Yes, you CAN grow orchids

June 6 | Guest post by Derek Powazek

Derek's last post, "You already have a green thumb, or how to grow houseplants," was such a hit that we've brought him back for more houseplant empowerment. This post is syndicated from his blog, Plantgasm. -Ariel

Whenever I mention my orchids — even to plant-lovers like me — they almost always say, "oh, I can't grow orchids." But you can! Orchids are just plants, and like all plants, they need light, water, and a little attention.

If you've ever brought an orchid home only to have it die on you, don't feel bad – the deck was stacked against you. It takes years for a young (usually cloned) orchid to get to blooming size. That means the plant has been living its whole life in nearly perfect conditions. Growers know what they're doing, after all.

Most orchids won't sell when they're not in flower, so the plants are grown until they bloom, then they're shipped to stores. The blooming process puts stress on the plant to begin with. Add to that the enormous stress of being thrust out into the world, put in a less-than-ideal environment for the first time, sitting in a store getting poked at, and then finally coming home with you. It's no wonder people think orchids always die the moment you bring them home.

But it doesn't have to be that way! Here are a few tips I've learned for buying and caring for orchids.

Rhynchostylis

  • Buy orchids from places where people know how to take care of them. I've bought perfectly happy orchids from hardware stores, but that's a risky move. Better to buy them from sellers that understand them or have grown them. And if you buy direct from the grower, you can skip the stress plants experience in a store. (I highly recommend Norman's Orchids and Hai'ku Maui Orchids.)
  • Buy plants that are "in spike," meaning they've started the blooming process, but have not yet opened a flower. This way you'll get the plant into a good spot before the major blooming stress (good for the plant), and you'll get to see the whole blooming process (good for you). Plants bought with a stalk full of open flowers may keep them for a little while, but you've already missed half the fun.
  • Understand that orchids are epiphytes, which means they grow attached to other plants in nature. They were designed to hold tight to tree trunks in the rainforest. They were not designed to sit in soil. That's why they like a loose bark, which is basically just to keep them from falling over and hold a little moisture. Never, ever plant an orchid in regular potting soil. And remember, loose bark can turn into soil after a few years, so change out the old bark for fresh stuff once a year when the plant is not flowering. And make sure the roots get plenty of air – put them in pots with lots of side holes. (If you're looking for pots or medium, I recommend rePotme.)
  • Remember that orchids want to live in jungles, and jungles don't have air conditioning. If you live in a house with air conditioning, put your orchid out of the cold breeze. Similarly, they usually live beneath the forrest canopy, which means that they like indirect light. Don't let your orchid bake in direct sun for too long. (Tip: Check the leaves. If they have brown spots, move the plant away from the window.)
  • Do you have to mist? Not really. Some say it helps increase air humidity, which orchids do like. But a better way to increase humidity is to use a humidity tray. Just place a wide dish below the plant and fill it with some rocks (to raise the pot out of the water) and then fill it with water. The water then evaporates up, humidifying the plant all day. If your bathroom gets good light, try an orchid in there! They'll love the humidity.
  • Do you have to feed them? Occasionally. I use Norman's Optimal Orchid Nutrients once a month or so. Different kinds of orchids require different amounts of feeding, and even the same plant will need more or less nutrients depending on the season (generally more in summer, less in winter). Overfeeding can be worse than not feeding at all, so be conservative.
  • Finally, remember that orchids are as diverse as the plant kingdom itself. Some like bright light, some like barely any. Some grow in sand, some like moss. They're all different. I find Phalaenopsis particularly easy to care for, so I'd suggest starting there. But no matter what you get, remember there are people out here who want to help! So find out the name of yours, pop it into Google, and see what you learn. You'll be amazed by how much info is out there.

That's all I've got (and far more than I had when I started). Give it a try! If you have any questions, feel free to ask me on Twitter.

PS: Jodi DeLong has a great post on growing Phalaenopsis orchids.

  1. I've been able to keep orchids alive for years but never able to get them to bloom again. Maybe I was only doing enough of these steps to keep it from death but not completely healthy?

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    • I'm in a similar boat! I managed to keep my orchid alive for a few months now and it was in bloom all that time. A few weeks ago, the flowers dried up and fell off and the plant shows no sign of blooming again. On the other hand it doesn't show any signs of being ill; the leaves are still sturdy and vibrant green. I'm not sure what's going on with it.

