The first few years I kept orchids I didn’t feed them. They did fine. They stayed alive, reasonably healthy, and reasonably pest-free. My reasoning was that in their natural state they didn’t get any fertilizer that they couldn’t get from the air plus a modest source of nutrients from decomposing bark and other plant matter, probably including the occasional insects. The only problem was, I would purchase them in bloom or from pictures in catalogs if I bought them online. Unfortunately, they struggled to come back into bloom with any sort of regularity.
I decided they needed to be fed at least a little. So I started buying and experimenting with everything I could find that was advertised as “orchid food.” My plants seemed to like it. They were more robust. They looked great, took on a whole new life. But very little increase in the rate of bloom.
I started reading about plant fertilizers. Most are measured and compared based upon three key ingredients, N (nitrogen), P (phospherous), and K (potassium). The N-P-K ratios are generally displayed simply as three numbers. For example, 10-10-10 would mean a relatively balanced delivery of these three elements. The actual scientific meaning of each number is derived differently. So they are really most useful just for the comparison of one product to another. For example a 20-20-20 product would still be relatively balanced, but something on the order of twice the strength of a 10-10-10 product. And at the risk of complicating things further, one could dilute the 20-20-20 product more than the other, and come at least close to approximating the delivery of the key ingredients.
More importantly is an understanding of the function of the three ingredients. The first component, the N, or nitrogen, is purported to help plants build new tissue. It is frequently sited as the component needed to stimulate good leaf development. The P or phosphorus stimulates root growth and the development of buds and blooms. And the K element, potassium, supports overall vigor and health.
What was interesting in my search (and research) was that the formulas for orchid food were all over the place. Here is a Miracle Gro product advertised obviously as “orchid food”. Turn the box over and we see that the formula is 30-10-10.
If you look at the Better Gro product, the formula is 24-14-13. It is obvious that both of these companies are stressing the nitrogen in their products (the “N” in NPK.) Both of these companies are mainstream companies of considerable size. Both have a major presence in the supply of products for orchid care and maintenance. Grow More makes a product that is 20-10-20, so they are focusing on plant growth and vigor, while reducing the “P” or phosphorus. Nutricote makes a timed release orchid fertilizer that is 18-6-8. And Better Gro makes another product they call “Orchid Better Bloom” which is 11-35-15, which obviously stresses the phosphorous content. The bottom line is, I couldn’t find any rhyme or reason in the formulas, but there seemed to be a pattern that stressing the “P”, or phosphorus, really did stimulate flower development and growth and it was equally obvious that some companies didn’t think you needed a lot of phosphorus to have healthy orchids.
Then I discovered (or rather, was told about) a fertilizer developed my Michigan State University. It is supposed to be phenomenal for orchids. If you want to read a really detailed article about it, there is a great one on the American Orchid Society website. Click here to read the article. The AOS, or American Orchid Society, is one of the premier orchid organizations. And Michigan State is obviously taking a very scientific approach to the subject, as opposed to a purely commercial” or “marketing” approach to the development of a product. Their intent appears to be quality science rather than a primarily commercial interest.
There are two problems with this formula from my perspective, however great it appears to be for at least some of the professional orchid growers that have tried it. First, it seems to be pretty complicated to use. There are actually two separate formulas, one for use with reverse osmosis water (very pure) and another for well water containing lots of minerals. Our water here is the latter, for the record, including a healthy dose of chlorine. Unfortunately I’m not set up to create (and don’t want to purchase) copious quantities of highly purified water. Interestingly enough the two formulas appears to be quite different. The one for pure water (RO) is 13-3-15 and the one for hard water is 19-4-23. What is obvious from these numbers, however, is that these formulas work great, at least when used properly, without a lot of phosphorus. I purchased and tried some, but to be honest, at that time I didn’t know there were two formulas and I have no idea which one I had.
