Looking After Orchids for beginners
In this article, I will break down the basics of looking after orchids, as a house plant, in the UK.
Phalaenopsis orchids (also known as the Moth Orchid) are rapidly becoming the most commonly grown houseplant in the UK. In the last 10 years, they have grown into a huge industry with every supermarket and garden centre now stocking them. However, most people don’t realise that Phalaenopsis orchids require care and the appropriate growing conditions, in order to keep them healthy and in bloom.
Fun fact: How often do orchids bloom? A happy orchid will flower 3 times a year, with a typical lifespan of a decade! Lots of blooms making the Phalaenopsis orchid great value for money.
1. Growing environment
Temperature: Orchids don’t like change. They prefer a stable temperature of no less than 58 degrees. Anything between 60-80 degrees will be of benefit to your plant.
Situation: Orchids naturally grow in dappled shade. An east or west facing widow with shades or nets are ideal. They will need about 70% shade and 30% sun. Prolonged direct sunlight will cause the leaves to turn yellow from the centres and eventually drop off and possibly kill the plant. Bathrooms are ideal. Don’t place too closely to a window. Even double glassing is not enough to protect your orchids from the coldest nights.
2. Orchid re-potting & growing medium
Phalaenopsis orchids grow on other plants and trees and not in soil. As a result, they are used to being high above the ground, gathering moisture from the air with aerial roots.
An ideal growing medium:
- Fir or redwood bark (for structure)
- Coconut husk chips or sphagnum moss (optional – for moisture retention)
If looking after orchids is your priority, it would be advisable to buy dedicated, very free draining orchid growing medium from your local garden centre.
When to repot: The best time to re-pot is spring. During this season, your orchid will start to grow new leaves and roots. If you re-pot now, you will benefit from a natural growth spurt.
Using larger pot: If the orchid roots are really starting to distort the pot, then you will need to size-up. However, orchids do like to be a little snug, so don’t change the pot size unless you really have to.
Every 2-3 years: Keeping an orchid in the same growing medium for more than 2 years, may result in complications as the growing medium starts to compost.
- Sterilise a pair of scissors or sharp knife. You will be using these during the re-potting of your orchid. Rubbing alcohol is perfect for sterilisation. If you are using this, allow the alcohol to evaporate before using. You can also try using a lighter flame to burn of any residual sterilising solution.
- Remove any existing flower spikes, cutting as close to the base as possible.
- Squeeze the pot to loose the roots from the side of the pot.
- Carefully lift the orchid from its pot by firmly holding the base of the plant. Don’t pull the leaves as this may result in damage. If there are roots protruding out of the bottom or sides of the pot, you may remove.
- Untangle the roots and remove spent growing medium. If this proves to be difficult, try wetting the roots under a tap to loose the growing medium.
- Remove dead roots with a sterile, sharp knife or scissors. Live roots are green, white or yellow.
- Cut the roots back to about 6 inches.
- Prepare a new pot or sterilise the old one. The pot must be transparent because the roots of the Phalaenopsis orchid prefer light. Also, this will help to show if the growing medium needs watering.
- Place a layer of growing medium into the bottom of the pot. This layer should be between 1-2 inches deep.
- Place the orchid into the pot leaving any roots that were previously outside of the pot (aerial roots) in the same position as before. These roots are already adapted to the air and may rot if tucked into the pot. Make sure that the base of the orchid is above the rim of the pot. It would be a bad idea to bury your orchid as this may result in rot.
- Push the remaining bark chips into the pot and around the roots, tapping on the sides as you do so. This process will take a long time, but your patience will pay off. Try to fill all of the gaps if you can, but leaving some is not a problem. Be careful not to damage the roots.
- For decorative purposes and eases of watering, you might want to add pebbles to the top of the pot. Aquatic peddles are ideal, bought from a pet shop.
- Support your orchid with a new, clean stake and tie.
- After 1 week, water your orchid well and drain. Leaving it for this time will allow for an damaged roots to heal.
3. How and when to water your orchid
There are a couple of indicators to let you know when your orchid needs watering:
- If the roots are silver or grey and not green
- If the bark or moss is completely dry
Top tip: To test moisture levels, push a lollipop stick into the growing medium and then take it out. If the stick feels moist, then it doesn’t need watering.
Water your orchid with rain water. Ideally, the water should be tepid or at room temperature. Cold water from a tap or water butt may cause the roots to rot and kill your plant.
Water every 4-5 days during the summer and once a fortnight during winter. Ensure that the growing medium is kept moist at all times.
Try placing your orchid plant on a tray of wet gravel. As the water evaporates, this will increase the humidity around the plant. Note: the orchid should not have direct access to the water. This will cause your plant to rot. Make sure that the bottom of your pot it not submerged in the water.
4. Orchid fertilizer
Looking after orchids can be quite a responsibility. Like all living creatures, orchids need feeding to help them grow. These feeds occur through complex processes in the orchids natural habitat. In our homes, orchid food is scarce. Because orchids grow in trees and rocks, the nutrients they need is difficult to obtain. This is the reason why they grow so slowly. The main chemical that the Phalaenopsis orchid craves is nitrogen.
Which ever fertilizer you choose, select one that contains nitrates as opposed to ammonia. Nitrates are far less toxic that ammonia and preferred by your orchid.
The best time to feed your orchid is just after and not during blooming. This will encourage it to put out more growth and flower buds.
5. PRUNING ORCHIDS: looking after orchids after flowering
Once your orchid has stopped flowering, you are left with an ugly stick where once lovely blooms hung. Sad.
One of the best ways to encourage more flower growth is to have a temperature variance of about 15 degrees. From 60 to 75 degree is idea, from night to day.
Don’t just chop off the spent flower stem! Counting from the base of the plant upward, you will find a series of notches going up the flower stem. Cut just above the forth node with a pair of sterilised scissors. This will produce a single and sometimes a double shoot from the top of the growing tip of the existing flower stem.
Looking after Orchids in Winter
Keep them out of drafts. This can result in the loss of flower buds and even leaves.
Don’t deprive your orchid of light! Place them in a partially sunny, east/west facing window if possible.
Don’t let your orchid dry out: Although the growing medium shouldn’t be wet, keep an eye on your orchid during the Winter months. If the leaves are starting to look wrinkled and the root dry, then it is time to spray your orchid with a little water.
Keep away from dry heat: Avoid putting your orchid too near a radiator or fan heater. Orchids prefer a humid environment, not dry.
I hope you have enjoyed our tutorial on ‘looking after orchids’. Please feel free to link to this page or share and like it via social media.
Fact sheet on Phalaenopsis orchids: https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/profile?PID=388
Some varieties of Orchid are considered to be family friendly and non-toxic. For more information, please visit my post on non-toxic plants.