Watering

The BIGGEST mistake people make in caring for orchids in incorrect watering. Of course, not repotting correctly or timely is number two, but because the consequences of incorrect repotting take much longer to a) be apparent and b) cause harm, watering is also the most critical.

Phal Sun Passat

With the explosion of the propagation of Phalaenopsis orchids came tremendously increased sales, which lead to substantially greater numbers of people trying to keep their plants alive following blooming, and without understanding orchids at all (most had probably never owned one), they typically treated them like traditional houseplants and over-watered them, compounded by not understanding the bark media and probably not repotting at all, let alone in correct bark. The net result of overwatering and the accelerated decomposition of continually-wet bark was a lot of dead, or at best, struggling, orchids.

The response? The orchid growers tried to come up with easy to remember and easy to follow instructions for consumers.  And what did they come up with? Ice cubes! That’s right, we’re taking tropical plants that don’t like air temperatures consistently below about 55 degrees Fahrenheit, and we are putting surface roots in direct contact with ice and watering the rest with water literally at the freezing point! The result? Surprisingly, it worked! Many more orchids did better, at least better than with no instructions at all. To be concise, the instructions were to put a couple ice cubes on the surface of the bark twice a week and that was all. No more watering than that. They would melt and, according to the instructions, that was enough watering!

Phal Sogo Vivien

The reality is, it was the “twice-per-week” part that mattered, not the volume and certainly not the temperature of the water. Most people overwater orchids. But not by the volume of water they put through the media. By the frequency of watering. You see, most orchids, and especially most Phalaenopsis, the most common orchid found in the home, are epiphytes. That is, they live on other plants. They are not parasites because they do not derive any of their sustenance from their “host” plant and certainly do no harm to it. They just live on it. They derive most of their nutrition directly from the air and rain water, and from the decomposition of plant or insect matter that accumulates around their “roost.” So if a Phal lives, say, in the crotch of some branches in a tree, the tree debris (twigs, leaves, shed bark, etc.) that happen to catch in the orchid’s root system and decay, in addition to any insects that happen to “bite the dust” there, plus occasional animal, bird, and/or insect feces, provide nutrition in addition to the air and rainwater. But the Phal does not derive any nutrition from the tree itself. So the tree is a convenience, not a true host, and the Phal is not a parasite.

Some Phals are technically lithophytes, which means they live in the cracks of rocks. But that’s another subject for the “Phal” page because this chapter is about watering!

Oncidium Intergeneric/Alliance Zeiglossoda (Zgd) Calico Gem “Green Valley #1”

To get back on track, the ice cubes worked not because the water was cold or because there was so little of it, but because the plants were not watered too frequently. which allowed the bark and the roots to nearly dry out routinely. Remember the Phal in the tree? It didn’t have much covering its roots either. And being watered by the rain, the roots (and any decaying media they happened to reside in) tended to dry out between natural waterings. That’s what the ice-cube-treated Phals were doing in the home.

Phil Queen Hampton ‘Playhouse’ x P Taisuco Kaaladian ‘Pom’

No, this isn’t ideal. And no, I’m not recommending you water with ice either. What I AM recommending is that you understand the watering requirements of the orchids you keep and that you stick to the schedule that is most beneficial to that genus or better yet, that exact plant. As I have said in many places in this website, there are only a few exceptions to my watering schedule, which is similar – at least in timing – to the “ice cube” schedule. Those exceptions (like my Vandas and Phragmapediums) are my exceptions to my rule. My rule is, twice per week. I water every Thursday morning and every Sunday morning. And when I am out of town my wife keeps that schedule for me. And when we are both out of town – well, that is a challenge! I try to get an orchid sitter who won’t mind following my strict – some would say obsessive – rules about watering. And where I can’t get such good support (which is often) there are some things that can be done occasionally so that your orchids will not suffer inordinately while you are on vacation. This is an important enough subject that there is an entire page on this site that is dedicated to it. See “Vacation Care.”

Unnamed Dendrobium

Again, I digress. Back to watering. Here’s my main differentiator with the “ice cube” treatment. There are actually two. The obvious first one is that I don’t use freezing water. Even my tap water isn’t that cold, and I actually make an attempt each time I turn it on to water the 2-4 plants in the sink at one time to adjust the temperature to something more closely approximating room temperature. Actually, now that I think about it, there is another similarity with the “ice cube” treatment. Like watering with ice cubes, my using a spray nozzle on the end of a hose that protrudes from my kitchen sink faucet allows me, like the ice cubes, to water the bark without watering the “green matter” of the plants. I’m not literally manic about avoiding wetting the “green matter,” but as a general rule I try not to water the leaves and stems of my orchids when I water the bark. Unlike rain water, which obviously waters all of the plant, I tend to leave the “green parts” dry because doing so tends to reduce the propagation of aphids and scale and other insects – at least I think so, which is reason enough for me. And it doesn’t allow water to pool in the cracks and crevices and the joints between the leaves and stems. In Phals, especially, it keeps water from pooling in the crown of the plant where standing water can encourage rot. Yes, I am here departing from “mother nature” but for a reason. In the wild, after the rainwater waters all of the plant, the wind generally does a good job of drying at least the surface parts of the plant. Even though I use a ceiling fan in the winter (with humidifier) and add a standing floor fan in the summer to enhance air circulation, I don’t have “wind” per se to aid in plant drying. Ergo I don’t wet the “green parts!”

