General Orchid Care

This page is more of a guide than anything else. Most of us orchid enthusiast will easily be able to give advice, but there are so many ways to over complicate it as well. I've seen a Phalaenopsis grow in a friend's unused outside fireplace, with minimal light and close to no water. Then I've seen other family members grow theirs in a glass bowl with no ventilation and almost no roots, and yet it flowered. I have personally found that most times when I ask advice, no one person gives me the same answer. The reason for that is actually so simple if you think about it.

For instance, I’m growing orchids in my apartment. I don't have a greenhouse, nor do I have much of a yard. That should already highlight why this advice problem exists. These phenomenal plants require certain conditions to flourish. These conditions will depend on where your location and in which kind of environment you are growing them. Therefore, your potting medium, available light and all the other requirements might differ quite a bit from someone else’s. Luckily, this section should be able to help you in the right direction. I also want to add that this section will cover the most commonly grown orchid species and I apologise in advance if the specific group you are looking for is not included.

Moving along swiftly...
The following 6 steps to success will most likely be all you need to get started and keep you going.

Step 1 : Putting a name to the face

Knowing what kind of orchid you have can be tough, but it is crucial to your success, and it's longevity. For the most part, there are two things you should know. The first being which genus it belongs to and secondly, which species it is.

I'll use the most popular South African orchid as an example, the Disa uniflora. Disa would be the genus and uniflora the spesies, notice that uniflora does not start with a capital letter. It can further have its own unique abbreviation which in this case would be D. uniflora. Now that we have the naming convention down let's look at the steps you can take in finding the correct name.

My advice on this adventure would consist of two things. First, try and Google it. I have once bought a plant and quickly discovered that the provided name and that specific orchid were miles apart. I then simply opened Google search and entered "small pink orchid with purple spots." Low and behold, by about the 10th image, I found it, and for those curious cats out there, it was a Stenoglottis longifolia. The other option out there is to search orchid groups on social media. Post a picture of your orchid and ask for help identifying it. There are many of these groups out there, and you might even get to meet some cool, like-minded people in the process.

Step 2 : Light

Orchids can, without a doubt, be grown both indoors and outside. As previously mentioned, I’m growing about 16 different species in my 66 sq/m apartment. Placing them in the correct spot, however, is crucial to your success. Many of us start with either a Phalaenopsis or an orchid in full bloom that mesmerised us and unknowingly got us hooked. Either way, they were most likely in bloom.

Once the flowers fell, you might have ended up missing them and bought yourself another. Anyway, as time passes, you watch keenly for any signs of new blooms. Slowly a year can all to quickly turn into three, and yet no bloom spikes appear. You might end up, as I have, thinking "Wow, this plant is so lushly green and healthy, why is it not flowering?" and in that statement would lie your answer.

Although so many orchids look amazing with lush green foliage, a.k.a. the grouping of leaves, it might be a sign that you should add a tinge more light. Many species like Den. nobile and Cattleya's need as much light as they can handle, even some direct spring/early summer sun would suite these specific orchids well.

In the case of many orchids, like these mentioned, a great looking plant has more of a green-yellow foliage than a dark lush looking foliage. This is, however, not the case with all orchids, but if you notice your plant hasn't flowered in some years and your foliage is dark green, light conditions might just be the place to start.

Step 3 : Watering

Watering habits can sometimes be as complicated as worldly problems when it comes to specific genera. Luckily there are tell-tale signs with many different commonly grown genera. For example, Dendrobium, Oncidium, Coelogyne, Cattleya, etc. either have canes or pseudobulbs that start to shrivel if they are in serious need of water. Though there are exceptions to this rule. As bulbs or canes get older they tend to stay shrivelled. As long as your newest growth is full, you should be fine.

Another phenomenon you might experience is the same result, but from overwatering. Something you should always keep in the back of your mind is that the orchids we most commonly grow are Epiphytes, plants that do not need soil, or Lithophyte, plants that grow on bare rock or stone.

