Orchid Care – How Do I Take Care Of An Orchid Flower (indoors and outdoors)?

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Orchids are the supermodels of the plant world - stunning and alien in appearance, delicate, graceful - a symbol of love, luxury and the deceptively powerful. Ancient Greece associated the orchid with virility and strength. In Taiwan, where the orchid is considered a feng-shui plant, business-people send Phalaenopsis as new year gifts, representing good luck and prosperity for the year to come.

There’s no surprise, then, that orchids are amongst the most highly coveted of ornamental plants. They’re one of the oldest flowering plant genera on the planet, surviving and thriving where other plants and beasts have met with their evolutionary Book of Revelations. Believe it or not, they survived the dinosaurs!

So, if all this is true, why, then, do I seem to be leaving an orchid-shaped trail of destruction behind me? If a plant can survive for millions of years, why can’t I keep a single plant flowering in my living room? There has to be something I’m doing wrong.

Out of respect for these beautiful mysteries, I opted for optimistic, making sure that my living room can be a welcome domain, not a doctor’s waiting room of dropping blooms. And I found out that caring for an orchid flower, isn’t such a trial. I’d just been doing it all wrong.

Sound familiar? Well, read on.

The Soufflé Of The Flower Kingdom

The truth of the matter is that orchids are the soufflé of the flower kingdom - the more you fuss, the more they flop. An orchid is an epiphyte. [WOAH there, Mr Technical… It just means that it’s a plant that grows on another plant. But it’s not a parasite, which damages its host by sucking up nutrients from it.

The orchid’s natural habitat is on the side of trees, on rocks, on the earth or under it [3]. They’re air plants, meaning that they receive most of what they need from the air and, as such, appreciate good air circulation around the roots. They often survive on little, so give them a little and they’ll reward you a lot.

Over-watering and over-feeding is the main reason for orchid-shaped graveyards. Don’t panic! With some arms-distance love and care, they will thrive.

What orchid do I have / should I get?

Orchids were once rare and super-expensive, but thanks to improvements in farming methods, we can all enjoy the exotic beauty of an orchid in our homes and gardens.

There are around 30,000 species of orchid and more than 100,000 registered hybrids. I can feel your blood pressure rising. Fear not! For when it comes to orchids widely available in supermarkets and garden-centres, the vast majority are either Phalaenopsis or Dendrobium. And they have simple needs!

Phalaenopsis are sometimes known as Moth Orchids and are the easiest of the orchids to care for, so are ideal for the novice grower. They have round flowers with a pronounced lip that grows on tall stalks, accompanied by fleshy, oval leaves, usually around the base of the plant.

They produce beautiful, arching spikes of 10 or more blooms and can flower as often as three times a year and can stay in bloom for months each time. The plants are beautiful but shy, so they love the shade. The strength of the plant is in its thick leaves and thick roots. Their flowers are usually white, purple or pink, or a combination thereof.

Dendrobium are often referred to as Cane Orchids. They have smaller flowers that grow in rows and clusters, arising from thicker canes than Phalaenopsis. There is often several white or purple flower clusters per plant. The leaves are narrow and emerge from the side of the cane, travelling up towards the blooms.

The leaves are the Litmus Test

Caring for an orchid is a bit like learning to care for a cat. They can’t talk to you, so you learn to recognise the signs they give off that indicate what they want. Unlike a cat, however, an orchid probably isn’t asking for food!

The leaves of an orchid plant are the Litmus Test to the plant’s happiness - you just need to know what you’re looking for.

Orchids should have bright green leaves. If they go dark green, they’re not getting enough light. Yellowing leaves mean they’re getting too much light. Too much water will make the roots rot and the leaves will turn yellow and probably drop off completely. [4]

The general rule is if the leaves are thick and fleshy, it’s a warm grower from the tropics, whilst orchids with long, thin leaves usually prefer a cooler climate.

There are 3 main ways to care for an orchid

Varieties to maintain even moisture (not wet or soggy) at all times:

Varieties requiring consistent moisture during active growth, then allowed to dry out between waters when not actively growing:

Varieties to keep nearly dry between waterings:

Don’t over-water!

Never over-water an orchid - they hate it. We're killing them with kindness, here. Treat them mean and they’ll come back keen.

Phalaenopsis generally require watering once a week during the summer. Just because the surface of the potting medium is dry, doesn’t mean that the plant needs water.

Poke your finger about an inch into the pot - if it feels moist an inch down it doesn’t need more water. A Dendrobium needs to stay consistently moist during flowering, so requires slightly more regular watering than Phalaenopsis.

Either way, the potting medium should be damp, but not soggy. Neither should it be allowed to go bone dry.

Water early in the day - you want the moisture to have dried out a little by night-time when the temperature drops to prevent rotting the roots.

Use tepid water rather than shocking the roots with really cold water straight from the tap - I mean, who really enjoys a cold shower?!

Here’s the drill -

  • Take the plant to the sink and flood the pot. Let it run out immediately - don’t let it stand in water. Orchids are grown in air-pots, affording extra oxygen to the roots - they’re slotted and the water will run straight out. Your orchid has chosen its growing medium for its excellent draining properties, so it shouldn’t become claggy and soggy. If it does, reduce the amount of time in the water.
  • After draining, leave it for a couple of minutes, then repeat for a Phalaenopsis. No need for a Dendrobium.
  • Let it rest for a couple of minutes and then return it to its growing position.

Rainwater is better than tap water - it passes through the air, absorbing dust, pollen and other organic matter, nourishing the orchid better than tap water which is usually treated with chemicals. Having said that, there is no problem with using water from the tap, so don’t worry if you don’t have a fresh collection of water from the skies.

Take care to avoid wetting the leaves (unless you’re spraying). If water gets trapped between the leaves and the stem, dry them using a piece of tissue or a cotton bud.

