15 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Growing Orchids
If you recently became the proud owner of a new orchid, you have likely already educated yourself on the basics of their care. But what about what "not" to do? In this article, gardening expert Melissa Strauss examines the most common mistakes that orchid owners make during their care routines.
So, you have decided to try your hand at cultivating orchids. Congratulations! While it is true that orchids are high maintenance, once you have an understanding of their particular needs, keeping them can be a fulfilling and beautiful hobby.
Most orchids are epiphytic, which means that they are essentially air plants. Because of this characteristic, orchids have some specific needs which differ from what we typically associate with tropical plants.
Let’s take a look at some of the most common mistakes made in the care and cultivation of orchids, discuss how to correct these mistakes and perhaps avoid them altogether.
Here are some of the most common mistakes to be made when growing orchids.
Using the Wrong Potting Mix
One of the most important factors in keeping your orchids happy is excellent drainage and good air circulation around their roots. Selecting the right potting medium is the first factor in achieving those goals. A standard potting mix is designed to hold moisture, which is something to avoid with orchids.
Ready-made orchid bark mixes are available from just about any retailer that sells orchids and gardening supplies. They contain large particles to allow air in and water out, keeping your orchid roots happy and healthy.
If you like to make your own potting mixes, a great place to start is with about 60% bark. Fir bark is the most commonly used for orchids, but pine works as well. The other 40% of the mixture should be a combination of other large particles.
Charcoal is wonderful for storing the nutrients that orchids need and absorbing minerals that could be too harsh for the roots.
Other items commonly used in orchid bark are perlite, coconut fiber, and pumice or lava rock. All of these items are excellent for keeping the mixture open and airy and for letting water pass through.
The Wrong Pot
Another factor in keeping your roots happy by creating an environment that has good drainage and air circulation is the container. Most planters are designed to retain the moisture that your plants thrive on. Orchids do not do well in these pots, as the water they hold will ultimately ravage orchid roots.
When orchid roots are saturated for a long period of time, they begin to break down, making them susceptible to fungi. Fungi will kill an orchid in a relatively short time if not managed. There are three types of containers made especially for orchids.
If you find yourself needing to repot your orchid, these are the most common containers you will find that create the environment in which an orchid will be happy.
Terracotta Orchid Pots
These are precisely what they sound like. They look very similar to standard red clay flowerpots. However, terracotta orchid pots have additional larger drainage holes in the sides and bottom, to let the water out and the air in.
Terracotta has a classic, earthy look. These pots are versatile and work indoors and out. Terracotta wicks water away from the roots and also maintains just enough moisture to keep them healthy.
Wooden Orchid Baskets
These wide-slatted hanging orchid baskets are wonderful for creating the closest environment to an orchid’s natural habitat. They have ample drainage and space for air to get in and out.
They are wood, which is an orchids natural host, and they allow for the orchid’s roots to find the air if they need more. These containers are best suited for the outdoors. They allow potting mix to fall through the openings with watering or when jostled. They also make a mess indoors.
Ceramic Orchid Pots
These are the most decorative orchid containers. They usually have lots of holes that make up a decorative pattern on the sides, as well as ample drainage in the bottom. Ceramic pots come in a wide variety of colors, shapes and sizes. They are also are great for indoor orchids.
Many of these pots come with attached water dishes. This is fine as long as your roots don’t sit in water. Make sure to drain the water out of the dish after watering to keep those roots healthy.
This is the third factor in making sure that your orchid’s roots stay happy and healthy. Orchids need water, but their roots can’t tolerate remaining wet.
Most indoor orchids need to be watered about once per week. If the container and potting mix allow for good drainage, this will ensure that the roots are able to absorb the water they need, and the surface can dry out in between waterings.
If your orchids live outdoors, this is less of an issue, as they will dry more quickly with the added heat and air movement. In the summer, outdoor orchids can be watered every few days. Twice a week is usually enough if you give them a good long drink.
There are a few different ways to water orchids, and all of them are effective. Soaking orchid roots in water for a few minutes is great for allowing the roots to absorb the water they need.
Watering from the top down is effective as long as you allow the water to flow over the roots for a long enough time that they can absorb a sufficient amount.
Watering with ice cubes has also been studied and found to be effective at keeping orchids happy. This method is especially helpful for anyone who tends to overwater.
With so much focus on avoiding overwatering, it can also be easy to end up underwatering in an attempt to keep from running into issues with rot. An under-watered orchid is unlikely to produce much growth or many flowers.
Once again, the potting mixture and container are major factors in this case. If your orchid is potted correctly, you should be able to water it once per week without concern of root rot.