From my experience, Oncidiums especially dislike a compact potting medium that retains water for long periods as their roots will start to die and starve the plant. Within my environment, a 50% small stones and 50% medium bark mix seems to work excellently. I have found that it dries out much quicker than bark mix. Before I go on, I would like to stress that these are tricks that have helped me. Many Oncidiums do just fine in a bark mix, but it all comes down to the general environment your plants are growing in.
At the end of the day, watering comes down to 5 things:
  1. Potting medium - Moss retains a lot of water; bark mix keeps less and stones very little.
  2. How thirsty your plant is - Have you got a thirsty plant like a Dendrobium or something like Phalaenopsis which requires water once a week?
  3. What season it is - Some plants like Dendrobiums require close to no water through its winter rest.
  4. 4. Be conscious of your growing environment - If you research your orchid, understand that the person giving advice might be on the other side of the world and weather patterns might differ exponentially!
  5. Lastly, NEVER reuse water - Don't water two orchids with the same water as pathogens from one would spread quickly to the other. Also, remember that you are trying to rinse away salt buildup which the water retains.

Step 4 : Fertiliser

Before we get to deep in the subject of fertilizing, allow me first help you understand what to look for in a good orchid fertilizer and what N-P-K is all about.

For the most part, you would see three numbers on fertiliser packaging. For example, you might see 20-10-10 or 20-20-20. These numbers represent the percentages of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium respectively. These three nutrients are the most prominent on the label because your plant needs them in greater quantities. Nitrogen (N) fuels green, leafy growth. Phosphorus (P) enhances root growth and flowering, and potassium (K) supports overall growth and health.
Ok so now that we've got the science behind the fertiliser down let's talk about feeding your plants.

Liquid Fertiliser

As mentioned in the previous section, most orchids are either Epiphytes or Lithophyte. This means that in the wild they tend to receive fertiliser in small quantities from occasional bird droppings, rotting leaves, dust particles, and so on.

Many of these nutrient-rich sources are also easily washed away in the rainy season. With that said, it is much better to under fertilise than over-fertilise as the roots can burn and in some cases result in your plant dying.

A summer routine that I, as well as most other sources on the internet, follow is to half the required dose of fertiliser. Depending on your watering habits, either feed them every week or every two weeks. Personally, I'd say, if you are aiming to feed weekly, rather use a quarter of the recommended mixing solution. PLEASE NOTE: Water your orchids between feeding to wash away excess salts and minerals!

Slow-Release Fertiliser

This type of fertilising, if applied correctly, can eliminate the risk of root burn posed by liquid fertiliser. But don't be fooled, slow-release fertilisers can cause serious root burn if placed directly in contact with a root. Although, like liquid fertiliser, slow-release fertilisers are available in many shapes and sizes. I prefer using those that last about 6 months. As I am located in the southern hemisphere, I'll usually add it to the potting medium from August/September, What I like about this type of fertiliser is that you don't need to worry about how much to add, when to add it, reducing dosages and feeding intervals, etc. as they are designed to release just the right amount nutrients for most orchids. I might get crucified by some readers, but with a select few, like Den. nobile, I use both slow-release and liquid fertiliser just because they do a lot of growing in a very small time frame. It is, however, half doses and monthly depending on the time of year. Once the summer is in full swing, and I might water daily, then I'll feed them twice a month.

Step 5 : Air

Air is an aspect I don't hear many people talk about. They might indirectly speak about it, but when looking at the evolution of orchids and the role air plays, one can't imagine why so little people don't explain why it is so important. If you take a moment and think about it, the right potting medium supplies the orchid with enough air around its roots, watering washes out old stale air and air movement will dry potting medium faster which means you reduce the risk of root rot.
Besides the reasons mentioned above, perhaps the most crucial aspect of having sufficient air circulation is that fungal diseases strike hard when conditions are cool, damp and where air circulation is poor.
Make sure you have circulation around your orchids and to keep it in mind when repotting. If your plants are indoors, and your airflow is limited, don't worry, a fan on its lowest setting should work just fine. Make sure that the airflow isn't continuously directed at your plants, but rather in the general environment.

