How to Repot Orchids in 7 Easy Steps
Are you thinking of moving your orchids into a new pot? While it sounds like it might take some work, repotting is actually quite common and easy to do if you follow the proper steps. In this article, gardening expert Melissa Strauss walks through seven simple steps to repotting your orchids.
Orchids are some of them most well-loved house plants, and some the most finicky of plants when grown outside of their native habitat. This is particularly true for epiphytic orchids. While about 30% of orchids are terrestrial, meaning that they grow in the ground, the vast majority are epiphytic, or air plants, attaching themselves to trees and other structures, and obtaining water and nutrients from the air.
Regardless of the orchid type, most will eventually outgrow the pot they are sold in and need to be repotted. Depending on the genus and variety, this can happen rather quickly, or can take quite a few years. Repotting may also need to occur when your potting medium breaks down into very small pieces. This inhibits airflow around the roots and holds too much moisture.
So if you are looking to repot your orchids, you’ve come to the right place. Read on to find out everything you need to know about repotting the two different types of epiphytic orchids!
First, a Word About Epiphytic Orchids
Epiphytic orchids, in nature, grow from miniscule seeds, which fall from a pod and attach themselves to fungi. The fungi are able to break down nutrients that the seeds need, which aids in germination.
Here, they grow their roots around the bark of trees or other structures, where their water and nutrient needs are fulfilled by the air that circulates around the roots.
Sympodial means that the plant grows individual pseudobulbs along a central rhizome, or main stem. Each of these pseudobulbs has its own separate system of roots, so these plants are relatively easy to divide.
Monopodial orchids are a bit different in that the entire plant has only one root system and grows upward continuously.
If you live in zones 10-12, it is possible to leave orchids outside year-round, and they can simply be tied onto the trunk of a tree and allowed to grow in the air. If you are living in a cooler climate, however, you will need to bring your orchids indoors in the colder months, or you may want to grow them year-round, as house plants.
They will need to be planted in a fashion which mimics this native habitat, but is also portable, so you don’t find yourself trying to drag an oak tree through your bathroom window in November.
Step 1: Choose the Right Potting Medium and Pot
As epiphytic plants, orchids need a lot of air circulation and very well drained potting medium. Premixed orchid potting mix is widely available and is a great way to minimize the cost of repotting, unless you have quite a number of plants.
If you prefer to mix your own potting medium, a good, simple mixture is 80% fir or birch bark and 20% sphagnum moss. A bit of charcoal or clay pellets can be added to this to keep your medium from compacting, and to allow proper drainage.
When choosing a pot, keep in mind that orchids thrive with a lot of air circulation around their root systems. Pots made specifically for orchids typically come in four forms.
The most common type of plant specific pots are sold in is a clear plastic pot with drainage holes around the sides and in the base. This allows for maximum drainage and air circulation, but it’s not particularly ornamental.
There are three common types of ornamental orchid pots. The first is the wooden, slotted, hanging basket. This is a great way to mimic the natural habitat because it allows for air circulation on all sides. Another good option are terracotta pots with large drainage holes on the sides and bottom.
The clay helps to absorb water and keep the roots from staying damp between watering. The third type are glazed, ceramic pots with drainage holes cut into the sides, often in a decorative pattern. While these are pretty, they don’t allow for maximum drainage if they do not drain freely at the base.
Step 2: Remove the Plant
Orchid roots are very susceptible to fungus and disease, so care must be taken to keep the roots as intact as possible when removing the orchid from its former home.
Sometimes the roots become very attached to their home and don’t want to pull away easily. If they succumb to disease, you’ll notice telltale signs from your orchid after repotting, like wilted leaves, and yellowing.
If you are removing the orchid from a clay pot, soaking the pot in water for 15 minutes will help loosen the roots. This will be less of an issue with a wooden pot, where the roots should come away easily with a bit of sideways pressure from a thumb.
Gently pull the pot away from the plant, taking care to break as few roots as possible. Shake off any of the potting mix that can be removed from the root system and rinse the roots in lukewarm water.
Step 3: Make Plant Divisions
Here we diverge slightly, as division works differently for sympodial orchids and monopodial orchids. Because of the way their root systems work, the two types cannot be divided in the same manner.
Sympodial orchids are much easier to propagate because of their root system. All orchids have a central rhizome or main stem. A sympodial orchid’s rhizome runs horizontally and individual pseudobulbs, each sporting one or two leaves grow upward from the rhizome.
Roots grow downward from the length of the rhizome, so if separated, each pseudobulb can technically support itself with only the nutrients stored within itself and its leaves. That said, it is not recommended to separate single pseudobulbs as they will not thrive in the same way as a plant with the support of other spent pseudobulbs.
