How to care for your orchid at home

We asked an expert from Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota.
Angel Lara, senior director of Glasshouse Collections at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens.
Angel Lara, senior director of Glasshouse Collections at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. [ Courtesy of Selby Gardens ]
Published Oct. 14, 2020|Updated Oct. 15, 2020

There’s so much inspiration in the "45th Anniversary Orchid Show: Women Breaking the Glasshouse Ceiling“ at Sarasota’s Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, it’s likely viewers will want their own slice of the gardens at home. We asked Angel Lara, senior director of Glasshouse Collections at Selby Gardens, for his advice on caring for your orchid at home. Here are his answers.

Explain the basics of caring for orchids at home.

The first thing to understand is that they’re the largest flowering plant family in the world. There are so many options for people to choose from. The top five most common orchids available in the big box stores are phalaenopsis, onsidium, vanda, dendrobium and epidendrum. They are all epiphytes that naturally grow in tree canopies. But within that range there are plants that want less water or more water or less light or more light.

What I tell people is that they need to know themselves first. The first thing is to know what type of gardener you are and what type of energy you want to put into it. Know your growing area: Are you inside a house or an apartment? Do you have a balcony or a lanai? Do you have a yard? Is there a tree?

Which types are better suited for Florida? Are they meant to be houseplants? How much light/air do they need?

Florida is a good place to grow orchids. They can grow year-round outside, in Central and South Florida, as long as they’re in the proper lighting. No orchid, or very few, wants full sun. Most are understory plants that grow in tree canopies. In Florida epidendrum, dendrobium, onsidium and vandas do well.

The easiest indoor plant is the phalaenopsis, also known as the moth orchid. They’re the most common commercial orchid but they’re forgiving and easy to grow. They’re low-light plants. They like to keep their roots moist, but they’re not water plants by any means, so what happens is that novices tend to overwater. They should get a full watering once a week by placing the plant under the sink faucet, running enough water to let it start draining, then fill the pot and let it drain completely.

The most basic mistake that people make is that they tend to give the orchid more water than they need, and then you start getting into these waterlogged situations that cause rot.

How do you know when and how much to water?

Watering is the most important thing about growing an orchid. That is life, that’s how they’re able to do what they do. So if we’re off on that, then they have to go into their own resources. And some plants have the ability to draw from their own resources and some cannot.

Knowing what genus the plant is will at least get you the basic information on how often to water. These orchids have evolutionary traits that let them adapt to holding on to water. They draw from an internal bulb called a pseudo-bulb, and all that does is hold onto water and nutrition for the plant to use in the event of a bad week of water.

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Other plants aren’t happy drawing out, so that’s what you would replicate at home by adding more water at appropriate times.

How do you know when the orchid needs water or has been getting too much water?

It’s good to have a picture of what they look like as a healthy plant. So usually when you bought the plant it would be in its best condition. So observe that plant. Anything that the plant does after that is conversation. It’s a nonverbal conversation, but she’s showing you: My leaves are wilting or my roots are really white or my media (the organic material in the pot) is separating from the pot. These are examples of what you should be looking for.

There are some watering “tricks” I don’t agree with. One of them is to put two ice cubes in your soil level, let them melt and that should be enough water for your plant. That’s not only not a thorough watering, but also, that water is cold and it would cause root damage. Another bad practice is dumping multiple orchids in a bucket full of water. If one of those orchids has a bacterial disease or a fungus that water is contaminated and every orchid after that will be contaminated.

When should you repot the orchid or plant it in a tree?

Once you have brought your orchid home, enjoy the bloom, and after it blooms, I suggest repotting. Get it into your media and your culture and into your routine. The media it came with could be very cheap and not what you would want in your home.

(After the first bloom) is also the time to move it to a tree. You just affix it to the tree. They’ll attach to just about anything. But they’re not parasitic.

What is the best container to keep orchids in and what is the best kind of media?

Orchids love drainage, so slotted orchid pots and clay pots or even plastic pots with enough drainage are good.

Media would replicate life in a tree canopy, so it contains bark, charcoal — which is good for filtration, especially if you have hard water — and sponge rock, an inert volcanic rock. The three can be purchased together in a bag.

Should you use fertilizer on orchids?

We have a mantra of fertilizing them weekly, weakly with a balanced fertilizer. We reduce by half the amount of fertilizer the label says to use. Orchids need fertilizers for green leaves and available nutrients, but it won’t make them bloom. High fertility can cause problems like malformed growth.

What will encourage them to bloom?

We make the orchids bloom through a trigger of changes in light, temperature and water. All orchids have these thermal photo periods, depending on what’s going on in nature at the time. So if you have a spring blooming orchid, it’s getting warmer, the light duration is coming back and those are triggers.

Should the branches be trimmed?

That’s a loaded one. For me anything that’s yellow or necrotic or dead should be removed. The issue with pruning is that it’s a transmission of disease. Your scissors or knife is going to hold the disease on it and that’s going to move to the next plant. I avoid using pruners and just pull off or rip off leaves.

Some orchids get really big and tough so then I use a sanitized tool.

How do you treat fungal disease/bacterial rot/insects?

For the home grower, I never recommend chemicals. There are a lot of natural and organic ways of dealing with these things. For fungal infections, which are nonlethal, we use a little bit of cinnamon, which is an antifungal.

Bacterial rot infections want to murder your plants. They move around via water splashing or your cutting tools. Those can be treated with hydrogen peroxide, one teaspoon within 16 ounces of water in a spray bottle.

For insects on indoor plants, we use rubbing alcohol or dish soap in a spray bottle and target insects. The alcohol dries out the first layers of the exoskeleton.

For outdoor insects, just blast the insect off the plant with the strongest setting on your garden hose. There is no way it’s going to recover.

You can also mechanically remove the insect or the infested leaf.

How do you tell when the orchid is too far gone?

Orchids are slow to die because they use their own resources for nutrients. There is usually a way to get them out of it by watering them more or moving them around. Rot is hard to come back from.

You’re going to have to kill some plants to get your “green belt.” But you learn something.