Clues to look for in a dry orchid are in the leaves and roots of the plant. Since roots are more difficult to see, we will start with leaves. In some types of plants, dry roots manifest in yellow leaves.
Orchid leaves won’t turn yellow as quickly, but they will begin to wrinkle and shrivel on the surface. Dry leaves can also be droopy and wilted.
Dry orchid roots have a distinctive look as well. Healthy orchid roots are typically green or white, smooth, and plump.
Some orchids, such as oncidiums, have thinner, finer roots, while phalaenopsis has thicker, firmer roots. Dry orchid roots are gray and will also have a wrinkled, dry appearance.
Not Enough Humidity
We know that an orchid’s central roots can only absorb a certain amount of water based on the amount of contact they have with water and the frequency of watering. In nature, orchid roots only get a drink when it rains, but this often happens in areas where orchids are common.
Most places where orchids grow in the wild also have high levels of humidity. Orchid have adapted to this climate by producing aerial roots that aid in absorbing water closer to the upper leaves where it doesn’t get used up along the way, in the way that water taken in from the central roots tends to.
Orchids take in a lot of the water and nutrients they need from the air around them, so the air needs to have plenty of water for them to collect.
The amount of humidity an orchid needs varies according to the type of orchid but as a rule, no lower than 50%, and no higher than 80% is a good range. Vandas and Miltonias like to be on the high end, while phalaenopsis and cattleya stay closer to the low end.
Because of the type of potting mix used to protect orchid roots, there is not much in the way of nutrients to be absorbed. Charcoal helps, but the nutrients have to be taken in by the charcoal to make that function as it should.
Orchids love to be fertilized and in fact, they can take fertilizer every 1-2 weeks during their growing and flowering seasons. They can be fertilized every 3-4 weeks when dormant.
As with potting mix, specialty orchid fertilizers are usually available in any place where fertilizers and orchids are sold. These solutions have a good balance of nutrients that will keep your orchid perky and blooming. If you prefer to use one fertilizer universally, a standard, balanced fertilizer diluted to ½ strength will also work just fine.
Think about supplementing with an Epsom salt solution every few weeks to remove buildup from the roots and give an extra dose of magnesium. A bonemeal solution can also be used quarterly to help boost root integrity and blooms with added calcium and phosphorus.
While orchids love fertilizer, there is such a thing as too much fertilizer. This mainly pertains to using an all-purpose fertilizer, and not diluting it. If you are using a fertilizer that it made specifically for orchids, following the directions on the package will typically achieve the desired results.
If you have chosen to go the route of an all-purpose fertilizer, it is important to dilute the solution. When using a 10-10-10 fertilizer, dilute by ½ of what the directions indicate. If you are using a 20-20-20 fertilizer, dilute to ¼ of the recommended concentration.
Fertilizers can leave a buildup on orchid roots, so it is important to rinse your orchid roots regularly with clean water to remove buildup.
Epsom salt is valuable in this way, a rinse made up of 1 tbsp of Epsom salt in 1 gal. of water is a great solution to help cleanse orchid roots, while giving a boost to the plant’s chlorophyll production.
Too Much Sun
The amount of sun an orchid needs varies about as much as the humidity level. Some orchids, like cattleyas, can tolerate a few hours of direct sun.
In particular, the morning sun will help these orchids to flower, and their tougher leaves will tell you ahead of time if they are getting too much. A phalaenopsis orchid, or an oncidium, will be far less forgiving. Once a phalaenopsis leaf burns, it cannot be revived and will need to be removed to prevent issues with rot.
Most orchids are happy with bright, indirect or filtered sunlight. They grow in trees, so they get their sun filtered through the canopy in the wild. There are several ways to achieve this.
Setting your orchid next to a brightly lit window but just out of the sun’s direct path, works well. A sheer curtain, or privacy glass will also create enough of a filter for most orchids.
Paying attention to the color of the leaves is most helpful in determining whether your orchid is receiving enough sun. If the leaves begin to look paler, yellowing from the ends toward the center, or worse, bleached white in large splotches, it’s likely that you are giving it too much sun.
Not Enough Sun
Too much sun is bad for an orchid. But what about too little sun? Most orchids can survive in levels of sunlight that are suboptimal for most tropical plants.
An orchid will continue to grow and produce leaves as long as all other factors are in line and it is getting a little bit of light. However, an orchid that doesn’t get enough light will not bloom.
Things to look for if you suspect your orchid needs more light are; darker leaves, paired with the growth of leaves but no flowering for an entire year. An orchid that wants more light will also lean and grow toward the nearest light source.
If your orchid appears to be reaching for the nearest window, do it a favor and give it a nudge in that direction. Sometimes all it takes is moving it a few inches.
