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Tales from a Plant Addict

Fun (& a few serious) facts, tips and tricks for every gardener, new and old.

Growing Phalaenopsis Orchids at Home


It doesn't take a genius to observe that orchids, particularly Phalaenopsis orchids, are extremely popular houseplants. They seem to be just about everywhere and anywhere these days. At one time, buying an orchid plant to grow at home meant finding a specialty nursery and either making a special trip there or taking a chance and having one shipped to you.

Today, I've seen Phalaenopsis orchids for sale everywhere from big box garden centers and local nurseries to large and small grocery and discount stores. Honestly, I've seen plenty of Phalaenopsis being sold in places that really don't know much about caring for orchids. But that doesn't mean you can't buy an orchid from just about anywhere and be successful in growing it at home. There are a few practical guidelines to keep in mind.

 

Pay attention to the condition of the plant you intend to buy.

  • If the plant is in flower, look for plants where not every flower bud is open yet—this will mean more time to enjoy the flowers at home. If every bloom is open, you have no way of knowing how long they have been open, and how much longer until they fade.
  • Leaves should be firm and glossy; roots should be plump with a white velvety covering and green tips. Wrinkled, overly-floppy leaves and dried-up roots are a sign that the plant has not been watered properly, and it's likely the roots have been severely damaged— in the case of orchids, these plants are not likely to recover. Deeply discounted "clearance" plants can be a great choice if the plant is healthy.

 

Keep orchids in a good growing environment most of the time.

  • While it's tempting to put a flowering orchid in a prime spot for displaying the colorful blooms at home, this may not be the best environment for the orchid long-term. Display orchids for a day or two in sub-optimal environments if you must; but be sure to move them back to the better environment the majority of the time.
  • Avoid placing orchids in warm or cold drafts whether for display or not; these conditions will shorten bloom life and may damage or even kill the plant itself.
  • Phalaenopsis orchids prefer the same temperatures that we do—down to about 60°F at night and 70-80°F during the day. Keep in mind that windowsills can be hotter or colder than the surrounding room and direct contact with cold windows (even if it's not freezing outside) can damage plants.
  • Many people wrongly assume you need special lights or even a greenhouse to successfully grow orchids at home. That's true for some species of orchids, but one of the reasons Phalaenopsis have become such a runaway hit is they grow well in low light typical in many homes. This doesn't mean no light; but an east or west window or lightly shaded south window is usually enough light for Phalaenopsis. Too much light can sunburn Phalaenopsis leaves or cause blooms to drop.

Watering

  • Overwatering is probably the leading cause of death of Phalaenopsis orchids in the home. Their roots are adapted to absorb water quickly from tropical showers where they grow in the wild. Orchid roots need to dry out between waterings, or they are likely to rot. Make sure that plants do not sit in water; empty saucers or decorative pots after watering.
  • Phalaenopsis, and orchids in general, love humidity. Their roots can easily absorb the water carried in humid air. I have a west-facing window in our bathroom and decided to move my Phalaenopsis there, and they are absolutely thriving. Using a humidifier or trays filled with water and pebbles (the pebbles keep the plants from soaking in water) are other ways to increase the humidity around orchids.
  • If Phalaenopsis are not watered enough, the roots, and eventually the plant will shrivel and die. Thankfully there is a pretty wide window between too much water and not enough. One source I read advised that Phalaenopsis thrive on "benign neglect". In other words, leave them alone once in a while. Let them dry out between waterings. My Phalaenopsis in the bathroom get a thorough watering maybe twice per month; the humidity of the bathroom carries them through the rest of the time.
  • Keep in mind that Phalaenopsis' water needs change throughout the year; this is in contrast to some of the Phalaenopsis plants on the market that advertise watering with a defined number of ice cubes every week. While using ice cubes is one way to curtail overwatering, it doesn't take into account that the plant may need more water in the warmth of spring and summer, and less water during the cooler winter months.
  • Water-soluble fertilizers make it easy to fertilize while watering. There is no one "perfect" orchid fertilizer—even a general purpose fertilizer can produce amazing results if used regularly. I'm a big fan of the "weakly, weekly" method (or however often you need to water). Mix your chosen fertilizer at 25% (or less) of the label directions and use for each watering. Personally, I can remember to do this much more consistently than fertilizer recommendations that change with the season or depend on whether the plant is in flower or not. A weak fertilizer solution can be used even on plants in flower with no ill effects.

Pests

  • The two most common pests on orchids in the home are scale insects and mealybugs. Both can kill an orchid if left unchecked. Scale insects have a hard shell and range in color from yellow-tan to dark brown and resemble a droplet stuck to a stem, flower or leaf. Mealybugs are white and look like tufts of cotton. They like to hide on leaf undersides, and flowers. Both can be found on orchid roots largely due to the open airy nature of orchid planting mix. Inspect plants thoroughly before buying and regularly once you get them home.
  • Small infestations of either pest can be controlled with a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol. Larger infestations respond well to insecticidal soap applied regularly to control any eggs that may continue to hatch since insecticidal soap does not kill the eggs. Using insecticides in the home is not advised unless the label specifically says it is safe to use indoors. Even if it can be used indoors, use caution with insecticides especially if pets and children are nearby.

How do I convince my orchid to re-bloom?

  • Most Phalaenopsis naturally bloom once per year, with the blooms lasting for months. When the last bloom has faded, you may be able to coax the plant into producing more blooms by cutting the stem beneath where the first bloom was attached. If you're lucky, an additional flower spike will emerge from triangular sheaths of tissue known as "nodes" located further down the stem. Do this only on healthy plants.
  • Pay attention to light, water and fertilizer. Consistently providing enough of all three will go a long way to producing a healthy plant that will re-bloom.
  • Cool nights may promote re-blooming. Some sources say the key is having a 10-15 degree difference between day and night temperatures, some say it is a night temperature between 55-65°F. Either way, you may find it easier to produce these conditions by moving your Phalaenopsis outside for the warmer months. My plants flourish on a north facing, shaded porch, which is still brighter than any spot indoors over the winter. One orchid I had years ago did absolutely nothing sitting on a shelf indoors for a couple of years, but produced a flower spike within a month of going outside for the summer.

Once you've had success with one Phalaenopsis, it's highly likely more plants will find their way to your home. Phalaenopsis typically have bloom colors ranging from purple to pink, yellow, corals and white. There seems to be unlimited potential for the "novelty" types of Phalaenopsis that have wild patterns on their petals, adding to the choices you might encounter. There are also variations in size among Phalaenopsis—I particularly love the miniature cultivars. I think I've reached capacity at my house for growing Phalaenopsis, at least until I find another color bloom that I "have" to have!



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