depending on the time of day. A humidity tray works just as well. I've even used a topping of Fat Bog Moss on the orchid bark to increase humidity. My Phal really liked it.


I feed with regular fertilizer (10-15-10) once a month (orchid bark doesn't have much for nutrients in it) through the slow-growth season (September to March). During the active growth season (from the time she spikes until the flowers die), I use an orchid fertilizer (25-10-10) once a month.


What works for me may not work for you. I live in a harsh climate (Growing zone 2a), so I have to water often. There is also ongoing debate as to whether soaking is a good idea or not. I soak mine once a week (about 20 min) and spritz with a spray bottle daily.

Yay!  With a little patience, a steep learning curve, and the death of poor Daniella, my little Diana spiked for me.

Yay! With a little patience, a steep learning curve, and the death of poor Daniella, my little Diana spiked for me.

How Do You Propagate Orchids?

Unfortunately, you can't propagate an orchid with a cutting. It is necessary to pollinate the plant to get a baby plant (or keiki.)

I can't explain how to pollinate, so I will let this gentleman do it for me:

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: After all flowers have fallen off my orchid, do I cut off the stem?

Answer: Wait until the stem is dead and dried up. Your plant is re absorbing the nutrients through it.

Question: Should I use ice cubes to water my orchid?

Answer: No, save your ice cubes for your cocktails.


Daph on September 13, 2014:

I have cut the stems above the second nodules however the ends have just dried up and haven't produced any new growth. Can anyone tell me how to fix this so I can get it to flower again. Thanks in advance.

Amber Joy (author) from Canada on October 06, 2012:

Thank you!

Don't give up! They're probably just holding a grudge against you for leaving them out, and they LOVE to test your patience. Happy growing!

rutley from South Jersey on October 06, 2012:

Love it and thank you. Left mine outside for a bit, storm came and that was the end of the flowers. I'm still holding out hope for future ones!

Great hub, good pics and good info!

Amber Joy (author) from Canada on September 13, 2012:

Oh if I could get my hands on some mature Nepenthes I'd be the happiest girl in the world.

I brought my venus fly trap home today (against my husbands advice... good thing he is a forgiving man). This will be my second. I lost my first when my roommate fed it hamburger.

I have some Prism seeds in the green house now. I'll definitely be putting a hub together if anything happens.

Nettlemere from Burnley, Lancashire, UK on September 13, 2012:

I've be interested to hear how you do with the carnivores. I completely failed with venus fly traps, but had more success with nepenthes. Unfortunately lost it a couple of years ago in a harsh winter when it got too cold in my house.

Amber Joy (author) from Canada on September 13, 2012:

You're going to love your new pots. It was the best thing I did for mine. Unfortunately, our harsh climate makes growing exotic houseplants a challenge, so I can't just go to the gardening store and buy those pots. I have to find an online supplier soon, Diana's about to crawl right out of her pot and find a new home. If it wasn't so dry here I'd probably try mounting them.

Next conquest: Carnivores!

Nettlemere from Burnley, Lancashire, UK on September 12, 2012:

Having read your hub I went out and brought proper clear orchid pots for them all (only one of them originally came in a clear pot. I've had to move them nearer the window too - it's been such a dismal summer here that the leaves were losing colour (which has never happened before).

I'm sure your will repay you with a great display eventually now that they are growing vigorously and well cared for.

Amber Joy (author) from Canada on September 12, 2012:

You are doing better than I am; my phals have not spiked yet. I didn't expect them to with the condition they were in when I brought them home. Their roots and leaves are growing like crazy....but I'm still impatiently waiting for flowers.

Nettlemere from Burnley, Lancashire, UK on July 31, 2012:

my least successful is a zygopetallum because that hasn't flowered again since I got it. I also have a phalaenopsis which flowers every year and another one with strappy reed like leaves - forgotten its name, but it flowers most years.

Amber Joy (author) from Canada on July 26, 2012:

Thanks! I'm glad someone found it useful! Now, like a true Orchid Geek, I'm going to ask you how many and what kind?

Nettlemere from Burnley, Lancashire, UK on July 25, 2012:

Really interesting to read how you got both plants from looking like dismal doomed to die orchids to lovely and healthy and sprouting new leaves. I am going to follow some of your tips with my orchids.