How to Care for a Phalaenopsis Orchid
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.
The Retail Truth
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Should You Cut Off the Dead Orchids?
You can deadhead your flowers, but I've heard arguments that the plant re-absorbs nutrients through them. Cut the spike back to the closest node, and a new spike can form.
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.
Light, Humidity, Food, Water, Etc.
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.
Food and Water:
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. 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.
The rule of green thumb with orchids is: You can water too much, but never too often. Meaning you can over-soak them, or if your pot and medium do not allow adequate drainage, you can drown the roots. But if you take it to the tap and run tepid water over it every day, chances are, you won't kill it. If you still want to know how to develop a watering schedule, put a bamboo skewer into the pot. If it's dry when you pull it out, it's time to water.
Unfortunately, you can't propogate 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:
- Orchid pollination: How to Hand-Pollinate Phalaenopsis Orchids
How to pollinate Phalaenopsis and other orchids in the greenhouse.
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.