The Care and Maintenance of Orchids
Everyone loves orchids and we are no exception. The most common variety is Phalaenopsis, the moth orchid. That’s the variety we’ll be focusing on here. While their long-lasting flowers are sure to brighten any house, keeping them alive can be a challenge.
In order to grow happy orchids, you have to mimic their natural habitat. Phalaenopsis orchids are tropical epiphytes, which means they grow on the bark of trees high in the canopy where sunlight is available. Because of this, they have air roots. These roots have a special layer of cells, called the velamen, that looks gray when it’s dry and becomes transparent when it’s wet, showing the darker tissues hidden underneath as seen in the pictures below:
The velamen helps the plant hold onto their host tree, absorb water and nutrients, and protect the layers of photosynthetic and conductive tissues in the roots. Their roots like to be exposed to air, sun, and water, so potting them is crucial for the health of the plant.
Most commercially grown orchids are sold in solid ceramic pots with a flexible plastic liner, like this:
While these pots are pretty, they don’t have drain holes, so if you overwater the orchid, the roots will rot. For this reason, it is recommended to use orchid pots like this one:
You can find orchid pots at home improvement stores, the internet, or you can hire a potter to make them for you. The holes on the sides and bottom provide air flow and allow the roots to grow in all directions, like they would in the wild.
Choosing the right potting media is just as important as finding the right pot. Phalaenopsis prefer bark and perlite, often sold as ‘orchid mix’ at home improvement stores. It comes in several varieties, ‘coarse’ and ‘fine’ being the most readily available:
While orchid mixes provide the best drainage, most orchids come potted in sphagnum moss like this:
Sphagnum holds moisture for days, which keeps the orchid alive while it’s waiting to be purchased, but once you get it home, monitor the roots daily to make sure they’re not in standing water. When your orchid is done blooming, you should transplant it into orchid mix.
If you live in a dry area, your orchids will need plenty of water. Many people use ice cubes to water their orchids, but remember, these are tropical plants and don’t like to be near anything freezing.
An orchid pot paired with orchid potting mix will provide a lot of ventilation, so it's recommended to keep orchids in catch trays that always have water in them, like this:
This standing water will increase the humidity in the air around the orchid, which they love, and will wick into the bark, keeping the roots moist. For air roots that grow above the pot, water them a couple of times a week using a spray bottle. The fine mist of water is perfect for Phalaenopsis.
Every other month, add diluted orchid fertilizer to the bark at the base of the plant. This will keep your orchids growing beautifully and flowering regularly.