Lisa's Voice

How to Save Your Orchid in 10 Easy Steps

Mother’s Day’s coming, a time to give and receive flowers, many of which include roots, the promise of perennial life, and dread. Ever since I started sharing my orchid photos on social media, people mistake me for an orchid expert. They don’t mistake me for an orchid photographer, which, frankly, kinda hurts. Instead of asking me what F-stop I use (it’s an old iPhone), they ask horticulture questions, like “Why do orchids hate me so much?”

I can teach you how to make sure you and your new orchid love each other year after year. Although I see myself as a newcomer to the hobby, I recently looked at my records and realized I’ve been hardcore collecting, caring for, and killing orchids for seven years. I say hardcore because if a hobby requires record-keeping, it fits the definition of hardcore–“without hope of remedy or change.”

I know I have it bad. When I go to Home Depot to pick up a can of paint, I check the garden section to “see if they got anything new.” I attend orchid shows swearing I won’t buy orchids, and I never leave without orchids. I even buy genera I’ve never grown before.

Plus, I use words like “genera.”

Mick, Maisie, and a Dendrobium Hono Hono
Paphiopedilum Gina Short
Schomburgkia Grandiflora
Cattleya Iwanagaara Appleblossom

Even though I’m cultivating orchids (i.e. “mostly not killing”) in 41 different genera, I still think of myself as a novice because the more I learn, the more I understand how little I know about orchids. I also learn more about my own shortcomings. I’m lazy about fertilizers (I have twelve kinds and only use two). I’m terrified of pesticides—I’m a deeply biophilic person who rescues cockroaches and mosquitos. That’s why I’m so ashamed to admit that millions of mealy bugs, thrips, and snails have paid with their lives for my flower photos. Perhaps sharing some of what I’ve learned with you can help make amends.

Watering day

First, let’s dispel two orchid myths:

  1. “Orchids are easy to grow.” Whoever said this got lucky. This lucky fool got an orchid that was happy with the habitat. The habitat includes the fool’s behavior, which may involve dropping an ice cube in the pot once in awhile or even flinging the plant out the window and forgetting about it until it erupts in blooms. They met their orchid soulmate. Good for them. Oh, and by the way—is that orchid still alive today?

  2. “Orchids are hard to grow.” Whoever said this got unlucky. This sad sack happened to get an orchid that hated the habitat, which included a human who was unwilling or unable to solve the orchid riddle before the plant perished.

    I’m casting no shade on orchid assassins. I’ve killed my share and have their sap on my hands.
Dendrobium Pierardii

Next, here are two of my hard-earned truths:

  1. Orchids are living beings. Even orchid clones are individuals. Two plants taken from the same plant may fare differently in the same circumstances. You not only have to do a little research to learn what the genus or species likes in general, you have to pay attention to how your individual plant responds to your care and adjust accordingly.
  2. There are two kinds of orchid growers: Darwinians and Nurturers. If you’re a survival-of-the-fittest Darwinian type, keep buying orchids who like what you offer and throw the whiners in the trash like last-week’s rotten broccoli. However, if you’re a codependent Nurturer like me, your self-worth depends on your ability to discern and meet the obscure and ever-changing needs of those who can’t or won’t communicate with you. You’ll find satisfaction caring for every frail or sickly plant until it thrives. For us, orchid-growing is a sport, and this is the Codependent Olympics.
I loved this Encyclia Nursery Rhyme, and it died anyway.
Years later, when I recovered from mourning, I bought another Encyclia Nursery Rhyme, but it’s not the same. See the white stripes?

Orchids in the same species or even cuttings from the same plant will have their own characteristics and personalities.

Okay, now let’s save your orchid.

Assuming you bought this orchid on impulse or someone gave it to you as a gift, nine times out of ten, it’s a Moth Orchid, otherwise known as a “Phalaenopsis” (fal-uh-NOP-siss).

Fun fact: “phalaenopsis” is Ancient Greek for “kinda looks like a moth.”

Tip: if you call them “fals,” you’ll sound cool. You’ll feel more confident, and you’ll already be well on your way to winning the Orchidmania Game.

