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How I Got My Orchid Thriving

Updated on May 18, 2014

My First Orchid

When I started living on my own ten years ago, my dad bought me my first houseplant. It wasn't an orchid, but I loved it to death just the same. Within three months the plant was beyond saving so I threw its withered corpse into the dumpster behind my apartment. I was discouraged, but never gave up. I kept buying houseplants throughout the years and kept getting the same results. I over-watered them, rarely used plant food, and left them in direct sunlight to bake.

It wasn't until only three years ago that I began keeping orchids. I was drawn to them for their minimalistic appearance. I bought a little yellow one from the grocery store that stood only 4" tall. It was utterly beautiful. After a month or two, the flowers finally dropped off and I trimmed the flower stem all the way down to the base of the plant. At this point, I had still neglected any research into the actual care of orchids, or any plant for that matter. I was happy to fumble my way through indoor gardening, replacing plants as needed. But this orchid reminded me of my grandmother. I had forgotten to water it more than once, causing the leafs to form wrinkles like the leathery skin of people who've spent their lives in the sun. When this happens to the leafs of common orchids, they do not repair themselves, but stay wrinkled for as long as those leafs remain.

What I Learned

I couldn't let this flower die. I began to read. I bought Kindle books on houseplants and orchids, I read gardening forums, I shopped all around nurseries and asked questions, and did everything else I could to determine whether I could keep this plant alive. I discovered that orchids from the genus Phalaenopsis are actually quite the sturdy little plant, and that if I wanted mine to thrive, it required minimal additional effort. Unless you've purchased a more exotic variety from a garden nursery, chances are you have a plant of the same genus.

The most important thing I learned is that orchid roots are prone to rot, which is usually what kills them. Generic potting soils retain moisture really well, which is bad for orchids because that means their sensitive roots are sitting in all that dampness. Even the Miracle Grow Orchid Mix seems to retain too much. It's really easy to over-water these guys. Left in direct sun, an orchid's leafs can dry out and make the plant look terrible while the roots remain wet inside the pot. Because the leafs look wilted and dry, my first response is to water the already wet roots, a sure way to kill the plant.

Good orchid soils consists mostly of wood chips, bark, charcoal, and porous stone. It's a very chunky looking mixture that allows some water retention, but drains extremely well. Planting your orchid in this kind of mix makes it really difficult to over-water and results in a much healthier plant. The bark also helps boost the acidity level in the soil, which orchids love.

Containers specifically designed for orchids have additional drainage on the sides as well as at the bottom. They are often glazed with holes in the sides, either circular or cut into delicate patterns. The holes allow for additional drying and protect from moisture. So, of course I bought myself a bag of orchid mix for $8 and a specialized pot for $12 at the local nursery.

When I re-potted my little flower into its new orchid pot, I trimmed off all the dead and rotted roots as I had read to do in several books. It was surprising how much damage I'd done after only having the plant a couple months now. I gently settled it into the substrate and filled in the rest. I waited 3 months before purchasing fertilizer specifically for orchids and followed the dosage instructions carefully. My little flower grew four beautifully healthy leafs before it flowered again. It was thriving!

I was so excited that I bought another four plants over the next year. My husband bought me another for our anniversary once and I am proud to say they are all doing spectacularly. Orchids have a show cycle and a grow cycle. When they are in full flower, I move them to "display" spots around the apartment, and back towards brighter light during grow periods. It's important not to let direct sunlight bake the leafs, but otherwise, the lighting requirements for this genus is undemanding. A bright room suits them perfectly.

In this photo, you can see the "soil" is a mixture of wood chips, bark, and charcoal. It is very chunky and loose, as opposed to traditional potting soil. It dries quickly so roots don't rot.
In this photo, you can see the "soil" is a mixture of wood chips, bark, and charcoal. It is very chunky and loose, as opposed to traditional potting soil. It dries quickly so roots don't rot.

Common Orchids Are Easy to Keep

If you've not had much luck with orchids in the past, I encourage you to try again. They really are quite easy to take care of and even tolerate a little forgetfulness. They are truly beautiful in their simplicity and can be happy in any home when watered correctly and kept out of the hot sun.

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