Many years ago, orchid lovers needed elaborate facilities, not the least of which was a greenhouse and not just any greenhouse. It had to have all sorts of temperature and humidity controls.
Fortunately for us, we’ve learned how truly easy and simple it is to keep most orchids. There are a few that are more difficult and require specialized care, but the majority of them will do very nicely in normal household temperatures and humidity. Here’s what I have as my regular “go-to” tools:
- Sink. I know. It sounds obvious. But you would be amazed how may people think orchids need to be watered where they stand. Nope. The best advice I ever received was from one of the most prolific and successful orchid growers I ever knew. Unfortunately, he’s no longer in business, not because of any failure on the part of his business or lack of interest in orchids. He simply became too old to manage his incredible business. His place was so special one of my favorite pastimes was to just walk around his greenhouses. They had the most spectacular variety of orchids I’ve ever seen in one place in my life! But not to be distracted – his advice was to take each orchid to the sink and thoroughly wet the bark. Then drain and return the orchid to its correct spot (based on temperature and light level) until the next time it needs to be watered. His advice on frequency? For the “average” orchid (read, “most likely to be kept in a home”), twice a week. A double sink isn’t necessary, but it sure is nice! I can water (and drain) twice as fast! Note the drain matts inside both sides of the sink, and the drain matts on each side of the sink. Again, not necessary, but certainly makes a nice setup!
- Media: Bark and orchid sphagnum moss if your plants need it. Again, this is pretty obvious, unless you are so new to orchids that you don’t realize they actually need regular repotting. Coarse bark is the correct bark for most orchids. And I’m finding out that Sphagnum moss seems to work better for plants that need routinely wet roots than finely ground bark. The fine bark seems to break down faster making more of an amorphous mass that lacks air circulation, which is essential for almost all orchids. The coarse bark holds water, dries nicely, and allows plenty of air circulation. And the Sphagnum moss seems to stay moist for days on end but due to its structure, still allows plenty of air circulation. So I’m pretty much retiring my fine bark mulch.
- Fertilizer. You could keep orchids for years without feeding them. I did. My belief was that they certainly didn’t have much more than decaying bark or other detritus and occasional dead bugs in nature. So I figured, why would they need more food in my home than in the jungle? Well, I don’t know what the jungle provides that my home environment didn’t, but they needed food! See the page on “feeding.” I went through a number of orchid fertilizers, investigated serious science by serious universities studying orchid food, and finally settled on a product that is NOT orchid food at all! It’s called Hawaiian Bud & Bloom and it’s available through the “Resources” page. It is a fertilizer designed for tropical flowering plants. On the label are pictures of all sorts of exotic flowers, but no orchids. But hey, if orchids don’t, at least at times, qualify as blooming tropical plants, I don’t know what does! In any event, this product is VERY high in phosphorus, which is the ingredient that is included in plant fertilizers in general to stimulate bud and bloom development. I use it diluted in an old plastic milk jug. I mix a gallon at a time and go through a couple gallons per watering, given my 75+ orchids at any point in time. The label calls for 1 TBSP per gallon of water for its intended use with tropical flowering plants. I use it diluted to 1 TSP per gallon of water so that I can give all of the plants a little food each time I water rather than having to keep track of when to feed and when not. I simply pour some through the bark after I’ve thoroughly wet the bark in the sink. I feed from February 1 to November 30. I stop feeding for December and January to give all my plants a “rest” in the middle of the winter here (in Kentucky). I could probably stop earlier as active growth has stopped before December 1. But I really need to start feeding again February 1 because I already have plants putting out racemes (I still call them flower spikes!) Since more of my plants are in bloom in the Spring and early Summer than any other time of the year, I want those buds and blooms well supported in the months prior. I do have several orchids in bloom right now and it’s mid-February. So those are buds that had to have formed in the late fall-early winter. So I guess not all my plants were resting when they were supposed to!
- Wires and labels. Essential. The labels to keep track of what the plant is (some of the commercial tags last forever. But others fade in sunlight and need to be replaced occasionally. And the ones I hand-write with magic marker also fade over time and need to be replaced occasionally. I also put a separate label in each pot with the date it was repotted. If you have more than a few orchids it will be impossible to remember when each was repotted. The wires are not necessary on a few of the different genus’ and size of orchids, especially tiny “pups” that have been cut from the main plant and potted up separately. But most older and more mature orchids aren’t terribly stable in pots of coarse bark without wires. The bent end goes over the edge of most clay pots and tightly grasps it. And the straight wire can be bent if necessary to fit a pot, or to better secure the plant. Here is a picture of a freshly repotted Phaleanopsis. While it is no where near as large as some of my specimens, using a wire keeps the plant more secure and stable in the pot. And this is a good example of a pot that was too small for the wire to reach across while straight. So I bent it to fit. I used to purchase stainless steel rod and make up my own orchid wires on a wire bending tool. I probably saved a few cents per wire that way, but the commercial orchid wires are so cheap I stopped buying them and simply purchase them every couple of years with a new batch of plastic plant labels.
- Dormant Oil in Spray Bottle. This is my only “tonic.” We have some chemical sensitivities in the family and so we avoid toxic chemicals, which includes insecticides. Fortunately, orchids are reasonably healthy plants if you don’t bring any into your collection with diseases. Don’t buy plants that don’t look good; isolate any newcomers to your collection for weeks – months if you can arrange it. Throw out any that appear to have any sort of disease. Orchid diseases are something greenhouses and professional growers need to deal with. Us hobby collectors don’t. The dormant oil provides COMPLETE protection for me for mealybugs, aphids, and scale – the only problems I’ve experienced in going on two decades of keeping orchids. I keep it properly labeled (if you have other spray bottles, you’ll forget what’s in each. I also keep a label taped to the bottle with the mixture I use. Some products for orchard use (and dormant oil has lots of applications) there are different mixes for different applications. Once you figure out what works for you for your needs, there’s no point in having to look it up on the Internet or wade through complicated brochures or labels each time you need to mix it up again. With good hygiene, you won’t use it often. I probably spray a plant or two every month or two. As soon as I see even the smallest sign of a problem, I take the plant to the tub (in really cold weather) or preferably the back porch, spray the entire plant – all surfaces – let it dry a little, separate it from the others for a day or two, then it goes back into its usual position if there are no further signs of pests.
- Another semi-necessity (they aren’t absolutely essential, but certainly helpful!) are clips to hold racemes to stakes if they are too heavy to be self-supporting. Some of my orchids never need them. Some need them most if not all of the time.
- So here’s all I need each day when I water (the bark is kept in the outdoor shed until I need it.) This is it. Everything I need for my watering ritual. (The Red Solo Cup holds a marker or two – for tags – a “scrubby” for getting mineral deposits off the drip trays when they are occasionally cleaned, my measuring spoons for measuring the fertilizer – I do go through a lot of that – and my plastic milk jug. And the pink towel under everything in the picture has been my “orchid towel” for many years after it was retired from bathroom service. Oh, and there are a pair of scissors in the picture that are used to cut the occasional flower spike. They are generally heavy enough for root work as well when I repot. I do use some tougher garden shears to cut the heavier stem sections apart when separating Cattleyas or some such. They aren’t in the picture.
The bottom line? Orchids aren’t complicated to keep.
- Oh… and one last tool I need for my regular orchid care – good coffee!