An Orchid Rescue

The first step in becoming a better plants woman was admitting that when it comes to indoor plants I am all black thumbs. The second step was knowing I needed a little instruction. Which begs the question, if I am less than successful with indoor plants, why do I continue to buy them?  Several months back, on a dreary day, I was seduced by the warmth, the soft music and the table of orchids at my local organic grocery store. I ignored the little voice in my head that said, if you bring that orchid home it is doomed!

Mark House takes a closer look at the orchid.

For a few weeks the orchid, a Phalaenopsis, bloomed and brought a bit of cheer to the kitchen. It was surviving, or more likely living on borrowed time. I feared I was pushing my luck with the orchid and knew that the only way to secure its future was to turn to an expert for help.  Lucky for me Mark House, plant expert, Horticulture teacher, orchid whisperer and assistant manager of Cincinnati’s Krohn Conservatory offered to take a look at my orchid and give me a crash course in orchid care.

At first pass my orchid was given a clean bill of health (I was so proud and shocked). But when Mark took a closer look he discovered an issue that many first-time orchid owners experience; my orchid was beginning to rot.  As Mark carefully removed the orchid from its pot, he kindly pointed out that plastic was not the ideal container and suggested we transfer the orchid to a clay pot. As the bark chips fell away from the plant, the potential demise of my plant was revealed; rotting roots.
Orchid growers often use plastic pots and moss to reduce shipping costs.  Over time the moss decomposes and turns to soil. Soil is a death sentence for orchids that are at home in tree canopies. After sterilizing the pruners, Mark made quick work of removing the rotting roots; taking care not to disturb the healthy roots and leaves. Next step was to cut back the flower stem to a node closest to the plant.

Here's the issue, rotting roots.

Many orchids bloom from the tip of their flower stem, so with each bloom cycle the stem becomes longer and longer; rather dramatic in the right setting but not practical in a kitchen window over a sink. Mark then planted my orchid in a clay pot with Fir Bark and secured the plant with a simple metal tie. The orchid had been saved!  
A few tips for growing orchids.
* Single stemmed orchids are ideal for first time orchid growers. Unlike orchids that grow by sending out a runner, then a new plant, then a runner, then a new plant (you get the picture) Phalanenopis has a single stem so it will stay nicely centered in a pot.
* Carefully repot your new orchid in a clay pot with a mixture of Fir Bark and charcoal (3:1). The charcoal will help remove unwanted chemicals in the water and Fir Bark will allow for much needed air circulation.
* Water your newly potted orchid three times. Fir Bark is hydrophobic and must be generously moistened several times before it will begin to absorb water. Remember, do not let your orchid sit in water, simply water thoroughly and let excess water drain freely from the pot.
* Feed twice a month with half strength fertilizer. Be certain to water thoroughly between feedings to allow salts to leach out of the pot.
* Do not let you orchid sit in water. (This is worth mentioning twice.) Even water in a saucer can keep the roots too damp, leading to rot.
* Orchid roots have a thin outer sheath. Water is stored between the white sheath and the body of the root. These roots can be easily damaged, so treat with care.

Cleaning out rotting roots.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of how to care for orchids, but it covers the basics.

Jenny Koester, AKA The Landless Gardener, is the Garden Blog Editor for Horticulture magazine and the author of The Garden Life and A Year in the Park.

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3 thoughts on “An Orchid Rescue

  1. Most orchids thrive on a bit of healthy neglect. As a novice orchid grower I pampered them to death. Then I got some more, happened to neglect them a bit and was shocked to find them blooming their heads off! Of course, it helps that I garden in the tropics (all the easier to rot, my dear)but that’s the way I grow my orchids now. Tie them onto trees and don’t fuss further. Incidentally, you could try growing your phalaenopsis orchid that way too. Tie it onto driftwood or a rough slab of wood and watch it take off. Since phals are epiphytic this method suits them really well.

    • I think we could all use more plants that thrive with neglect. As our gardening urge grows, so does our plant collections. Plants that can stand on their own are always a good find! – Jenny AKA The Landless Gardener

  2. A very big ‘Thank You!’ to Mark House for sharing is time and knowledge. If you live in the Cincinnati area, be sure to visit Krohn Conservatory soon, located in beautiful Eden Park. ~ Jenny

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