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      • Most Orchids that I have encountered only bloom once a year, if the plant looks healthy then your good to go! Just keep taking care of it the way you have been. Some orchids, (mine are all Paphiopedilum) like a little more light when not in bloom. Also decreasing the temperature by 5 to 10 degrees during the night for a few weeks or months might entice them to bloom.

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      • It sometimes takes more than a year for an orchid to bloom again. Move your non-blooming orchid to a spot with less light, and water it only once a month. Almost forget about it. And then, after a year, it might surprise you! They need this resting period.
        (Courtesy of my grandma, a huge orchid lover)

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      • Try giving it a bit of extra sunlight too if it's somewhere fairly sheltered. Sometimes they just need that extra "food" from the sun to get going.

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  2. Does anyone know if orchids are cat-friendly? I've always wanted to try growing them. I also recently inherited an aloe plant and two gigantic peace lilies, only to find out they are harmful to cats. D'oh!

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    • I've gathered that most orchids get along fine with cats, but be sure to check whatever species you are interested in.

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  3. THANK GOD for this post! I was actually planning to write in and ask for a post about orchids – you read my mind. I love orchids and bought a teeny tiny one when we moved into our new house about a week and a half ago, and of course, as soon as I bring it home, all the pretty flowers fall off. Maybe I can rescue this one, or at least I am armed with information on how to not kill the next one I buy. Thanks!

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  4. Cymbidiums can actually be planted in soil and thrive amazingly. They're probably the easiest orchids to care for, followed by phalaeonopsis. And they want loving neglect. Don't smother them but don't ignore them either and they'll be the happiest plants EVER!

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  5. I grow Australian Native Orchids (being Aussie and all) and honestly, I do everything wrong, I ignore them, to much sun, not enough sun, to much water, not enough water, inside, outside, feeding – whats that ;) . I should be death to orchids (and I kill almost everything else), however they do a great job of attempting to take over my world! So Aussies, look into the natives, they are brilliant!

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  6. Thanks for this post. I just killed an orchid plant recently and now I know why. LOL…

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    • Ditto, and i felt sooooo guilty as it was a birthday gift from my partner :s

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  7. There ARE terrestrial orchids. Cypripedium acaule – Lady's Slipper Orchid – grows in the moist woods of PA, and that's just one example to show that not all orchids live in jungles, either.

    Also, the best orchid pots are UNglazed to permit maximum airflow/breathability. We use a product called Hydroton for our potted orchids instead of bark – it doesn't break down but works just as well if not better. :)

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  8. Do orchids need to be pruned or cut? I read on some "orchid care" website that after the last of the blooms fall off, you are supposed to prune back the orchid to encourage new stem and bloom growth…but I don't think that's right.

    (my orchid is like the first few posters, very much alive and healthy, but it's been months since any blooms. So maybe I just need to feed it a little and wait for the full year?)

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  9. My mom always buys her orchids at the Chinese grocery store. They are very inexpensive there.

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  10. My husband recently brought me an orchid and it came with a little card that said to give them 3 ice cubes once a week. I did that for about a month and they looked absolutely wonderful (big, luscious fuschia petals! Gorgeous!) and then, suddenly, all of the petals fell off and one of the stems turned a pale brown! Is it dead? The other stem seems okay, but there are no petals left on either now. I was keeping it in our bedroom that gets indirect light all day until about 5 pm and stays fairly cool. Our bathroom has no windows or else I would keep it in there.

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    • I have one of these orchids! It's just in a resting period. Keep ice-cube watering it and maybe in a year it'll bloom for you again. I've had mine for about nine months now, and I think it's about to run a new stem up to flower!

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    • Orchids can tolerate a lack of water for a long time, but not their flowers. Spontanious loss of buds of even blooms is almostalways because of a lack of water. The plant can stretch and grow accustomed to the ice cube water, but not blooms. Soak the plant in water for 15min once a week if your air isnot particularly humid in the morning (the plants core must be dry by nightfall or else it will rot).

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  11. We love to hit the rescue bin at Lowe's and try to give them a fresh start. We've had some success and some failures, and for a small investment it's better than having them end up in the trash.

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  12. My mom works for a floral distributor and gets amazing deals on leftover flower stock so I've now had two orchids. The first I had for two years and the one I have now I've had for nearly three. I had always had bad luck with flowers but these are great. Probably because I do frequently forget to water them. I will repot as soon as the current blooms fall off.

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  13. –Remember that orchids want to live in jungles, and jungles don't have air conditioning.