Step 6 : Humidity

I'll be honest, at first I was kind of never minded minded about humidity, but what I didn't realise at the time, was that orchids have this sneaky way of rearranging your life's priorities to match their's and with many of them higher humidity levels of between 50-70% are a must. Now I know tropical regions like Durban and so on might think that 50-70% are rookie numbers; unfortunately Capetonians and other dry regions don't experience it much the same way. Before we delve too deep into the methods you could apply to increase humidity, let's look at the all-important why orchids need humidity.
Plants rely on evaporation from the sun and heat to move water throughout their bodies by means of, what we call, transpiration/evaporation, and it works as follows. When the sun/light hits the leaves, water evaporates, cooling the leaves and pulling more water to the leaves from the stem, pulling the water from the roots which are pulling water from the medium/ground. Water travels through the plant like a straw and is able to pull itself due to the cohesive/adhesive nature of water, or because it sticks to itself and what surrounds it. It is important to remember warm air has the ability to retain more moisture; thus, the warmer it is, the higher humidity levels would be.
Humidity-sensitive orchids often have lots of pores and thin leaves. Because of their thinness, water can escape the leaves before reaching the tips. Thus when humidity falls, the capacity for the air to hold water and leaves to transpire increases. Water is then taken from the leaves faster than water can be replaced, causing crispy leaves, especially on the edges. Other side effects include stunted growth, brown tips on leaves, bud blast (orchid flowers/buds wilting prematurely) and twisted or malformed flowers.
You might find yourself thinking that many orchids have big "fleshy" leaves and they do, but many also don't have much of a water reserve from which they can pull water as is the case with many terrestrial plants. Pseudobulbs do act like reservoirs yes, but they should not be your "backup" as any early warning signals that notify you about how much nutrients and fluids currently being drawn from it is unknown to me. The only signs I get are from shrivelled pseudobulbs and by that time you have to almost hope and pray you did not notice it too late. In some cases pseudobulbs or leaves will never recover, especially if it is still in a growing phase.
Right, so how can you increase humidity you ask, it's easy, but firstly I'll recommend getting a hygrometer to measure the humidity as too much humidity isn't good either.

  1. The most commonly used method is the help of a water tray. Take a plastic pot's saucers and fill it with some pebbles. Now add some water, but it is VERY IMPORTANT not to fill it to the top. 1/2 to 3/4 should be fine. Now place your potted plants on top of the pebbles. This would allow water to evaporate upwards towards the roots and the foliage. Water should never touch the base of the pot, as the medium will absorb more water which can result in many unwanted issues.
  2. Install a misting system. This method is more expensive but works well to cover larger areas. There is a downside though. Misting might cause white marks on your foliage as minerals trapped in the water are left behind once the water evaporates.
  3. If your orchids are cultivated in a smaller, enclosed area, you can acquire a humidifier.
  4. Huddle your plants together. If you have enough, huddling them together can allow them to create their own mini humidified climate.

Step 7 : Love

Your last step to success is Love. This hobby, or obsession in my case, takes a lot of time to perfect and when done well can return breath-taking results. I have close to 70 already, and those are rookie numbers compared to most other experienced growers. Nevertheless, spending a little time with them each day will aid your success in so many ways. Except for the fact that you'll be able to observe how the incredible lifecycles of these plants work, you'll easily be able to detect parasites and sicknesses before it infects your other plants.
You'll also get greater satisfaction out of them as you reflower them or simply grow an award-winning specimen. They truly are mesmerising and I wish you all the success in your adventure!

Should I use ice to water my Phalaenopsis?

The simple answer is, NO. These plants are originally from a warmer tropical climate and are impacted by changes in temperature. The reasoning around the ice cube watering routine, however, is quite simple and not totally crazy either. Many people buy Phalaenopsis orchids as they are most likely mesmerised by its long-lasting flowers, but the trick is in keeping it alive long enough to fully enjoy them. Unfortunately, most people don't have the same interest in plants as you and I. They don't follow instructions or do their due diligence and end up overwatering it. This, in turn, results in root rot, and inevitable death. Giving it an ice cube a week or one a month in winter is simply the right amount of water it would need and it's a simple instruction for everyday folks to follow. Even though I'll most likely get a lot of beef from experienced growers with the following statement, but keeping your Phal. going with ice isn't totally wrong, it's just not ideal and might reduce growth as the ice cubes keep temperatures down.

Why are my orchid’s leaves turning yellow?

I would prefer not to touch this subject with a 10ft pole, as there are so many reasons this might occur, but I'll try my best to sum it up for you.