My other real departure from ice cube watering – and the truly meaningful difference – is with volume. You see, I flood the media. I pour water for several seconds through the pot so that I wet ALL the bark and ALL the roots. This isn’t just an experiment on my part. And it’s not without foundation, at least in my history of developing an appreciation for orchids and my ability to keep them alive and happy and re-blooming when they are supposed to. But this point about watering takes me back years in the magical world of orchid growing to an equally magical place. It was called Kensington Orchids.

Kensington Orchids
Kensington, Maryland

Not surprisingly, Kensington Orchids resided in a town called Kensington, which happened to be in the State of Maryland not far from another town in Maryland named Bethesda. Bethesda is only relevant to this story because it is where my older brother has resided for decades. And the importance of that little factoid is only the simple fact that I visited my brother periodically, which gave me the excuse and the proximity to visit Kensington Orchids!!! Some have gone to far as to imply (if they stated it as fact, it would have had to be behind my back!) that my brother was my excuse for visiting Kensington Orchids. Nothing could be farther from the truth. And the proof is that Kensington Orchids has been closed for many years and I still visit my brother! So… there! To all you doubting Thomas’s!

But back to the importance – and relevance – of my reason for bringing up Kensington Orchids. This incredible, bewitching shop/store/greenhouse/orchid sanctuary was owned and run by a man who was already elderly when I met him, probably ten or fifteen years ago now. He was plain and simply the single most experienced and knowledgable person I have ever known when it came to orchids.

Brassavola David Sander (B cucullata x Rhyncolaelia digbyana ‘Vlrs. Chase’

Tragically, when the owner of Kensington Orchids became too old to continue the business, he was unable to sell it as a going concern to someone equally passionate about orchids who could carry on the tradition. This was not because it wasn’t one of the most magical orchid repositories on the planet, because it was. The ugly truth was land value. When his business was started, it was out in the country and on what was probably inexpensive land. And like so many historical and valuable places in the U.S. (and probably the rest of the world – there is no reason this phenomenon would be limited to our country) the “city”, in this case Kensington, grew up around him. And equally unfortunately, Kensington became one of the more upscale bedroom communities between Baltimore and Washington D.C. (closer to Washington) and as such, the land became too valuable for something as majestic, yet less economically valuable, as orchids. Unfortunately, by the square foot, there is little on the face of the earth (other than concentrations of rare minerals that can be mined) more valuable than raw real estate for developing. I have never been back (to Kensington Orchids, that is, not my brothers house!) It would break my heart to see condos or McMansions in the field that once housed Kensington Orchids.

Dend. Judy Carmene ‘El Matador’ x Velvet Melody ‘Winter Wine’

But again, I digress! Must be the weather! We have had the most phenomenally warm winter I can remember in all my 68 years of living in climates that had warm summers and cold winters. I must have spring fever and the “orchid madness” that accompanies it. In any event – back to WATERING once again! The subject matter here! The old man at Kensington Orchids taught me how to water my orchids. See? I can get back on subject. He explained to me that when the plants are watered in the wild, they didn’t get only part of their root system watered. They got ALL their root system watered. They got RAINED ON. (Yes, I know – also the green parts! So I’m a hypocrite!) So if you want to keep orchids happy, you need to give them as much of the environment they are used to as you can. Which means when you water – you water ALL of the root system. Voila! You take the orchid in question to a sink, and you SOAK the bark, just as the rain water would. (And if, like me, you apply a diluted liquid fertilizer, you do so right after the watering and before leaving the sink.)

I don’t know of any orchids that like actual permanent immersion in water. There  are some that should not dry out. Most are epiphytes and so thrive on alternate wetting and drying. And there are some that should be kept damp. A few grow in soil and some are lithophytes, but growing in rock crevices or soil is not tantamount to standing in soggy, wet ground or bark either. Even Sphagnum moss when kept wet has lots of air holes to allow some limited drying and valuable air circulation to the roots.

Bc. Maikai ‘Mayumi’

Here’s the bottom line – unlike any random houseplant someone gives you, where you will water it every time it seems to be drying out and you give the plant two chances – live or die, orchids require specific care that is at times and in ways different from typical houseplants. Yes, you can give them the same two choices. But if you really want to keep them alive, look up the genus and find out what you can about it and try to reasonably approximate its environment – or you can read about each genus here in my website. My plants are, almost without exception, alive and healthy. My worst sin a few years back was not repotting frequently enough. I’ve atoned for that. All are now back on a very healthy growth curve, one I intend to continue!