Use these essential orchid care tips from a lifelong grower to successfully grow orchids as houseplants. With the right conditions including light and temperature, orchids can bloom for months.
If you would like to propagate your orchid, this shows how to clone orchids using keiki paste.
Orchids for Beginners
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.
While many orchids are not that pricey (unless they’re rare), 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 Orchid Whisperer But…
Keep in mind that my mom does not consider herself an orchid whisperer by any stretch of the imagination. But that’s 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 readily available in houseplant shops.
You can find them in range of colors and patterns. The appeal is the bloom cycle which can last for months and sometimes years only to rebloom again just months later.
Instead of going nuts 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. Plus, the climates within our homes vary. 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).
Love African violets?
See how to propagate new plants from cuttings.
It’s helpful to understand where orchids originate in nature to understand the care they need.
Because they are tropical, orchids cannot withstand cold or freezing conditions.
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 with plenty of air circulation.
Related: How to overwinter geraniums as houseplants.
In general, orchids growing as houseplants bloom in the colder months (fall, winter) and grow more leaves in the warmer months.
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 coloring 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.
Related: How to grow more sweet potato vine from cuttings.
Light & Location
Avoid direct sun—indirect works well. Orchids burn easily especially if any changes they experience are too quick or drastic.
Early morning or afternoon sun is ideal.
You can also grow them under fluorescent lights with T5 or T8 bulbs, keeping the unit about 12″ above the tops of the plants.
Water & Humidity
Orchids like humidity, so do what you can to keep their room humid (50% is ideal indoors as a compromise for people and plants).
You will often see orchids sitting on a drip tray like this one at Amazon.com. Those are good for water spills but do not actually hydrate the plant leaves.
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—but always check first.
Summer tends to be more humid and the plant will be slower to dry out.
Bucket Watering Method
To water her orchids, my mom submerges the entire pot in warm water for approximately 30 minutes. It’s a learned art to know when the plant needs it, but it does work out to around once a week depending on how dry the air is in the house.
Buy Humidity Drip Tray Here | Amazon
This shares an easy way to keep track of your houseplants and their water and light needs.
Find out exactly what your orchid needs. Mom occasionally uses a high-nitrogen fertilizer as well as fish emulsion.
Add fertilizer during the vegetative growth season when leaves are growing, not when the plant is flowering.
By applying the fertilizer to the water bucket, the plant will receive a lower dose than recommended on the product label—but that’s good. You want a quarter dose or so.
The main thing to be aware of is that orchids do not tolerate cold conditions. It varies with each species but generally, a typical household temperature in the range of 70–80ºF (21–27ºC) is fine.
Some varieties benefit from a slightly lower temperature at night—something that may occur naturally in your home anyways.
Most importantly, avoid cold and abrupt temperature changes.
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.
And, as always, make all light and temperature changes gradual. They can adapt to some change if done carefully over time.
This has tips on bringing plants back indoors for the winter to prevent bringing bugs with them.
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.
You can also try propagating baby orchids on a flower spike using keiki paste.
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.
- Moth orchids (Phalaenopsis) are a good starter plant.
- Pick an indoor location with bright, indirect sun. Keep at room temperature around 70–80ºF (21–27ºC). A little lower is fine at night.
- The orchid should be potted in orchid growing medium (not regular potting soil).
- Be careful with watering—allowing plant to dry out between watering. Mom waters hers by submerging the entire root area in warm water for 30 minutes.
- A drip tray helps catch water spills.
- Low doses of fertilizer are recommended.
- Place outside in the summer months (optional), out of direct sun with a breeze.
- Trim back old flower spikes to prepare for new blooms.
Enjoy! They are such wonderful plants.
And thanks, Mom!
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛
Empress of Dirt
Reader’s favorite tips and tutorials on various topics compiled into handy downloadable ebooks.