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Orchids 101 & 102


The following two columns were originally published in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle in February of 2011, and were referenced January 3, 2015, in my column about holiday plants. A number of readers emailed asking for a copy, so I thought I would post them here for your reading convenience. Thanks! — Jane

I’ve always been somewhat put off by orchids, which is odd, considering my profession. They just seemed so difficult. But last March I received one as a gift—a white phalenopsis. It stayed in bloom for months and I grew very fond of it. Since then it’s just sat there, and I’d like to learn how to make it flower again. Then I’d like to buy another. Isn’t this how obsessions begin?

Two weeks ago the Rochester Civic Garden Center had their annual seed swap event, and Trish Gannon (of Wayside Garden Center, Macedon, Wayne County) was there to demystify orchid care and talk about the easiest ones to grow. Turns out my phalenopsis, or moth orchid, is reputed to be among the least demanding. Given that Gannon’s handout on orchid care was eight pages long, “easy” is perhaps not an appropriate description for any household orchid.

There are some general rules that apply to most epiphytic orchids. (Epiphytes are air plants. There are also terrestrial orchids you can grow indoors and hardy ones native to our area, like lady’s slippers.) First, since they would suffocate in regular potting soil, you need special orchid potting mix consisting mainly of tree bark and other chunky stuff. If you neglect to repot your orchid every couple of years, the organic matter in the potting mix will break down and become dirt. Not healthy.

Orchids need a lot of humidity. If there is a spot in your bathroom or kitchen for them, perfect. You can also mist their leaves daily with a mixture of water and fertilizer (Gannon recommends using an orchid-specific formula), being careful not to spray any flowers. Another method is to fill a tray with pebbles, put the plant on top and keep the tray filled with water. Even something as simple as placing a glass of water among the plants will help.

The plants should be watered about once a week. If you can submerge the pot (just to the top) in lukewarm water mixed with fertilizer, perfect. Let it sit there for several minutes before draining (never let any houseplant stand in water for long). If you can’t do that, overhead drenching is fine, but again be careful not to wet the flowers. Ideally, tap water should be left out in a bowl overnight in order to let any chlorine that may be present dissipate. Better yet, use rain water.

In my next column I’ll cover temperature and light requirements and how your orchids should spend their summer vacation.

“Light is really the most important factor.”

I recently visited orchid man Jim Marlow at his greenhouse in Scottsville, and this was the very first thing he impressed upon me about orchid care. You can mess around some with temperature and other variables, but if your orchid won’t bloom, chances are it’s not getting the correct light.

The phalenopsis, or moth orchid, is considered the easiest to grow, in part because it is among those that require the least light—about 1500 candles. On a sunny day at around noon, hold your hand about 12 inches above the orchid. If you see a fuzzy shadow, you have around 1500 foot candles. According to Marlow, that would be set back a little way from an east or a south window, or a little farther back from a west window. This position, or even a little less light, would also work for the slipper orchid, paphiopedilum.

Oncidiums can take a little more light, directly in an east or south window or set back from a western exposure. Cattyleas want a little more, and cymbidium a little more than that. Vandas need to be in a greenhouse, under bright artificial lights or outdoors (in summer). (Vandas also like to be watered every day.)

You can tell if your orchids are getting enough light by the leaves. It’s counterintuitive, but dark green leaves are not good. You want more of a lime green color.

Orchids also have varying temperature requirements, though for the most part, they enjoy a ten degree—or more—swing between day and night. Cymbidiums require cool temps, down to 45 or 50 degrees at night, in the fall, in order to set buds, which is perfect for our climate—just leave them outside until it gets any colder than that. Like all houseplants, orchids benefit from summering outside. Just watch that they don’t get too much sun, and keep them off the ground.

Intermediate temperatures are considered 55 or 60 degrees at night, which is about right if you live in an old house like I do. That factor, plus a good window in the dining room, is what prompted me to risk a couple of oncidiums from Marlow’s place. Fingers crossed.

A warmer home, with night temperatures around 65 degrees, is perfect for phalenopsis and certain paphiopedilum.

There is a huge amount of orchid growing information out there, much of it conflicting. Just jump in, says Marlow, and you’ll start to pick up a knack for what they need. The key is to try new things. If a particular plant isn’t thriving the way you’d like, move it. “Growing orchids—growing anything—is an experiment.”

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