Which lead to the second problem I had with the Michigan State formula. I still had great growth and my plants appeared extraordinarily healthy, but I still was not experiencing the dependable blooming that I thought my orchids should be capable of. The results of those successfully using these formulas indicated that heavy phosphorous wasn’t the only factor in getting great blooms. And it’s possible that it has a lot to do with the proportions or ratios of various key ingredients rather than absolute values, possibly even including micronutrients in addition to the “big three.” All I know is that I still wasn’t personally getting the results I wanted. I don’t profess to understand the chemistry, and I’m certainly not a botanist. All I know is flowers. I wanted them and I wasn’t getting many!
A few years ago, I tried going in the other direction, heavy on the “P”. I figured if that’s what stimulates buds and blooms for most non-orchid plants, I’d give it a try. I’m not even sure how I stumbled on this specific product. It’s called Hawaiian Bud & Bloom, and it’s not even intended to be used on orchids. I think I found it browsing for plant fertilizer on Amazon. In any event, it is promoted for use with tropical flowering plants, but at least some orchids fit that description. Interestingly enough, it is the opposite of the Michigan formula. It has one of the highest percentages of phosphorous I’ve ever seen in any fertilizer, including ones I’ve purchased for our flowering shrubs, roses, even the vegetable plants in the garden that obviously must bloom to have any value at all. The NPK is 5-50-17, through the roof as a percentage of the three key ingredients.
I don’t know if it’s dumb luck or what. However, in my climate, with my hard water, this stuff has produced the most robust orchids I have ever raised, but more importantly, I’ve had more blooms in ONE YEAR with this fertilizer than with everything else I have ever used in any given FIVE YEAR span. In January and February, 20% of my orchids will already be throwing off flower spikes. By June, 50% of my orchids will be in bloom – flowers everywhere. And over the course of the entire year, probably 90% of my orchids will have bloomed at least once and a few twice. I have had larger and more robust flowers, fuller spikes, more flowers per plant, than I have ever used in my life. I set a personal record in 2015 with a Phalaenopsis with flowers that opened in January and finally dropped the following November, 11 MONTHS LATER! I call this my “Embassy Suites” Phal. I was on my way to a commercial shoot (yes, making a TV commercial and shooting interviews at the hotel) in space rented in an Embassy Suites, and we needed a flower as a decoration. I swung by the local Kroger and picked this up on the way to the shoot. It didn’t have a tag or name – so it’s known only as the “Embassy Suites” Phal! The flower spray in this photo, taken in May of 2015, was the year after my record. These blooms only lasted five months!
I use Hawaiian Bud & Bloom at approximately half strength. The label calls for one Tablespoon per gallon of water. I use one Teaspoon per gallon. I take each plant to the kitchen sink, soak the bark thoroughly, then pour some of this diluted fertilizer through the bark. While the plants are draining, I take a quick look at the leaves, stalks, etc. looking for honeydew, signs of pests, ants, etc. Most of the time I see none. So the drained plants go back on their saucers and are replaced where they belong in my “orchid room”. I stop fertilizing completely for all of December and January, giving my plants a “rest”. They are all pretty dormant by then, but I start seeing new shoots in January, with the occasional Phal starting to grow new flower spikes. So by February 1, I’m back on the 1/2 strength fertilizer.
Will I ever use anything else? Possibly. But it will take some doing to convince me any other product will do for my orchids what this stuff does. And it’s not just the blooming that has made me a believer. Almost all my orchids have more healthy looking roots and stems and leaves than ever before. And with a low “N” and low “K”, especially since I’m diluting to half-strength, I’m not over-stimulating plant growth.
I do have a couple particularly sensitive orchids that just aren’t living up to their full potential, and one or two that are downright struggling. It could be the fertilizer. It could be that I’ve had to spray them with dormant oil and they didn’t appreciate it. It could be light levels I just don’t understand. Or they are being kept too wet or too dry. In some cases you simply don’t know. I’ve even occasionally call or email the orchid growers I purchase plants from to compare notes. Sometimes the feedback helps, sometimes not. Plants are like people. Most do well if taken good care of. But some just don’t make it and you may simply never know why. But overall, I am thrilled with this product and it’s effects on my orchids. I think I’m zeroing in on a possible problem, however, ironically too much water on plants that are actually supposed to never dry out! To read more about this read the page on “repotting.” It has to do with the medium I was potting in.