  1. Direct sunlight could burn leaves and turn them yellow. Most orchids don't fare well with direct sunlight so try and avoid it.
  2. Constant cold temperatures can affect warmer growing orchids and turn leaves yellow.
  3. Overwatering. Remeber that most of these beauties need to dry out between watering and over watering can cause root rot which in turn would lead to the slow deterioration and ultimatly death.
  4. Sudden changes in environment. If you have moved your orchid to another spot or relocated it might stress the plant. Some orchids like the Dracula species, I've heard, would even shed its flowers in a day if moved out if its comfort zone.
  5. Yellowing around the edges of leaves or a bad smell with yellowing leaves would typically be because of a disease. Your best bet would be to follow these three steps:
      Move your plant away from the others.
      Cut off infected areas with sterilised scissors and if it is a fleshy plant, put some cinnamon powder on the cut area. Cinnamon would dry it out and acts as a natural fungicide.
      Treat with a fungicide.
  6. Many orchids with pseudobulbs, like Cymbiduim's, naturally lose leaves and others, like Dendrobiums, lose theirs with the approach of winter.
  7. If your bottom leaves, only one or two, are gradually turning yellow, it could simply be part of its natural cycle.
  8. Over-fertilising can burn roots and result in yellow leaves.
  9. Nutrient deficiency might also play a role in yellowing leaves. Although I have heard of people not feeding orchids for long periods, it is not advised.

This should sum it up for now. Best of luck in playing inspector and deciding which it is. May the force be with you!

How much should I water my orchid?

This step is quite simple. Let your orchid dry between watering, but don't let it dry out. I must, however, stress stress that this is not the case with all orchid species, but with most that we grow. If you find it as confusing as I did in the beginning, it's ok. It will come to you in time.
Something to keep in mind is the medium used. If you have a Phalaenopsis in Sphagnum Moss, you'll water it much less than those in stone. A trick I use is to push my finger about 2cm into the medium, and if it is dry, I'll water.
When you are only using Sphagnum Moss, like many Phalaenopsis are bought with, then you shouldn't let the moss get that dry that it breaks on touch.

How often should I feed my orchids, and what should I feed my orchids?

I'll most likely end up repeating my piece in General Orchid Care - Step 4 : Fertilizer so just click on the provided link and read up.

Why are my orchid's bulbs or leaves shrivelled?                   

This is another tricky one, but there are three main reasons :                 

  1. Overwatering caused root rot, and now it can't absorb any more water. Sorry to say, but you'll then have to repot and wait it out.
  2. Too little water, remember let your orchid dry between watering but don't let it dry out….
  3. If your older bulbs are shrivelled and your new growth looks good, it is most likely just natural. I, however, plant my Oncidiums in a predominantly fine stone mix as I get way too stressed out about overwatering them.

When will my orchid flower?

This question is too vague to answer off the bat, but if you'd like a vague answer, I'd say between early autumn and late spring. It really depends on the species. Follow this link to the Orchid Index and search for your species. Before you go, please keep in mind that conditions need to be optimal for orchids to bloom, and size does matter in this case. If your orchid is not mature enough, it will most likely not flower. These are only two of the possible reasons as overwatering and over-fertilising might be causes as well.

Can I grow my orchid indoors??

You sure can! If you've been scoping out a few of the other sections, you'll have most likely heard me mention that I live in an apartment. I must add, however, that it is north facing so I get more than enough light, and my windows allow me to let them catch the breeze when needed, well when I think it is at least. Enough about me and more about you and your question... Follow these steps, and you should be sorted:

  1. Make sure it gets enough light.
  2. Make sure there is airflow around your plants. It does not have to be all the time, just try and circulate it a little. Opening windows to create a light draft is great.
  3. Keep them in sight, this way you'll be able to notice quite easily if something goes wrong and you won't forget about them.

What should I pot my orchid in?

Your best bet would be to investigate the Potting Tips section as there are too many variables attached to this question.

Can I grow my orchid outdoors?

By all means. Be sure to do some research on the specific species you have in mind, their natural growing conditions and compare it to yours. I would, for example, not have too much success with orchids that need strict winter rests as I live in Cape Town and we have a winter rainfall. Other species are very sensitive to cold temperatures so you wouldn't plant them out in Bloemfontein with their "crisp" -10 degree winter mornings. Due diligence would be the key to your success.

