Why are we so good at killing orchids?
We’ve all been there. Fascinated by the beauty and elegance of the orchid, we decide to bring one home and place it in our fancy foyer (pronounced the French way, of course). We think it’ll be different this time, the orchids will survive, we have the gardening knack to keep these needy flowers alive. And we do keep them alive, for a few weeks we are able to bask in their splendor and majesty, dream of royalty and grace, and then slowly watch them die as we fumble in our care for the special needs of the orchid.
The Orchidaceae family has over 22,000 species of orchids and it’s the world’s largest flowering plant family. There seem to be equally as many people in every town who try to care for these beautiful and indignant plants and fail to keep them thrive and alive. So what’s the deal, why is it so hard to care for them?
Know Thy Orchid
There are many different types of orchids, and you must know what you’re dealing with. There are Mystacidium caffrums and the Renanthera storei, some orchids produce blossoms that are no bigger than a mosquito and some flowers are as large as your face. Some orchids bloom once a year and others bloom several times a year. See? There is tons of variance within the orchid family, so it’s important to know what you’re dealing with in order to set your expectations right.
Phalaenopsis: The Orchid Houseplant
While I talked about the immense variety within the orchid family, there remains one popular houseplant variety and she is the phalaenopsis. Also known as the moth orchid, this most popular orchid houseplant should usually last 3 months, however, when they fade you can usually goat the stem to sprout again.
But many people find that their poor orchids die within weeks of their arrival. Why?
First and foremost, let’s look at their special needs.
The phalaenopsis orchid is an epiphyte, which means that they grow in bark crevices in forest trees. They survive on rain or mist and their nourishment comes from debris in the tree bark. This means that their sparse roots are important for absorbing nutrients as well as clinging for life on their tree home.
In order for your orchid to survive, you need to make it believe it lives in a tropical forest. This means a minimum of 60 degrees Fahrenheit, adequate humidity, and light.
In you want to boost humidity, spray rainwater on the leaves (not the flowers!) during the spring and summer, and always make sure the water is room temperature. Some experts feel misting is unnecessary, whereas some believe it to be pertinent. This is for you to figure out and decide for yourself. In the winter, move your orchid closer to an east or west-facing window and the extra sunlight will help encourage flowering.
And while you may think the biggest cause of death to an orchid is underwatering, it’s actually OVERwatering which causes most casualties. In order to avoid this, make sure the orchid is able to dry out in between waterings and do not cram the roots in moist or wet compost! They will die, I promise you.
To aid in the effort of not overwatering, use slatted containers or perforated orchid pots and allow the roots to poke in the air. This prevents them from being constantly soaked in water.
Quantity and frequency are also important when watering your orchids, so pay lots of attention. Orchids should be watered just as they dry out, and watering them around once a week should suffice. However, the best way to know when to water your orchid is to touch the soil and feel if it’s dry or not.
Feeding Your Orchid
Humans eat at least three times a day, gathering energy from our food and nutrients to keep us strong and healthy (hopefully, if you aren’t eating Doritos all day). Plants need to eat too, so don’t forget to fertilize your precious darlings, especially the orchid! You should feed them a balanced fertilizer, one that is 20-20-20 and includes all the necessary trace elements. You can find a good fertilizer here.
How often should you feed your orchids? Experienced growers often feed them weekly, and regardless of the fertilizer you use, make sure they don’t contain urea. HOWEVER, do not overfeed them! Apply a diluted 1/4 strength fertilizer each time you water them, rather than applying a full dose once a month. Slow and steady wins the orchid race, so slow the feeding down to 1/4 the strength and do it more often. They will thank you later. Another pro tip is to water your plants first and then fertilize them. If you feed them while dry, the fertilizer may burn the roots. Not fun.
Orchids need light, a lot of light. Without it, they may produce a lot of lush looking, fabulous growths but no flowers. What a letdown! Not enough light is the number one reason why orchids fail to bloom, so don’t shy away from providing your beautiful plants with enough light to let them shine.
But how much light is enough light? Well, just watch and see. Orchids can take a lot of light, and they will do well with as much light as possible without burning. So for you, it’s a wait-and- see game. The foliage should be dark and leafy and lush, and if there isn’t sufficient light they will have somewhat yellow-green foliage. The best kind of light is bright, with indirect sun.
Many people overlook the importance of the air quality in their home, but it’s immensely important. The roots of the orchid and eventually the entire plant will die off if they don’t get air, so it’s extremely important that you don’t suffocate the roots. Orchid pots should be left open with great drainage and should be capable of holding enough moisture to support the plant’s needs.
Another way to provide good air is to have a fan going in order to have some gentle yet consistent movement of the air.
Another important aspect to keeping your orchids healthy and thriving is their soil and get it right the first time so you don’t suffer burying your orchids week after week. A loose mix of pine bark or sphagnum peat moss will tend to do the trick. A more densely packed moss will take longer to dry out, so you won’t have to water as often and can take a two week trip to Cabo San Lucas without begging your neighbor, Nancy, to water them.
Cutting The Nodes
Once your flowers have finished blooming, make sure to cut them just above the node in order to promote a new flowering stem, it will appear in a few weeks if you have been doing a good job as a parent to your orchid plant. However, constant blooming will stress the orchid out, so the subsequent blooms will be fewer and smaller. Don’t worry, this is normal.
Where to Buy Good Quality Orchids
If you rely on grocery store shelves to provide you with quality orchids, think again. They are usually kept too cold and are displayed too close to produce which give off ethylene gas which can cause the orchid blooms to age prematurely. Who knew, right?
What you should be looking for are fleshy and live roots, and leaves that are green and have a central growth stem which is upright. Don’t buy plants with yellowing tips to the flowering stem or with buds which are falling off. Choose an orchid that has begun to flower, not just made of buds.
Orchids may be difficult to care for, but they shouldn’t be a pain. Have fun with these beauties, and enjoy the process of caring for and enjoying these precious plants. Additionally, enjoy bragging to friends and family how you are able to keep orchids alive and well without much hassle or hardship. Follow the quick step guide below to help aid in your orchid growing glory!
Good luck, plant nerds!