Not Inspecting Regularly
With as sensitive as orchids to damage, and as many issues that can crop up in orchid care, it is particularly important to keep a close eye on your plant. This way, you will notice early on if there is an issue and can mitigate the damage by acting on it promptly.
There are some issues that are difficult to detect until the damage has been done, but most things can be resolved if they are not allowed to progress for long.
Inspect your orchid’s leaves on top and especially the bottom. Learn to recognize the texture and color variations so that if these things change, you will notice them early on. Look for signs of insects which includes the insects themselves, as well as the material evidence of their existence.
Mealybugs and scales, for instance, leave behind a clear, sticky excrement called honeydew. Honeydew allows black sooty mold to grow, which interferes with light absorption and photosynthesis. Spider mites weave a fine web beneath leaves and break down the cell walls, leaving the tops of leaves yellow and brown in the center.
Any time you see yellowing on the leaves, in the area nearest to the rhizome, on any leaves aside from the oldest set, there is cause for concern.
If there is an issue with nutrient absorption, this is where it will show up first and gradually spread and cause the leaves to weaken and fall. Nutrient deficiency can be caused by pests, root rot, and lack of fertilizing.
The most important thing to do when you discover an orchid is ailing is to isolate it away from other plants. Insects, fungi, and bacteria can all be spread, and if you don’t isolate the plant, all other nearby plants can be compromised.
The best defense against insects and diseases is good plant hygiene. Check all new plants over before bringing them into the environment, and always use clean tools any time you do any cutting.
Orchids do not need to be pruned regularly. Pruning orchid foliage will not encourage new growth. In fact, the energy expended in healing the cuts can slow the growth of the plant and prevent flowering. Orchids will naturally drop their flowers, so deadheading is not necessary either.
While many flowering and non-flowering plants benefit from pruning after they bloom, there is little need to remove any foliage from an orchid plant unless it is diseased or damaged.
For sympodial orchids such as Cattleya, Cymbidium, Dendrobium, and Oncidium, it can be very tempting to remove spent pseudobulbs. After a pseudobulb produces an inflorescence, it will not produce another.
However, it is important to leave these older pseudobulbs intact as they contain nutrients that help support new growth. Only remove them when they have dried out and turned brown.
There are a couple of occasions on which an orchid needs to be pruned. The first and simplest is pruning the flower spike after the blooms have fallen.
While this is not a necessity, trimming the leftover stem once it turns brown will help the plant redirect energy toward new growth. Locate the node closest to the plant and use a clean, sharp tool to slice off the stem about an inch above that node.
The other occasion is in the event of damage to the foliage of the plant. If your plant has leaf damage caused by pests, diseases, or sunburn, it is best to remove the damaged leaves.
These leaves which have been compromised are more susceptible to fungus and bacteria, as well as being a drain on the plant’s resources. A healing plant needs all the energy it can muster to go to the healthy roots and foliage.
Not Enough Air Circulation
We have discussed the fact that orchid roots need proper air circulation to maintain optimal health. This need doesn’t stop with the potting mix and container.
Because of orchids’ high humidity needs, they also need to be in a spot where there is proper air circulation in the space surrounding the orchid.
A cool, damp environment, such as a humid room inside of a cool house, is a breeding ground for fungus. There are many types of diseases that thrive in this sort of environment which can decimate an orchid.
The solution to this issue is maintaining good air circulation in the room. This keeps the orchid, and everything else in the room dry and free from the growth of unwanted organisms. A fan is a great tool if there is poor circulation in the room.
Too Much Touching
Plants in general, do not like to be handled or touched at all. Handling an orchid too much can happen by moving it around excessively, inspecting the foliage, or repotting frequently.
Orchids only need to be repotted when they are clearly overgrowing their containers. An orchid’s roots will grow through the holes in its container to reach for the air.
This is not a cause for repotting. Only repot if the potting mix begins to break down, the roots have been compromised, or the plant has overgrown the container.
There is more than one school of thought on this topic. Truthfully, it depends greatly upon the environment in which you keep your orchids. If your orchids live outside, misting them isn’t likely to do much harm as the water will evaporate quickly. However, misting orchids that live indoors can be tricky.
It’s never a good idea to mist orchid flowers. Water pooling in flowers can quickly lead to the rotting of delicate tissue. This issue is apparent with leaves as well. It’s important to keep water from lying in the leaves and flowers of an orchid to keep fungus at bay.
While there are a lot of factors to consider when cultivating orchids, a solid understanding of how they grow in nature and what their particular light, water, and humidity requirements are will go a long way toward growing a healthy, thriving plant. Check out my orchid guides for more specific information about the different genera of orchids.