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Growing Moth Orchids
by Shonna Lee Leonard
by Shonna Lee Leonard

Freelance Writer & Maverick of Organic Gardening & Living.

Certificate in plant based nutrition from eCornell and the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies.

Some of my credits include East Coast Gardener, You Magazine, The Complete Canadian Gardener Magazine, Coastlife Magazine, Organic Times, The Plowman Journal, Parents-n-kids Magazine to name a few, and I was the garden columnist for The Bluenose Tribune before its unfortunate demise. I won the Stokes Says Outstanding Gardener Award in 1999. I gladly offer my writing skills to charities and the like as we all need to help others in some small way

March 27, 2018

The Phalaenopsis, or moth orchid as it’s commonly called, is an incredible houseplant for those of us who enjoy something a little different growing inside our homes. I have learned much over the last 10+ years I have been growing them, and in that time I learned that they are quite easy to grow. But easy means something different to everyone based on their previous experience with plants, and is a very relative term. So in this article I will explain the basics of growing them, which is something else that I have learned after countess hours researching their care in those early days with them- their care depends greatly on not only where you live, but also the individual climate inside of each home that they reside in. I live in a very old house, so the humidity is much greater in the spring, summer and autumn, and that means I need to water them much less. Other people I know in this same area must water frequently in the warm months, and less in winter. But I water more in winter with a woodstove going as well as oil heat. So keep that in mind as you read this article, much depends on where you live, so please use this as a general guideline only.

But a word of warning here is only fair- they can very, very addictive! With each one I have bought, I would always tell myself that this one would be the last one. Now I have dozens of them! But they, as well as my large air plant collection, have become by far my favourite plants inside of the house. There is not one day that there isn’t something in bloom here, and even more stunning is when I have several or half a dozen or more blooming at the same time. Bliss!

Containers & Growing Medium- Although these beauties come in a clear plastic pot with air slits, it is always nested inside a decorative pot or container as a more aesthetically pleasing presentation to the consumer. These orchid roots actually prefer to get light like they would in their native habitats, clinging to rocks, branches and the like. I remove the decorative container, grouping the plants in their plastic pots together in hanging wire baskets, or sometimes clear glass containers that I am always hunting for in second hand shops.

I buy my plastic pots very cheaply online, and they are simply clear pots with slits or holes along the sides, which is very important for proper airflow to the roots. I also like to see some of the roots inside the pot, which helps me decide when to water or when re-potting might be in order. For my orchids, they seem to do well with the bark being changed every 2-3 years, when I notice it starting to break down and get a bit of a damp smell. I usually re-pot back into the same size pot (washed and cleaned), but once in awhile I need to pot up to the next size. Always use an orchid mix for re-potting which is a good combination of shredded bark, charcoal and perlite. Growers in dry areas use a bit of spag moss in the mix also, but that is a personal choice. Many growers have their preferred growing mix, either store-bought or home made.

Another thing, when bringing an orchid home, always ensure that there is a drainage hole, at the very least, in the bottom of the plastic pot. Nothing will rot their roots faster than sitting around in water. I also check to see if it is dry in there, if so, give it a thorough watering. I always re-pot newly purchased orchids as soon as they are finished blooming. That way I can check the condition of the roots, and get it out of the over packed moss it is sometimes crammed into for shipping to stores.

Location & Temperatures- A bright window out of direct sun works very well, as do ones with moderate light. At least move them back from a sunny window and separated from the glare with sheer curtains. Many people who have asked me about light, or brought me their sun-scalded orchids, say they thought they needed full sun. They grow in the canopies of trees in the wild, so think dappled shade. The humidity should be 50% at the least, and I get around 60% in the warmer months and my orchids seem to really thrive at that level. My humidity drops in winter to 35-40% and they all still do fine with that.

They seem pretty easy going about temperature, around 60-65 at night, and 75-85 through the day. But when in bud they don’t like to be too cool, and may drop their buds in protest. On really cold nights I make sure they are all moved back from the window panes though.

Watering- First of all, let me repeat something you may have heard many times before, PLEASE do NOT use ice cubes to water your orchids! Many enthusiasts get very worked up over this on-going debate. To me it is simple- they live in warm climates and therefore would not appreciate the shock of ice water, or the damage to any roots the ice may be sitting on. I believe, as do many others, this was simply a tactic for commercial growers to entice more people to buy them by making their purchase and needs seem so carefree. Maybe for those who are not interested in keeping them past the blooming stage. But if this shocking treatment does not kill them, many say it makes it harder to get them to re-bloom.

