Orchid Care for the Novice--An Orchid's Perspective

Kent Kobayashi
Tropical Plant & Soil Sciences Dept.
College of Tropical Agriculture & Human Resources
University of Hawaii at Manoa

Hi, there! I'm on my way home now with a neophyte who just got me--perhaps, as a gift or bought me at a local garden shop. Anyway, as Jimmy Houston, a professional bass angler, once said, "If it's important to the bass, I make it important to me." I hope my new owner feels the same way--if it's important to me, it's important to my owner!


Now, where do I want to be? Back home, I'd be in a tree, but since most people don't have trees in their homes....

In a way, I'm like people. I love comfortable surroundings--temperature, light, humidity, air movement, and so on. As they say, "All the comforts of home."

Go ahead--make my day. I need sufficient light to do well. In a home, where most of the light is incidental, I like to be fairly close to a window. Incidentally, many types of orchids do well in a sunny window, on a patio, or under lights.

If you don't have a sunny window location, additional light can be provided with fluorescent plant lights. Many orchids can be grown entirely under artificial light.

The required amount of light will determine your selection of orchid plants. If you have only one light condition, choose only plants that do well under those conditions. If space is a consideration, minature orchids may be for you.

Shading. Hand in hand with light is shading. If placed outside, I will need a little more shade. The hotter the sun, the more midday shade is required. If an orchid plant feels hot, it needs some shade or cooling.

Am I getting the right amount of light? A general rule of thumb is the color of my leaves. A healthy orchid plant in proper light has foliage that is light to medium green with the new leaves showing a soft sheen. Reddish or purplish edges on the leaves indicate the leaves are getting as much light as they can take without burning.

Too much light can bleach out the chlorophyll (green pigment in leaves), causing my leaves to look pale or yellowish-green. If the leaves become very yellow, move the orchid plant to more shade or provide more shade. Too intense a light or moving a plant from heavy shade to intense light can cause sun scalding--bleached looking spots that turn black, crispy, and dry, looking charred. Not a pretty sight!

Too low light makes my foliage dark green, and I will not flower well, if at all. If the leaves become dark emerald green, move the orchid plant to more light or provide supplemental artificial light.

Light and flowering. I will live long (and prosper) under lower than desirable light conditions, but generally won't bloom. In correct light, some orchid plants will produce a pigment that resemble plum colored freckles or suntan. This is an almost ideal situation for good blooming. Proper light is more important for good blooming than a good fertilizer regimen.


Generally, your particular temperature conditions will influence your choice of orchid plants. I'm pretty comfortable where my owner is comfortable. Most home temperatures will be acceptable for growing orchids. There are many orchids that will do well in the temperature range from 50 to 90°F. That's about 10 to 32°C for you metric people.

Guard against excessively low or high temperatures next to glass windows. Temperature extremes should be avoided, but I can survived them.


Most areas with satisfactory temperatures will have adequate humidity. Orchids prefer humidity levels between 40% and 60%. If you have adequate humidity to raise other houseplants, you have enough to raise me. Don't sweat it!

Most orchids grow in climates with moist air. Humidity can be raised by misting the leaves every morning, by using a small humidifier, or by setting the pots on pebble trays. A pebble tray is a container containing pebbles or gravel and water. Or, a rack can be placed in the tray. The bottom of the pot sits on the gravel or rack, but does not come in contact with the water.


Along with humidity goes good air circulation. In my natural environment I am exposed to constant breezes. High humidity and stagnant air provide a breeding ground for fungal problems. Good air movement also prevents cold or hot spots, which can make it more difficult for orchids to grow well. Lacking a nice, airy room, a small fan or a slightly opened window will help me (and my owner).


How much? Each particular type of orchid has its own water needs, whether for moisture or periodic dryness. Orchid plants require less water when not actively growing (generally winter months) and more while growing (generally spring and summer months). Plants with thinner, softer foliage generally require more water than those with harder, more succulent leaves and thick fleshy pseudobulbs (stems).

How often? Watch the plants; they let you know when they need water. Speaking of water, as any smart angler knows, let the fish tell you what they want.

Most orchids prefer a little drying out between watering. Just how dry depends on the variety. Most orchid plants tolerate being dryer better than staying soggy. Allow the plants to approach dryness and apply sufficient water so that it drains freely through the container. This also helps to keep salts from building up in the potting media which could cause root burn. Never allow me to sit in my own water.

Flowering orchid plants may require more frequent watering to make up for the greater load of the flowers. Plants with pseudobulbs generally need to dry out more between waterings than those without.

Roots. In general, most orchids do not tolerate excessive moisture at their roots and need some air circulation around their roots. My roots tell you if you have good watering habits. They're white, firm, and fleshy with green tips if I'm healthy. Overwatered orchid plants have few good roots, and many soggy, mushy, brown, dead ones.

Increased frequency of watering does not make up for a poor root system. If the roots are not plump and alive, repotting may be called for. The humidity can be raised to compensate for the lack of supporting root uptake.

When to water? It is best to water me in the morning or mid-day to allow my foliage to dry before night.


Fertilize with what? Most orchid potting media provide only support and have little or no food value. The plant food you use depends on the type of orchid and the type of growing media. I need to be fertilized with a product suitable for the media. When the plants are in bark, they need a high nitrogen food (such as 30-10-10). Plants in most other media need a balanced food (such as 18-18-18). You can also use a water soluble fertilizer at the dilution recommended on the label.

When to fertilize? Many orchids aren't heavy feeders so fertilizing once or twice a month is adequate. They have an long life span so fertilizer isn't critical as it is with an annual. One month's missed fertilizer won't stop blooming or mortally wound me though I may be a little hungry!

Orchids can also be fertilized every week with a dilute solution. Fertilize less often during the winter.

How much? Orchid plants do far better with too little fertilizer than with too much. The old saying, "feed weakly, weekly" is appropriate. Fertilize at a low rate of approximately one-quarter strength with a fertilizer appropriate to the potting media. Plants in lower light need less fertilizer, or the tips of leaves may start to shrivel.

Flush the pots with plain water occasionally to prevent salt buildup.


Most orchid plants need to be repotted either when they outgrow the existing pot or when the potting media begins to break down, generally every two to three years. When new rooting activity is expected or is evident, generally every one or two years. New rooting activity is indicated by succulent green root tips on plump white roots.

The steps below are general and may vary slightly, depending on the media you use:


What media mixture to use and when to repot depend on the orchid variety, climate, and the size and age of the plant. Few orchids live in "potting soil".

My roots need to dry slightly between waterings. Garden soil doesn't allow this. The main purpose of media is to provide support. Anything that does this and allows air passage is okay. Common media include commercial growers mix, blue rock, tree fern fibers, New Zealand sphagnum moss, coconut fiber, cinders, peat moss, fir bark chips, redwood bark chips, and sifted perlite.

The size of the media affects its water retention. Small chips stay more moist than large chips of the same media. If you're prone to overwater plants, think about using a drier media. If you prefer to water less, use a moister media.


Orchids occasionally have insect and disease problems. Mealy bugs, scales, and aphids bug me and can simply be washed off. Specific recommendations for pesticide use cannot be made here. Contact your local extension office or garden shop for assistance. If you do use a pesticide, please follow the instructions carefully.

Remember, have fun growing orchids; don't stress out. Otherwise, as the porcupine said to the puffer (balloon) fish, "What's the point?!"


OrchidWeb, American Orchid Society

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