Whether your orchid’s a phal or not, follow the advice below, and you should be okay for a while. If you follow these ten tips, most if not all orchids will enjoy life the life you provide .

Disclaimer: Orchids who want more light or need to be “wintered” won’t bloom, but at least you won’t kill them.

Following these ten tips will buy you the time to figure out what they need to rebloom.

Phals usually come without a species name. When that’s the case, it’s a “No ID” or “NOID.” You get to name it yourself! I call this one “Dragon Whiskers.”

The Ten Steps to Not Killing Your Orchid

1. Do nothing except enjoy the flowers while they last.

Simply place your orchid where you most enjoy it (as long as it’s not in direct sunlight) and keep it slightly moist until all the flowers fall off.

Kinda looks like a moth, yeah?
My daughter gave me this phal on Mother’s Day 2019, and it’s bloomed every year.
So far.

2. When the last flower has faded, you can cut off the stem.

Clean a pair of scissors or snips with rubbing alcohol or a flame and snip the stem close to the leaves.

Even if it’s still green, cut the empty stem close to the leaves.

3. Repot your plant.

A phal in bloom is a phal that desperately needs to be repotted, which is why so many die and humiliate us.

You, however, are now in possession of The Orchid Secret.

You’ll need:

  • A plastic pot that’s the next size up. Clear plastic is nice because you can see the roots, but it’s not necessary.
  • Sphagnum moss (“sfag-nuhm”). Warning: if you say “SPAG-num,” the cool kids won’t let you sit at their lunch table. It’s not spaghetti.
  • Optional: orchid bark.
Save us, we’re DYING! (But let us finish blooming first.)

4. Gently slide your plant out of its old pot.

The decay of old potting material and dead roots is the most common cause of new orchid death. As potting material breaks down, it becomes dirt, and dirt holds too much moisture, not enough air. Orchids are epiphytes (EP-uh-fights), meaning they grow above the ground, clinging to trees or other plants. They HATE having their roots in dirt. That’s why, when in doubt, repot.

5. Tease the old potting material away from the roots.

Most likely, the medium is almost entirely sphagnum moss. Deep in what you might call your phal’s “privates,” if it had those, there’s also usually a rectangular piece of mystery foam that got your orchid started when it was a baby. This foam needs to go. Gently break it apart with your fingernails and pull it free.

6. With sterilized clippers, snip away any soft roots that easily collapse between your fingers.

Leave only the firm white/green roots (Phal roots are white when they’re dry and green when they’re saturated with water. They like to be dry, just not too dry for too long). You can cut aggressively; roots do grow back surprisingly well, but if it makes you queasy to amputate, don’t. That’s okay.

I’m repotting “Green Valley Victim,” which hasn’t bloomed in a decade. Plus, I’ve nearly killed it a few times–once with crown rot.

7. If you splurged on orchid bark, put a few pieces in the bottom of your pot. Otherwise put some moss down there. You want to know how much moss vs. bark? Well, here’s another secret:

  • Tip: your phal doesn’t need any potting medium at all! But here’s the thing: what kind of grower are you, a Darwinian or a Nurturer? The less moisture-retaining potting material, the more of your attention your orchid may need. For example, I have a lot of mounted orchids (aka. bare root or “nudists”), and they need to be misted every day, especially during growing season when it’s hot. Are you seriously going to do this? We set up an irrigation system, but we’re hardcore. Are you? Is this what you want?
  • If you use a mixture of bark and moss in a plastic pot, you might get away with watering twice a week as you would a regular houseplant. Press the mixture with your finger—if it’s moist, don’t water it. Water is not love!
  • If you fill the entire pot with moss, it’ll hold water longer. That’s why the commercial growers used it, because they didn’t trust shippers and storekeepers to show their orchids some love. Do you want your orchid independent or codependent? If you need some emotional space, use sphagnum moss. Keep in mind, moss compresses and breaks down faster than bark, so your orchid can only breathe in it for about a year, which is how long it takes to rebloom. That’s why, when you see a phalaenopsis flowering in a store, it’s singing its silent swan song. That plant that needs a fresh pot.
I put bark in the bottom to help it drain. I left the yellow root because it was firm and had green near the end.