A good rule of thumb is that any divisions should have at least 4 pseudobulbs. Whether they are spent or new is less important, as even the spent pseudobulbs contain nutrients to support new growth and any leaves they keep will continue to participate in photosynthesis.
A division can be made by simply cutting the rhizome between two pseudobulbs. Each plant will then continue to grow from the cut end. You can dip the cut rhizome in a mixture of sulfur and cinnamon to protect it from disease and fungus.
Monopodial orchids will typically not need to be divided for any reason aside from propagation, although repotting for increased circulation is still recommended.
Because they grow upward, they tend to have plenty of aerial roots, which grow above the potting medium. The purpose of these roots is to hold to any nearby structure to help the orchid support itself, as well as to aid in the absorption of water and nutrients.
If you are dividing for propagation purposes, a single cut can be made to the plant’s rhizome (which resides in the center of the plant, lengthwise) in any way that you are left with leaves on both portions.
The old plant can be left to recover in its original pot, while you move on to create a new home for the top portion. The old plant will continue to grow new leaves, and the new plant will grow its own root system.
Step 4: Prep the Plant
Soaking the roots for a short time can be helpful in making them pliable and easier to situate into the new space without snapping. There are a couple of things to check for after soaking, that will help you to determine if your prior care was optimal for the orchid.
If the roots are black, they are being overwatered. If the roots are dry prior to soaking and become mushy, and brown in color, your plant needs more water. You can use this observation to adjust your watering habits with the newly repotted plant.
If the roots are mostly green and flexible, your orchid is happy and well adjusted. Keep up the good work! Gently trim away any dead or dying roots with a clean, sharp tool. Sprinkling a little cinnamon on areas that have been torn or cut will help to prevent fungus from damaging the plant before it has the opportunity to heal.
Step 5: Situate the Plant in its New Container
Here again, we diverge slightly between our sympodial and monopodial varieties. The reason for this divergence is the direction in which the plant will grow in relationship to the container.
Sympodial orchids grow horizontally across that main rhizome, sending up new pseudobulbs, one after another. For this reason, sympodial orchids should be situated with the oldest spent pseudobulb against one side of the pot, allowing it to move across the pot as it produces new growth.
Fill in the rest of the pot with potting medium to hold the roots in place. A sympodial orchid needs a bit of space to grow within the container, so keep this in mind when selecting a new pot.
I can’t stress enough that it is best to leave a sympodial plant with some of its spent pseudobulbs, particularly if they have leaves, for the purpose of supporting new growth.
For monopodial orchids, pot size is important. If there is not enough room, the roots will be cramped and pinched. This can lead to root breakage, and vulnerability of the plant.
A pot that is overly large will absorb too much moisture and the roots will rot. Position the plant in the center of the pot and fill in around the roots with potting medium.
Step 6: Secure the Plant in Place
Because of the loose and unstable nature of orchid potting medium, you may find it helpful to secure the plant in place using a second method. Orchid clips are very helpful in clay pots.
These small metal clips hook onto the side of the pot. There is a long piece of metal that extends over the top of the potting medium and will help hold everything in place until the orchid has re-established itself.
Another option, and one that works well with wooden orchid pots, is the florist’s wire. You can run the wire back and forth across the top of the medium, avoiding cutting into the plant. Secure it at the starting and stopping point and trim any excess.
This creates a sort of safety web, should your orchid take a tumble or fall victim to some heavy wind, the wire will help keep some of the potting medium, as well as the plant, safely in its container.
Step 7: Water Thoroughly
The last step, as with any repotting, is to water the orchid into its new home. All of that shifting around can be stressful on a plant and it may need a little extra water, and some fertilizer doesn’t hurt, to help it get acclimated.
The optimal watering practice for orchids is to soak the pot, and roots in water, about once per week if indoors, more if outdoors. Only watering the roots will help to prevent leaf rot from water pooling in the stems and leaves. Then set the plant in a place where the excess water can drain off.
Repotting your orchid every year or two will not only maintain a healthy environment by maximizing airflow. It also gives you the opportunity to inspect the roots and determine whether you are giving the plant what it needs in terms of watering.
Repotting in general is a labor of love that we as gardeners do for our plants. Much like pruning it promotes health and growth of the plant.
In the case of orchids, regular repotting helps to maintain the maximum amount of airflow around the roots, enabling it to absorb what it needs from the air. Maintaining a healthy root system is the fastest way to make your orchids create new growth and new blooms.