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.
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.