Orchids, like all plants, need care. Where people go wrong is in treating orchids like other house plants. In some ways, they are very similar. But in other ways they are very different. It’s not a huge learning curve, but it is a learning curve. If you want to be able to keep, grow, and enjoy orchids, simply follow the advice on this site. It’s worked for me for many years and many orchids. It will work for you, too.
Many orchids have similar care requirements. Take the phalaenopsis, or “moth orchid”, for example. This is probably the most commonly available orchid, found frequently on sale in supermarkets, flower shops, even convenience stores. It is easy to keep alive, healthy, and blooming annually. While white is probably the most common color to be found on sale, purple is extremely common as well as many spotted and mixed-color variants.
Phals, as they are commonly referred to in orchid circles, need light – but not too much – and periodic watering with periods of drying in-between. The only difference between the care I provide my Phals and most of my other orchids is their regular placement. Phals are a little more light sensitive than some of my other orchids, and so are positioned to not get most intense light, especially hot direct sunlight.
In general, my orchids are watered twice per week. They are fed a weak, diluted plant food after every watering with the exception of December through January (winter in my climate), when they are allowed to “rest.” Other than that, they are placed in my “orchid room” (otherwise known as our “family room”) where they will have the appropriate level of light for each genus.
To summarize, here are the characteristics you need to learn for each plant. And fortunately, one-size-fits-all really does apply to many:
- Light: light levels vary. You simply need to know which benefit from high light levels and which low. Check the individual orchids on the site for tips on each. Knowing this simply dictates where in a room and what relationship to what light sources (usually windows) will best suit each.
- Water: As I said above, I water almost all my orchids exactly twice per week. I have followed the same ritual for years. Every Thursday morning and every Sunday morning virtually all my orchids – with rare exception, which will be pointed out in the specific section of each orchid on the site – are watered by taking them to the sink and pouring water through to thoroughly wet the bark.
- Feeding: After every watering, I pour diluted fertilizer through the bark with the exception of the period from about December 1 to January 31. It’s winter here in central Kentucky with outside night temperatures frequently in the 20s (and on occasion considerably lower) and daytimes in the 30s and 40s. This is when I let my orchids “rest.”
- Temperature: We don’t let our house get below the low 60s at night in the winter, and not above the mid 80s in the summer. Fortunately, this is a very good range for most orchids. In my case, it’s an absolute. I’m simply not willing to provide highly specialized environments for specific plants. So if they don’t thrive in this environment, I simply don’t keep them or they simply fail to thrive – whichever comes first!
- Humidity: Orchids don’t like terribly dry air. Fortunately, neither do humans! Our summers are sufficiently humid that humidity isn’t a problem. We aren’t “power users” of air conditioning, and are actually more comfortable with inside temperatures in the low 80s during the summer, so our air is not so “conditioned” as to be bone-dry. In the winter we run humidifiers, not so much for the plants – although they really appreciate it! – but for us human beings. I don’t like nose bleeds, cracked skin and the other symptoms of overly-dry air so the humidifiers are appreciated by all residents of the household, including wood furniture, oil paintings, etc.
- Media: This is the last variable. Most of my orchids do well in the same mix – coarse bark. Bags of coarse bark specifically intended for orchids are readily available from Lowes or Home Depot or gardening centers and stores. The bark decomposes over time and so the orchids need to be repotted regularly (see the section on repotting). But the coarse bark is the ideal media for many orchids. It provides the unique environment most orchids love – the water they need but with a lot of air circulation around the root system which allows them to just about dry out between waterings. As with other elements of orchid care, there are exceptions. There are even orchids (and I own one) that are planted in real dirt. I have a few that literally have no media other than air – their roots are completely bare 24/7. But coarse bark is the gold standard for most.
It has been said that orchids thrive on “benign neglect.” That’s the way optimal orchid care has been described for some time. However, the emphasis should not be on “neglect.” They can’t take extreme drying regularly between waterings too far apart. Most can’t take extremes of temperatures (though there are orchids that need and actually benefit from some seriously cold spells and some can survive surprisingly hot temperatures at least for periods of time). Orchids are a tremendously broad family of plants and are found in almost every climate in the world, from near desert conditions to high elevations to ultra-humid rain forests to very cold climates. That doesn’t mean you can keep the varieties happy in your home if they need climate extremes in the natural world. Fortunately for those of us who love orchids and don’t have highly specialized environments, most do well in the same climate preferred by most people. The real thought behind the “benign neglect” description doesn’t mean you neglect the plants. It means their needs are actually somewhat simpler than many house plants. And many people damage or kill orchids by providing too much watering, or potting in conventional soil where the roots can’t breath, etc.
Just remember orchids aren’t typical houseplants. They aren’t harder to keep. They are just treated differently. They are easy to care for if you understand their needs. And because their flowers can be so spectacular, with a tremendous variety of colors and sizes and textures, they are fun to raise!