Watch out for damage or yellowing of the leaves which can indicate over-watering. If your orchid’s leaves start to turn yellow, hold off on the watering for a few weeks to let it recover.

The Growing Medium

The correct compost medium for an orchid is different to that of most plants around the house. They won’t enjoy the dense compost that most other plants need - it’s too nutrient rich, it holds too much moisture and they simply won't thrive.

Your orchid needs well-drained conditions, so is often planted in a mix of:

  • Redwood or fir bark
  • Sphagnum peat moss
  • Rocks
  • Corks
  • Charcoal
  • Sand and potting soil

Whatever your orchid is growing in, it needs to be light, not dense, and free draining.

Don’t panic! Orchid growing medium (sometimes known as Orchid Repotting Compost) is widely available, and you’ll only need more when it comes to repotting.

Has It Grown Out Of Its Home

Don’t repot your plant whilst it’s in bloom. Moving’s a disruptive time for us all, and none of us want to be disturbed when we’re at our most fabulous!

If the roots start to grow outside of the pot, it’s not necessarily a sign that the plant needs repotting - it’s actually a good sign - you’re doing things right! Dendrobiums prefer a small pot - it can give the plant quite a top-heavy appearance. As a rule, Phalaenopsis should be repotted every one to two years.

The texture of the potting medium will tell you when to repot. Old compost will start to break down and become compacted - look out for this. Compacted compost will hold too much moisture and start to suffocate the roots. When you repot, wash the old compost from the roots before working the new medium gently and firmly around the roots.

Healthy Phalaenopsis roots should be a healthy green colour - whiter towards the top of the soil. If the roots look brown or soft, they’re sitting in too much water. Roots that are grayish-white are not getting enough water. There’s a reason why the pot is clear!

Never “over-pot” - give the plants just enough room for the following year’s growth.

How Do I feed My Beauties

Feeding is utter simplicity! Have you ever heard the expression “weakly, weekly”? Well, that’s the mantra for feeding an orchid.

Luckily, there are loads of orchid feeds on the market, so you don’t need to worry too much about mixing potions. Follow the instructions on the bottle. The general opinion is a diluted fertilizer (1/4 strength) for 3 weeks out of 4. Don’t worry if you lose count. Too little is better than too much.

Finding The Right Spot 

Finding the right spot for an orchid plant is essential. If you give it a loving home, sensitive to its needs, it will love you back for years. Dendrobiums are more light-tolerant than Phalaenopsis and can stand some direct sunlight in the mornings, but both will benefit from shade away from direct sunlight.

Phalaenopsis and Dendrobiums are warm growers, so find a well lit window, preferably facing east or west. Situating your orchid out of direct sunlight is usually a good idea, so behind a net curtain that will filter some of the sun’s rays is beneficial.

Keep it somewhere that doesn’t have an extreme drop in temperature at night, so it’s probably best not to leave it in front of an open window.

They do best when the temperature is between 65-75ºF / 18-23ºC which is your average house temperature (unless you’re a vampire or a student) but will still cope happily at 60ºF / 15ºC. A lower night temperature will often encourage a dormant plant to burst into flower in the Fall. Around 55-60ºF / 13-15ºC at night is perfect.

The pot benefits from sitting on a bed of constantly wet pebbles to boost the humidity - keep any water away from the roots, though, as constant contact with water will rot them.

Pruning

When flowering is finished (or perhaps when there’s just a couple of blooms remaining), trim off the spike to 1 inch from just above the first node on the main spike stem. There will be a little bump in the stem - that’s the node.

If the spike has already died off and gone brown, trim that off as well. This pruning treatment will encourage a new spike to grow and new flowers to develop.

Every now and then, a flower bud will develop into a small plant with roots. This is the height of good luck and can be cut away from the plant and replanted. It might take a couple of years, but this baby plant should flower.

What about growing an orchid outside?

The outside can be an unpredictable place for any plant - but when you really give it some thought, they evolved in the outside so, if the climate is right, why on earth wouldn’t they thrive in the open air?

The Cymbidium is a genus that does particularly well outside. It’s a cool-growing orchid and does best in temperatures of 50-65ºF / 10-18ºC. It enjoys being outside for the summer, but keep it out of full sun and in a relatively sheltered area where it won’t get drenched in wet weather.

A good place for Cymbidium is in a conservatory or a cool greenhouse, with plenty of air-flow to prevent over-heating. Like most plants, if you’re bring them in during the winter and take them outside during the spring and summer, you need to harden them off each time. Stand the plants outside towards the end of May until the middle of September. Humidity should be between 50% and 75% - if your natural climate isn’t that wet, try the pebble trick described earlier.

Have they seen the light?

Cymbidium can take fairly strong light but they do best in 50% shade during the summer to prevent leaf burn. If growing outside, early morning sun is fine, but they need shade by midday. Mad Dogs and the Englishmen might stay out in the midday sun - you’re orchids don’t!

Find a spot that is shaded by 11am and you’re laughing.

Watering Outside

Keep the compost constantly moist (but not wet). As with other orchids, watering once a week is usually fine, but twice a week might be required during a particularly hot summer. Don’t let the compost dry out. Water in the morning and whenever possible, use rainwater. Fertlize as indoor orchids.

Conclusion

So, what have we learned?

Hopefully you’ll be able to take that orchid into your open arms and know that it’s going to be in safe hands. Never again will you accept the gift of an orchid with the dread of the serial killer.

It’s all pretty straightforward, really. Ensure that you find the right spot in the home for your plant, recognise the signs if things aren’t going well, water frugally, feed weakly weekly, and your plant will love you back with displays of blooming affection that will bring natural serenity to your home and garden for years to come.

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