How to Get Started with Orchids
It suddenly dawned on me recently when I was visiting my mother that I’ve been watching her grow orchids for many years-with great success-but have never actually asked her how she does it.
After seeing some gorgeous orchids for sale at a local nursery, I thought I would gather up mom’s best advice before getting some plants of my own.
If you love houseplants, also see these 3 Fabulous Houseplant Fanatics to Follow.
While many orchids are not that pricey (unless they’re rare) and won’t break the bank, it would still be ideal to give them a happy home and have them last for years while enjoying a whole bunch of beautiful blooms along the way.
I wasted so many good plants in my early gardening years that now I really prefer to learn before I leap.
She’s No Whisperer But…
Keep in mind that my mom does not consider herself an orchid whisperer by any stretch of the imagination. But that’s kind of why I wanted her guidance. I didn’t want the entire encyclopedia of how to grow orchids, but simply to know what she does and why, because it works. Her orchids are gorgeous, long-living, and multiply.
I’ll walk you through the basics so you can decide if you might want to grow orchids too. I’ve also added in some additional comments from my mom (the ever-so-humble orchid grower).
Best Beginner Orchid
The easiest orchids to grow are Phalaenopsis (moth orchids) which are the ones you see here.
They are available in all sorts of colours and patterns, and the flowers last several months with the potential to rebloom again a few months later.
Instead of going nuts and buying several at once, try caring for a single moth orchid for a year or so and see if you get the hang of it (and enjoy it).
Gardening and plant care is all about paying attention and picking up on all the little signs and signals that plants give us. I think this is why my mom has done so well with her orchids: she notices all of the changes and nuances that go on and responds accordingly.
Other orchid species such as the lady slipper (Paphiopedilums or ‘paphs’ as they are commonly known) are quite tempting because they’re so quirky-looking, but it may be a little too challenging for the first-time grower. Figure out the moth orchid first, and then add to your collection.
Also see: How often should I water my houseplants?
Each species has different growing habits and care requirements so keep in mind that most advice is generalized and not one-method-fits-all. It’s really helpful to join a club, group, or society (online or in-person) to learn from experienced growers.
The advice here is applicable to moth orchids (Phalaenopsis).
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The key to success with indoor plants is to mimic their natural growing conditions as much as possible.
Orchids are what we refer to as ‘air plants’, and grow on rocks or trees in their natural habitats, and take most of their nutrients and water from the air (not soil).
As houseplants they are grown in a potting mix made specifically for orchids (often containing things like bark, moss, vermiculite, perlite, and so on) to provide similar conditions.
Do not use potting soil or container mix intended for other types of plants. These air plants need their own special growing medium.
Choosing an Orchid
If you can, buy your orchid at a sale hosted by an Orchid Society. There’s lots of expertise there (maybe more than you want-lol) and you’ll get lots of help choosing a good plant.
Examine the choices carefully: it’s not just about beautiful blooms. Look at the stems, leaves, and roots for signs of rotting, disease, or insects.
Moms says: What you really want to know is the condition of the roots when you buy a new plant. Some sellers will find it insulting if you try and check the roots. Either they know their plant is in top shape (and how dare you doubt them!), or they’re hiding something. And how can we know which it is unless we check?
Also check what the orchid is planted in. They are air plants so they should not be packed in soil like other houseplants: this can cause the roots to rot. The roots need air and should be settled in orchid growing medium or bark.
- Healthy orchid stems are slightly leathery, strong, and fairly erect.
- Dark green colouring indicates the plant has not received enough light (but may recover with proper care).
- Brown or wizened means the plant is not in good shape (don’t buy it!).
Once you know what healthy orchid roots look like, it becomes much easier to assess a plant. There’s lots of examples online where you can quickly get an eye for what’s healthy and not.
- Avoid direct sun. Orchids burn easily.
- Early morning or afternoon sun is ideal.
- You can also grow them under fluorescent lights, keeping the unit about 12″ above the tops of the plants.
Water & Humidity
Because orchids like humidity, they are often kept in pots sitting on a drip tray like the one you see here at Amazon.com. This helps maintain the humidity levels.
Over-watering is the number one cause of houseplant deaths! That said, orchids cannot be left to dry out.
It will vary by the conditions in your home but, in general, they need watering approximately once a week.
Orchids enjoy cool evenings (50°F | 10°C and up, depending on the type).
A breeze or fan also seems to please them. Every little breeze seems to whisper ‘Louise’….
During the warm months, mom puts her orchids outside in a sheltered location. You don’t ever want the bright sun on them but they do love the warmth (here in Canada) and a fine summer breeze. Don’t we all?
After a moth orchid is done flowering, the flower spike can be trimmed to encourage reblooming in just a few months’ time. Look up diagrams online to see the precise way to trim the flower stem.
For moth orchids, repotting is necessary when the roots start to look crammed. Timing varies with each plant: could be every 1-3 years or so.
You can do it yourself or take the plant to a nursery and have them do it.
And that’s the basics. I hope you’ve found it helpful. I know I’m ready to get started with my first one and you can bet I’ll be calling the orchid hotline (mom) as any questions arise. And her reply will be, I always just look it up on Google.
Summary for Beginner Orchid Growers
1. Moth orchids (Phalaenopsis) are a good starter plant.
2. Pick an indoor location with indirect sun.
3. The orchid should be potted in orchid growing medium (not regular potting soil).
4. Water as needed. Generally, this is approximately 1x per week, not more.
5. A drip tray helps keep the desired humidity levels.
6. Research fertilizers for your plant including the timing and amount to use.
7. Place outside in the summer months (optional), out of direct sun with a breeze.
8. Research reblooming. You may be able to trigger new blooms just a few months after the first flowers have finished.
Enjoy! They are such wonderful plants.
And thanks, Mom!
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