8. Gently set your orchid’s roots in the pot, and set it close to the side, so the leaves have room to grow across the surface, which is what most people do. Fill in with your medium of choice and gently but firmly press down so the roots are snug.

However, if you’re too lazy to soak your phals or water carefully like I am, the more your phal can lie sideways or even hang over the edge, the less likely water will get in the crown and cause rot. I actually hang my phals at an angle so water runs out. Grower, know thyself.

I topped it off with sphagnum moss and aimed the growth over the edge, as is my way. I’ll relocate “Green Valley Victim” where it gets more light and hopefully it’ll soon have a new name–how’s “Green Valley Phoenix?”

9. Neglect it, but pay attention.

They’ll tell you phals need filtered morning sun (eastern window with blinds or shears) and the same temperature range you do, but some of us don’t have room for phals in eastern windows–or even have an eastern window. The truth is, I’ve seen phals bloom in north-facing windows, but also fail to bloom. My phals live outside facing north and receive light reflected off my pool. They survive Florida summer swelter, and most bloom. Basically, if after a year your phal doesn’t bloom and the leaves are very dark, it needs more light. Move it, but don’t let it get unfiltered direct light. Twice I’ve sunburned phals, and it’s awful. You think it’s just the top leaves, but no–the entire plant cooked.

They also tell you to water from the bottom up (soak the pot for 5 minutes rather than pour water into it, because if water runs into the crown of the plant, it could get crown rot, which is fatal. My sloppy sloshing has given crown rot to two phals, and I don’t like to brag, but I saved them from the brink–that’s a horror story for another day.

Also, if you want to give your orchid a better chance of reblooming, they say fertilize “weekly weakly.” Catchy, huh? Best bet is to get a 20-20-20 and put a scant teaspoon per gallon of water. If in doubt, feed LESS, not more.

Two phals receiving the same indirect light from my pool. The one on the right hasn’t bloomed in years. See how dark the leaves are? In order to bloom, this phal needs to be relocated. The other eight don’t. Go figure.

10. When your orchid reblooms, rejoice!

You’ve won the Orchidmania Game!

And when the flowers fade, repeat and repot.

Laelia Purpurata “The Witch’s Jewel” is my favorite species.
I’ve killed two.
One of my best bloomers, nicknamed “Profusia,” suffered an inexplicable die-back, but here she is, blooming again!

Your Orchid is Saved!

Now, I bet you’d really like a sumptuous cattleya, or maybe a dazzling miltassia. Aren’t those bulbophyllums freaky? I wonder if the next orchid show will have another zygopetalum hybrid?

It’s not a problem. I swear. You can quit anytime.

“Lisa, I think you have enough orchids.”

6 replies »

  1. What a fun, funny and instructive post! Gorgeous pictures! I had an orchid once – a simple lavender one. I loved it dearly. It departed too soon. I’d warned my friend when she gave it to me… but ahhh, it was lovely while it lasted. I will live vicariously through yours…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, Lisa, this is a wonderful tutorial for those of us trying to not kill our orchids! They are so tough and yet can die away like a diva on stage at any time. My oldest one, maybe 20 years old and a hand-me-down from my sister, gradually moved out of its pot and plastered its roots to the outside of the empty pot and upside-down birdbath bowl I put it on, but year after year it blooms and re-blooms. But two others nearby never bloom. My new indoor ones need new pots I think, from your article. Wish me luck! and thanks so much.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I grew up in a San Diego suburb. When the kids had moved out, my dad started growing orchids on our deck. (He always grew roses for her, gladiolas for me, fruit trees, and a vegetable garden.) He made a deal with our local florist. When a corsage-worthy day was approaching, he would take several orchids to her. Together, they would choose the blossoms and bows. The orchids not used in Mother’s corsage would be kept by the florist as payment. Daddy always knew there would never be another corsage like the one Mother was wearing.

    Liked by 1 person

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