Call this a small indoctrination into the world of orchids. Usually those who are receiving orchids as gifts are good gardeners or plant growers but new to the orchid world, and the donor has picked the orchid plant as the ultimate gift for you. This plant is not going to grow like your African violet or Boston fern, but is easily grown with just a bit of basic knowledge as to the orchid's wants and needs.
But even these basic needs can give a seasoned gardener problems. So this article contains some useful hints on checking the growing mix for problems, recommendations on lighting and practical methods for watering using some new items as well.
In the category of one of the most popular of orchids, Phalaenopsis, are many species orchids found growing on trees in their natural habitat. They just grow out on a limb, but the roots are wound about the limb in and under moss or bromeliad roots which keep the moisture from an afternoon rain just a little longer, then they dry out too. So although it rains every day in their jungle environment, it also lets them dry out every day. Their jungles are warm, very warm; Indonesia & Philippines warm!!
To mimic these growing conditions you can pot them in a material that never gets too wet, dries out quickly, but holds just enough moisture for the roots and plant to do well. With every orchid plant I purchased or was given I found it is best to repot immediately. That lets you get it in fresh mix the same as your other plants, and it is also a chance to check out the root system to see how it is doing.
Most Phalaenopsis are grown out now in a manner you could never duplicate in the home, in conditions very similar to the jungle environment. 72 degrees all the time, only misted enough to get the leaves damp. The difference between these orchid nurseries and the jungle environment is the plants in the nurseries are never watered heavy enough to let the water run down to the roots. So the leaves of the plant are in constant warm humidity, while the roots are kept fairly dry.
The "mix", if you can call it that, is a gob of moss, usually New Zealand moss, which if gotten really wet never dries out in the pot, and that would be bad, so they never "water", but just mist. Humidity is kept high, and with the frequent misting and warm temperatures the plants thrive. Once brought into spike, they are taken out of the moss, roots bound in a new gob of moss and shipped to the growers in spike. When you repot them you can tell these plants because most of them still have rubber bands holding the moss around the plant roots.
The growers then decide how the plant gets to the customers. Some will repot in bark, these are usually the "old" growers, and yes, I mean by age! They are more interested in your success than the supermarkets. The new growers are buying plants in spike from Taiwan, potting and growing them for three months until they start to flower, and then delivering them to the supermarkets in any kind of pot with that same moss, plus maybe a bromeliad and some fern, all in the same pot. The plants are doomed in that environment, but then you will come back and try again. Why? because the orchid will do its best to stay alive and it will probably take 6 months to a year to kill it fully. New growers often suspect themselves as the culprits and purchase another to try again.
Sent to the supermarket alone in one pot doesn't seem spectacular enough any more, so they are stuffed into ceramic pots with no drainage and a lot of other types of plants. But I used to see single Phalaenopsis in pots, still in the moss, sitting in these retail stores, with the plants dead, but the flower spike still holding the flowers. These if you unpot are frequently the ones that are rubber banded in a gob of moss as taken from a small pot, wrapped with more moss and stuffed into a larger pot, for marketing reasons.
So, your first tip is to take them out of the pot they are in and remove all the growing medium. If you want easy, pot them in fir bark chips about 3/4 to 1 1/2 in size. Don't pack them in, leave the mix loose and airy. If there are any roots, trim off any black roots, but put back the live ones, then fill in around them with the bark clear to the top. If the roots are soppy wet let them dry out before you water again. If you are interrupted during this cleaning and repot cycle, it will not hurt to leave the plant lying around in the open for a week before you finish if you use the misting method when you can while it is lying there. It is best to repot these plants with new bark about once every nine months to a year. Since you know how to do that now it's not really a big deal; it takes only a few minutes.
You can look up the definition of "epiphytic", but in short, it means the plants are grown in the air, roots in the open, and they need lots of air circulation, light and a wet/dry cycle. Frequently they grow on trees and have been mistaken for parasitic plants rather that epiphytic. The difference there is the parasite feeds on the host plant, epiphytes do not. They merely use the trees to get to the air and light. If your orchid is grown in a greenhouse it is normal to see one of them growing near a window will put out a root that adheres to and grows on the glass pane of the window!
It is always ok to mist the plants frequently during the day, even these newly potted "drying" plants you have. Just remember to NEVER let the water run down into the crown or into the pot. Set the mister on a fine spray and give it a couple shots and you walk by it. If the leaves are dry the next time you walk by do it again. They will love it.
Now that you have your new plant examined and repotted place it near a bright light, within a foot or two. Bright bulbs in the ceiling don't do as well as one close to the plants. Try one of those little green desk lamps they sell at Home Depot with a low wattage fluorescent bulb with a 500K spectrum. That reflects the colors in the output, not the intensity of the light (lumens). Look for the box to say 5000k. Most indoor fluorescents are in the 2700K to 3700K range (warm to cool white), which does not meet the plants' needs, so you will need to look carefully to get what you want.
Next, mist it frequently. You can purchase a little sprayer that will fit down in most used plastic bottles and sit it near the plants so when you go by you can stop for a second and give it a shot. When freshly repotted you can spritz a lot, as the bark deteriorates it retains more water, you will then have to water less to get it to dry out.
Regarding fertilizer, go easy on it. In the jungle orchids get only a bit of bird or monkey-generated "fertilizer" when it rains and they do fine. Too much fertilizer or too frequent will kill, so take it easy. Try using it 1/4 strength all the time instead of what the manufacturer says. Algae buildup on the bark or in the pot can be cleaned up with a mix of once ounce of Clorox in a gallon of water. You can flush the mix and the plant and the flowers, it won't hurt any of them, but it will clean up any algae that shows up if you keep the mix too wet.
Now we come to what type of pot. Because I always had trouble with these very easy to grow plants, I had some clear pots made especially for me by the McConkey Company. I wanted to see was going on in the pot. Well, this not only allowed me to see the roots and the moisture content, it also improved the root growth by giving them access to the light they were never getting in the green or black pots!! It improved my Phalaenopsis growing 1000% (approximately).
Here are the rules for using clear pots. Look into the pot, if you see any moisture on the sides don't heavily water yet, you will find the mix is still wet in the middle. If you look the next day and it is dry, let it go one more day or two because it will still be wet in the middle, (but you are still misting all the time). When you are sure the mix is dry, take the plant over to the sink, sit it in the bottom and turn the water on, tepid, not cold, and let it run for a minute or so. Let it drip dry for a bit, then return it to it's place under the light.
New flower spikes take around three months to develop, so be patient and enjoy the experience.
Remember, all the time you are peering into the pot you should be doing the misting every time you think about it, just don't let the water run down into the potting mix. Your truly light misting will be gone in a few minutes. Newer generations of these pots have air access to the bottom of the pot in the form of a cone for better air circulation around the roots, this helps with the drying process and also provides air for those epiphytic roots.
So I recommend these pots highly. I first had some made in the late 1960s, now I have eleven different sizes available at www.chulaorchids.com. Others have caught on as well and there are many different sizes and shapes now available all over the world. It's a good idea, however to be honest it was not originally mine. I saw some clear pots offered early in 1960 but they did not catch on then and disappeared from the market. In recent years they have become much more popular, and orchids all over the world are very grateful.