5 Secret Orchid Care Tips from a Master Grower
John Clements, Director of Gardens at the San Diego Botanic Garden, has plenty of first-hand experience and knowledge in the mysterious world of orchids. These five tips will help you grow orchids like the master growers.
Orchids are a somewhat elusive group of plants. Their beauty has spawned appreciation societies worldwide, and their delicate look often makes beginner gardeners assume care is out of their reach. Where do you find straightforward orchid care tips that make these plants accessible to any gardener?
This is where the experts come to the rescue. John Clements, Director of Gardens at the San Diego Botanic Garden, has plenty of experience growing and collecting orchids, even producing his own hybrids over the years.
John’s expert orchid care tips go beyond regular care and into the realms of master growers. Armed with his advice, you won’t need to be afraid of growing orchids anymore.
Understand Your Orchid’s Native Environment
There are three different general types of orchids, separated by how they grow in their native environments:
Terrestrial types grow directly in the ground or potting soil. Lady’s slipper orchids (Cypripedium) are a great example, growing in everything from grassy meadows to swamps.
Epiphytic orchids, like the ever-popular moth orchid (Phalaenopsis), are slightly more common and don’t grow in standard soil. Instead, the aerial roots are exposed, often attached to pieces of wood or planted in loose bark to replicate conditions in their native environments.
Rather than absorbing nutrients from the soil, they survive on nutrients from rain and pockets of debris in plants nearby.
Lithophytic orchids don’t grow on trees but rather on rock faces or cliffs. You can also grow them in gravel aggregates for the rocky texture. The lack of nutrients means they grow slowly in their native environments but will gain a growth boost with suitable fertilizers.
These native conditions lead to differences in planting requirements, watering, fertilizing, and more. Giving your specific orchid the perfect care starts with understanding its type and how that impacts growth.
Choose The Right Potting Medium
Once you know where your orchid comes from, you can use that information to create the perfect environment for your type, starting with planting. Potting up orchids will set the stage for long-term success, so your chosen medium is vital.
The most essential characteristic is good drainage to prevent rot. This is especially important for popular epiphytic orchids that are used to air constantly flowing around the roots. Standard potting mixes (or worse, garden soil) will not provide the right conditions, ultimately leading to rot.
John recommends growing in a mixed media containing various light and airy materials. Coconut coir, bark, pumice, or different combinations of these materials are all great options for epiphytic orchids. Lithophytic orchids will need something with even less organic matter, as they are accustomed to growing on rock faces.
This only applies if you want to keep your orchids in a container. But one of the benefits of growing these unique plants is that there are many more display options. You can attach the base to a piece of driftwood, a tree outdoors, or a wooden panel that allows the roots to spread.
There are many beautiful options to choose from. But whatever you pick, make sure you take their type and native environments into account.
Propagate Your Orchids At Home
If you want to expand your existing collection, or if one of your orchids becomes too large for its existing spot, propagation is the answer. This underrated orchid care tip makes orchid gardening far more affordable.
Asexual propagation yields more of the same orchid type to move around your garden or give to friends and family, but it also relieves excessive overcrowding and can revive larger and older plants.
Orchids may look complex and delicate, but propagating at home is simple. Some methods may require more expertise, but nothing a little practice and experimentation can’t fix.
Sympodial Orchid Propagation
If you have a sympodial orchid – growing from several bulbs along a rhizome – division is the easiest propagation method. John’s rule of thumb is to only split the orchids into four bulbs or more to ensure they have the energy and resources required to survive division and grow on their own.
Monopodial Orchid Propagation
Monopodial orchids like Phalaenopsis are best propagated from plantlets, known as “keikis.” Once the plantlets have enough roots and small leaves to sustain growth in the new pot, they can be removed and repotted into a new container to continue growing.
There are several propagation methods to try, depending on which orchid you have. Don’t be scared of propagating at home if you want to grow your collection.
Start With Something Easy
You’re not alone if you’re a beginner and find growing orchids daunting. These plants have quite a reputation for being tricky to manage, especially if you want to get them to flower again. However, not all types are tough to maintain.
For beginner orchid growers, John recommends starting with something easy. These are usually the common orchid types found at garden centers or even general stores. Tough, tried, and tested, these beginner-friendly options offer an entrance into the unique world of orchid growing that isn’t as challenging as you may expect.
The first to look out for is the type most often gifted – moth orchids. Phalaenopsis are wonderfully reliable and rugged, managing some neglect while still looking their best. You’ll also have plenty of colors suiting every taste and style.
But the standard moth orchid is one of many solutions for beginners. Zygopetalums may be harder to find but are just as easy to care for. Cymbidiums are also quite popular and are typically terrestrial, providing something slightly different from the epiphytes.
Look For Something Different
John’s final orchid care tip for new growers, bound to satisfy collectors, is to watch for something different whenever you shop. You’ve likely seen rows of popular orchids with a familiar look, but if you continually keep an eye out, you should be able to spot something more unique.
One of the great benefits of growing orchids is variety. Different colors, flower shapes, growth habits, and more create a seemingly infinite list of choices to enjoy. Once you’ve grown a few, nothing stops you from creating your own hybrids to produce something truly unique.
You don’t need to go to underground plant auctions or research for weeks to find something that stands out. Even at regular grocery stores, John likes to scan the options whenever he visits to look for the one species or variety that stands apart from the rest. This way, you grow your collection and explore new types while still picking plants that are easy to grow and care for.
Orchids don’t have to be difficult plants to grow. With some knowledge and these expert tips, you’ll match up to the masters in no time.