I wait until the bark is almost dried out, and the roots turn silver/gray (as opposed to bright green as they are after watering) and off to the sink they go. I use tepid water and I let the water run generously and freely through the pot and out the drainage holes. I make sure the bark is really saturated, and then let the excess drain well before putting the orchid back in its home. Many people are afraid to over -water or drown their orchids (or any houseplant) but this is such a common misconception. Over-watering does not refer to the AMOUNT of water you use at the time of watering, but how OFTEN you water. If I watered my orchids every day or every other day for example, yes, that would be overwatering/drowning them and they would end up with rotten roots. But if I used only ¼ cup of water each time I watered, they would die of thirst. I water once a week in winter, and once every 12-14 days in winter, which is the opposite of other people around here, but as I said before, your home’s climate and heating methods help to determine this.

Fertilizing & Blooming- Remember to water the orchid a bit before you fertilize, which simply avoids any dry roots being burned. You must use a fertilizer specifically for orchids; regular houseplant fertilizer should never be used! These contain urea, and orchids can’t use this because they are unable to break it down into the needed enzymes and bacteria. This will end up harming the roots and you will eventually kill your orchid. Unlike me, a few growers seem to think a bit of urea is okay. But do find a fertilizer especially for orchids, and then double check the label that there is nitrate nitrogen instead of any urea, as some will still contain urea. And remember, bloom fertilizers will not make your orchid bloom- light and temperature trigger the blooming cycle (as well as genetics to a degree). Bloom fertilizers can encourage bigger and brighter blooms however, and you can use them once you see a flower spike forming. I personally don’t bother with these, and use an all purpose fertilizer instead. Many growers have told me they feel bloom fertilizers end up weakening the plant over time.

My orchids have blooms that last from 4 months to an incredible 9 months, and one in particular lasts even a bit longer than that. Some bloom once a year, others twice. Again, I have 2 exceptions to that rule and they seem to bloom almost continuously. Some of these blooms are off a spike that never yellows and stays green. So if you happen to have an orchid with a spike that does not yellow, do leave it on and you may be surprised to discover it will re-bloom at least twice more in succession. Otherwise, you can cut the spike off at the base, and sometimes if you cut a couple nodes up from the base it may encourage re-bloom, although not as many flowers as previously and usually smaller.

And of particular note-once buds form, keep your orchid facing in the same direction it was in when you replace it after watering, otherwise the flowers will end up facing in different directions when they open instead of all nicely lined up. Unless of course, you prefer the flowers facing every which way wildly, which can look nice too sometimes. Once my buds open, I turn the pot so the flowers are facing into the room for maximum viewing enjoyment. I don’t attach my flower spikes to picks to hold them straight up like those in the stores either. I prefer them to hang down naturally, which looks very graceful for those orchids that are hanging up.

Also, to get flowers all year round, buy some of your orchids at various times through the year. Winter blooming ones will bloom again in winter, summer bloomers I bought in flower always want to bloom again in summer. They seem to have internal calendars as to when they should bloom, so if you give them some help they certainly will. A drop in nighttime temperatures of about 10 degrees at least will help induce blooming. That can be as easy as moving them into a cooler room, or nearer to the window at night. They cannot tolerate frost though.

Odds & Ends- Moth orchids have about 3-5 leaves. So when you see a leaf starting to yellow, a brand new one, or two, will soon follow it. I have had a few odd ones that have as many as 8 leaves, but this isn’t generally common.

I love to place mine into the bathtub and run the shower gently over them to clean their leaves every month or two. They also enjoy the high humidity while there waiting for their pots to drain the excess water. I am careful to use a cloth to blot up any water that gets into the crowns, just in case I invite rot there in the summer months.

There are many great online resources if you want to get into more depth on all aspects of their culture. I find I am always learning new things as I go; yet still I love to read all I can so I can fine-tune my care of them. I love learning everything I possibly can about these beautiful and exotic plants.

I truly love orchids- the color, the exotic looking leaves and even roots, and the incredibly long lasting blooms. They respond so well to your care, and reward you with flowers which are even more precious in the middle of a dark, cold winter. And I have also learned that fussing with them too much makes some of them a little too happy and content, so sometimes a little neglect goes a long way in getting a lazy orchid to flower once it starts to worry that its time might be up!

Do enjoy your orchids, and don’t be afraid to try growing them if you have not tried to before. They are so special and very rewarding to grow. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you when your family starts to steer you clear of the orchid displays in the grocery store… “just one more” always, always leads to one more. And another. And then another. Trust me on this.

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