Orchid Care

Question: My son and his wife gave me a beautiful live orchid for Christmas. I have to admit I’ve never been much with houseplants though I do quite well gardening outside. How do I take care of an orchid?

Answer: Since you received your orchid as a gift, there’s a great chance it’s a type of Phaleanopsis (also known as moth orchid) or Cattelya orchid. These are the types often offered for sale in winter. The latter blooms naturally around the holidays, triggered by cooler temperatures and shorter days. Moth orchid can bloom several times a year, though their main bloom time is late winter.

Generally, these kinds of orchids like bright light, high humidity and regular water.

Watering: Orchids like water, but if their roots are constantly wet they will rot. So let the pot dry out slightly between waterings. Before watering, test the potting mix by poking a toothpick, pencil or even your finger about an inch deep. If it comes out with dark, damp bits stuck to it, you don’t need to water. Pay attention to the weight of the plant/pot, too. Eventually you’ll be able to tell just by picking it up whether it needs water or not. (The lighter it is, the drier it is.)

Humidity: The air inside homes can be very dry, especially in winter, and orchids don’t appreciate dry air. To increase the humidity around your plant, stand it on a tray of pebbles and water. Make sure the bottom of the pot rests on top of the pebbles,and doesn’t dip into the water, which could lead to the potting mix drawing up water and rotting the roots. You can also try misting the air around the plant each day, or keeping it in a bathroom or near the kitchen sink, if the light there is appropriate.

Light: These types of orchids like bright light with some direct sun. Avoid placing them where they’ll get direct sun at midday, when the light is strongest. An east or west window is best, or a south window that gets some shade from outdoor objects (trees, a building) or has a sheer curtain across it.

Keep an eye out for pests, especially mealybugs. The American Orchid Society recommends controlling mealybugs and other soft-bodied insect pests with one teaspoon of Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Soap (or other castile soap) mixed in one quart of water. Apply with a hand sprayer every other day.

If your orchid didn’t come staked, you’ll probably want to stake it so its flowers stand up better for display. Just insert a length of staking into the potting medium, close to the plant’s base, and tie the flower stalk to it at even intervals, using something soft, such as strips of cloth or lengths of yarn.

Source: the American Orchid Society. Visit their website for much more information about orchids, for beginners to advanced growers.

Scared of orchids? Try cacti. Here’s a great reference: The Complete Guide to Cacti and Succulents.

Our $5 Houseplants Techniques includes illustrations on repotting a moth orchid.

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9 thoughts on “Orchid Care

  1. The ice is a way of keeping people from overwatering. Most people will kill the orchids with overwatering. I take mine to the sink and set them in water and then let them drain thoroughly. You should be able to pick them up and know by their weight that they need water. Most need bright filtered light and fertizer about once a month.

  2. Good article but it would be more credible if Phalaenopsis and Cattleya were spelled correctly. It would still be easy to find them in the plant encyclopedia – they were only one letter off.

  3. I’ve had numerous orchids over the past five years. My understanding is that an orchid will bloom only once a year, so don’t be discouraged! I give my seven plants an occasional shot of orchid food when watering. Does any one know any thing about a Vanilla Planifolia Variegata (vanilla bean orchid)? Mine grows very slowly on a tiny trellis (tells you how much it’s grown in three years). It’s a real effort to keep it from drying out and dying. Thanks for any help.

    • Carol, when I go on vacation for a week or ten days, I “bag” my orchids in large clear plastic bags, with a twist tie top~ and they seem so happy and are always doing very well when I return. Perhaps your vanilla bean orchid would like a litle vacation “bagged” and you could rest from worrying for ten days or so. Actually though~ all the instruction books say orchids need ventilation and fresh air, so I wouldn’t leave him in there indefinitely.

  4. the bark mix may make a difference with the ice method. i have an orchid that came in a bark media with the ice instructions(came from a grocery). I’ve other orchids in bark without those instructions and others in moss media. I’ve iced them at various times and not at others. Don’t seem to notice a difference.

    • I have one of the just-add-ice orchids also; have had it a little over a year. I repotted it a month or two ago, and trimmed off the spent bloom stalks. I have yet to see any new bloom stalks form, and it currently sits below a west-facing bay window in my living room. Perhaps I need to raise it to window-level so it gets some direct sunlight? Any thoughts welcome.

      • I have two of the Phaleanopsis orchids. I think they only bloom once or twice a year. The owner of a local flower shop told me that the orchids need to get a little cool for a while, and then warm up, and that can trigger them to bloom.

        I am totally making this idea up: Do orchids respond to the light/dark cycles the same way other plants do? I have an orchid that my husband gave me for Valentine’s day, and it is just now sending up a flower stalk. Maybe you could try to remember when it last bloomed for you, and try to manipulate the length of darkness it is experiencing?

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