Who is your favorite princess--fictional or IRL? (I choose a classic: Princess Diana.) Why do I ask? Well, for me, orchids seem like the princesses of the flower world--beautiful, elegant, and fairly high maintenance. But with just a bit of knowledge under your belt you can successfully grow orchids and have plant royalty in your home.
Given that it's winter in many parts of the country, this article is going to focus on growing orchids indoors, but many of the tips given can also be applied to growing orchids outdoors.
7 Practical tips for growing orchids:
1. Learn a new word.
For me, a big "Aha!" moment as an orchid grower came when I learned a new vocabulary word--epiphyte. It's pronounced epi-fight, and it means something that grows on another object. An orchid is an epiphyte because in the wild it grows on a host (i.e. a stone). Therefore, your orchid wants to grow on something like bark or pebbles. Once I realized that my orchid didn't want anything to do with potting soil I was off and running!
2. Let there be light (& lots of it)
Most orchids need six to ten hours of sunlight each day. There are variations depending on the variety of orchid. For example, phragmipediums and oncidiums require a great amount of light. Phalaenopsis hybrids and paphiopedilums require a medium amount of light, and jewel orchids require the least amount of light. (Bear in mind that even these "lesser light" orchids still need at least six hours of light per day.)
A sunny western or eastern facing windowsill is a great spot for growing orchids. If you don't have a sunny spot that gets the requisite hours of sunlight, then supplement the orchid's light with a grow lamp. Four 4-foot long florescent light tubes placed about six inches apart will work as well.
Now that you know the importance of light for the orchid, you also need to know that orchids can suffer from too much light. The orchid's leaves should not be too deep green in color or too pale green either; a medium, grassy green is best. The American Orchid Society gives this advice: "Gauge light intensity with this simple hand/eye test: Put your hand 6 inches above the leaves and look at the shadows cast. A sharp-edged shadow means high light; a soft-edged shadow indicates medium to low light; no shadow at all means the light is insufficient for an orchid to flower."
3. Consider temperature when growing orchids
Another "Aha!" moment was when I learned that my orchid could happily tolerate a fluctuation in temperature. In fact, the orchid prefers a variation in temperature from day to night. For example, an orchid that enjoys 80 degrees during the day can tolerate 50-60 degrees at night.
4. Have to have humidity
Your orchid wants humidity. Really. Wants. Humidity. If your house is dry (especially in winter) then you're going to have to take steps to ensure that your orchid has adequate humidity.
Place your orchid pot on a tray of wet pebbles. The moisture from the pebble tray will transfer to the orchid. Or you could place a humidifier near the orchid. If you have a sunny bathroom, then grow the orchid in there where it can enjoy your shower's steam.
5. Watering and feeding
Your orchid doesn't need as much water as you may think. In it's natural environment, the orchid is used to getting drenched and then having a long period to dry out. Replicate these conditions at home by soaking your orchid and then letting it dry out for a week. Some growers soak their orchid's roots for 10-15 minutes in a water bath. Others bring it to the kitchen sink and give its roots a long shower once a week.
Your orchid will appreciate a 20-10-20 fertilizer every week or two.
6. Pests and disease
Like all plants, the orchid is susceptible to pests. FineGardening.com suggests, "If pests like scale, aphids, or mealy bugs are visible remove them manually with a soft brush." Use pesticides only as a last resort.
Ensuring that the orchid has proper air circulation goes a long way towards preventing fungus and disease. Consult this guide for specific advice on diseases affecting orchids.
7. Keep your expectations real in order to stay sane.
Most orchids will only bloom once a year, but when they bloom that flower will last six to ten weeks. If you have a big event coming up that you want your orchid on display for, then it's best to buy the orchid in bloom at that time of year. In other words, if you want to have an orchid on display for your BFF's bridal shower next April, then purchase the orchid in bloom this April.
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photo of orchid via Shutterstock