    Actually, the highest concentration of natually occurring Orchids in North America is on the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario, Canada. There's even an Orchid Festival.

    Orchids will grow in a variety of environments. Many orchids grow in the tropics but some grow in the Arctic Circle, and there are even even two species on an Island near Antarctica.

    While it may be true that many of the commercially are tropical plants, it is not true for the entire Orchid family.

    And while we're at it, they all don't grow attached to trees, either. Lady slippers, purple fringed orchids, helleborine and tway-blades, are all orchids that grow in soil in Southern Ontario.

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  14. I have two orchids that bloom every so often but what I have found that works in buying a fake orchid that is the same colour as the real orchids. That way even if the flowers die, the orchids still look good. While you are waiting for the next bloom you don't have just stems sitting on your window sill.

    And the great thing is that when people touch a plant to see if it's real they only feel the leaves!

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  15. Orchids are a fun hobby that is pretty easy once you get a routine. I have almost 10 right now that have come from all sorts of places, "official" orchid growers, friends and cast-offs from hardware/grocery stores.
    My advice?
    1. Bloom drop is a normal part of an orchid's life. Though sometimes blooms will drop early if the plant is getting not enough or too much water. When the blooms drop, I usually just cut off the stem near the base. Some types or orchids can rebloom if one trims the stem at the right place and right time…but I don't know which.
    2. Orchids will also abort their buds – it doesn't mean you've killed the plant, just stressed it to the point where it can't sustain the energy to maintain buds. Generally this happens when you move the plant in cold weather, or move it into a drastically different environment from which it is used to. Just cut off the old bloom stem and care for it as normal, eventually it will bloom again.
    3. Let 'em live outside as much as possible. To bloom they need a period of cold nights and warm days. In Wisconsin, where I live, my non-blooming orchids go out in the spring and don't come back in until late fall. As soon as night time temps are steady at 50 degrees, that's when they go out. I keep an eye on the weather and pull them in on nights with frost warnings, but they're outside pretty much from May till October.
    4. Protect them from squirrels. Sadly, squirrels and chipmunks may aquire a taste for orchids. While some have found success in sprinkling the orchids with cayenne pepper, I've just built a simple cage with scrap wood and window screen. It's ugly, but keeps the squirrels out.
    5.You got cats who like to eat plants? I've found my plant eating cat LOVES the pointy leaved orchids and ignores the round leaved ones. Always having a container of cat grass around seems to satisfy my cat's need to eat salad.
    6. Humidity is important. In winter, it can be very dry in Wisconsin, so I keep my orchid pots in trays of pebbles, which I think is a bit more attractive than an "official" humidity tray. In drier climates, one may need to keep their orchids in humidity trays, or mist them, year round.
    7. Don't worry if they don't bloom every year. My oldest orchid was blooming when I got it, and didn't bloom again for another 5 years.

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  16. I wish I had read this BEFORE I went out and purchased first one "Just Add Ice" phal. in full bloom from the grocery store only to have it die within weeks, and then – just to prove how idiotic I can behave at times – went to Home Depot and chose an expensive, larger phal. with even more blossoms on it, only to have it die within DAYS!!! I couldn't figure out what I was doing wrong, especially since several years ago I had a lovely phal. which bloomed for months at a time three years in a row…until one of the cats decided it was a snack. From now on, I'll follow your advice…and see if HD will give me a refund. ;)

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  17. Just a few extra Orchid notes from some who (admitidly has it easy living in the tropics)
    1. Not all orchids flower for a long time! This is important to remember and if you can find out before you buy the plant. I have one variety of orchid with delicate white flowers that only last one day and another of yellow that takes a week to open then they only last 2 days.
    2. No two orchids are alike. They will like different spots of the house, different light levels. Move them around, they will grow without sunlight but will not usually flower without a little sun exposure.
    3. Listen to the OP – Orchids Luuurve bathrooms!
    4. Check before you trim the flower stem. Some orchids will reflower from the same spike on others the spike will die and they will grow a new one. Make sure you don't chop off the multi flower spikes.
    5. If your orchid is flowering DON"T CHANGE ANYTHING. It is happy. Let it be!
    6. Take great care if you are repotting. They don't like it very much. Also if you are attaching them to a log to hang I use a clean kitchen sponge and put it behind the orchid before using a stocking to attach it. The orchid will grow it's roots straight through to sponge to suck up the water. Good for during the dry season or if you are growing tropical orchids in a non tropical environment.

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