What is water culture?

You get two different types, full water culture and semi-water culture.
Full water culture is a growing method most people exercise with Phalaenopsis. The idea is to remove your orchid from its potting medium and leave it in water full time. You would need to make sure the roots are cleaned, and any old/rotten roots are cut off. Then submerge 1/4 to a 1/3 of the roots in water, replacing the water once a week.
Semi-water culture has the same steps, but with the exception that the roots be submerged for two days and dry for five.
I would, however, not recommend this technique as it is very easy to fail and kill your plants.

What should I use to mount my orchid?

Hands down, the prefered mount would go to cork tree bark but have a look at this section Potting Tips - Step 3. Choosing the right pot... or basket or mount.

When should I repot my orchid?

Except for when an orchid is infected or in the wrong type of medium, you should repot your orchid every one to three years. If you see the potting medium breaking down, becoming stale, starting to become too compact or your plants' roots are becoming too compact the time might just be right. I would, however, recommend doing some research about the specific orchid you have in mind. Some orchids like being in small compact pots, others in shallow pots, etc. If you've got that step down, and are confident about your decision, you should report it in a pot 2.5cm larger than the previous one used. This is a very delicate process, and I would strongly recommend you have a look at our Potting Tips section before attempting your first repot. My last recommendation would be to repot between flowering cycles or once your new growth has formed roots between 3-5cm long.

Does my orchid need a winter rest?

The need for winter rest depends on the type of orchid you have. Many Dendrobiums, need a winter rest, but there are others like Pleiones that need it as well, but in an entirely different way opposed to Dendrobiums. I am not aware of a complete list, but I'll try my best to add it to the various species listed in the Basic Orchid Index section. In comming updates.
A winter rest requires you to not water your plants for a period of time. I would, however, put it out there that I might spray a little water or even run some through the plant roots if we have had a few hot days and can see the Dens.'s canes are shrivelled. I would also make sure that no rain is forecasted for the next few days before doing so so that it would dry out properly. With other plants like Pleiones, you would need to go as far as putting them in the fridge for the winter as they need a constant temperature of between 3-5 degrees.
Luckily, most other orchids don't need the rest, but I would recommend reducing watering and feeding till spring, or you have prominent new growth.

Why are my orchid’s leaves shrivelled?

This could be because of overwatering, or a lack of watering, either way, your plant is not receiving the correct amount of water.

Why are the flowers of my orchids wilting or falling before they have opened?

Firstly, the correct terminology sounds almost as bad as it is to be losing the flowers. It is called bus blast. There are a few reasons this might occur and I've listed them as follow:

  1. Significant temperature changes are most likely the biggest overall cause. If it makes you feel better, I have lost a few like this too. Big sigh… If you don't have climate control, you'll have to join the club as it is bound to happen sometimes.
  2. Next up, yes, you guessed it, the lack of H20. This watering thing is really a pain in the buttocks, but by now, I'm sure you’ve realised the importance of getting it right.
  3. Chemical Damage. I did some research on this topic, as I do with most of the advice I give to make sure I'm not leading you off the beaten path and came across this reason. I discovered that ethylene gas given off by ripening fruit could cause bud blast. I also found that once flowers are pollinated, they give off methane gas. This causes them to collapse and conserve energy to produce seeds, but it could also affect other flowers in very close proximity. Other than these chemicals, chemicals released from paint, cigarette smoke and even the inefficient burning of gas stoves could damage your flowers.
  4. Direct sunlight could and most likely would dry out buds.
  5. Pests like aphids that live off plant juices can cause damage that results in bud blast.

How much light does my orchid need?

Although some orchids like Dendrobiums, Cattleyas and Catasetums need much more light than others, your go-to would be to avoid very sharp/direct sunlight in most to all cases. Orchids don't want to squint their eyes. With Phalaenopsis, I have adopted a trick to judge the light. Hold your hand about 40cm away from the plant, and if you can see your hand cast a vague light shadow on the foliage, it should be good. If your shadow is well defined and dark, then you know the light is too sharp/direct.