How to grow orchids
Orchids are a great addition to any home, with their exotic, delicate but diverse flowers and their beautiful shapes and vibrant colours. But as any gardener knows, although they are irresistible when it comes to beauty, growing orchids can be a challenging task.
The first thing to realise if you are thinking of growing your own orchids is that there are thousands of different species. In fact, approximately 30,000 different orchid species and some 200,000 hybrid plant varieties and they all have their own particular habits, likes and dislikes.
Before you go any further and whether you are buying from a shop, garden centre or nursery, take a little time to research which orchid variety you are going to grow. Easier varieties include Cattleya, Phalaenopsis and Paphiopedilum (slipper orchid) but whatever you choose, don’t be too ambitious if you haven’t grown these plants before.
Remember to ask for details as to exactly what temperature, watering regime, orchid food and light schedule your variety likes best.
What you’ll need to grow orchids
Having the right equipment will help you to grow orchids successfully. Here’s what you’ll need:
- Orchid seeds or plants
- Orchid compost
- A plant pot with several drainage holes
- Orchid plant food
- Plant mister spray bottle
Step 1 - Selecting your orchid
Some varieties of Orchid are very difficult to grow with our climate, so it is important that you pick the correct orchid seeds. Ensure that you create the right environment for your orchid to thrive. The easiest to grow are the Cattleya, Phaelaenopsis and Paphiopedilum orchids, as these do not require a high level of maintenance.
Step 2 - Choosing the soil
The common mistake would be to pot the orchid in standard multi-purpose soil. You actually would need to purchase a more porous, looser mix. Try using bark chips, sphagnum moss, charcoal or coconut husks, or even a combination of the lot! Look to the bark mix to provide 2/3rds of the mixture.
Step 3 - Planting the seed
The seeds are incredibly small, in fact, they are almost microscopic. Orchid seeds require some sugar and a gelling agent as they need an external source of nutrition. Ensure that your seeds are sterilised and that you are using an environmentally friendly fertiliser.
Scatter a few seeds immediately beneath the surface of the pot. Once the seeds are planted with additional nutrients, you will start to see growth in 2-3 weeks. Be patient though, it may take a little longer than the suggested time!
Step 4 - Pot your orchid
Look to move the orchid from its original pot ensuring that you cut off any dead or rotting roots. Be careful during this process, look to divide the root matter into several different sections. The most mature area of growth should be positioned by the wall of the pot. Lightly add some more potting mix over the root.
Shop bought orchids are notorious for being badly potted with roots squashed into damp-retaining moss, which never dries out. Whereas in fact, orchids like plenty of air and whilst they do enjoy a good drenching on a regular basis, it is really important that their roots have a chance to dry out.
In their natural habitat most orchids will grow off other things like trees or even stones for support, so when repotting, you have to try and replicate these conditions. The starting point for that is the compost.
There are lots of specialist orchid composts and plant pots available both online and at good garden centres - it’s a good idea to start with those.
The compost needs to be porous and chunky to allow airflow so a good orchid compost will probably include bark, charcoal, coconut husks or maybe even Styrofoam. While a small clay pot is fine, consider a pot which has plenty of holes to allow your orchid to dry its roots and allow free flow of air.
Never repot your orchid whilst it’s in flower, but wait until flowering is over. Then cut out the flower spikes and as you repot, check all the roots of the plant are healthy, removing any that aren’t. Do try and keep your cutters as sterile as possible.
Your orchid plant doesn’t need lots of room or a large pot. However, once you’ve repotted your orchid, place it in a large gravel-filled container so that when you water, you can really soak the roots without flooding your window sills.
Caring for your orchids
Orchids can be a little exacting in their habits so again, go back to your particular type of orchid and check what precise routine they prefer. As a rough rule of thumb, a windowsill which gets morning light (but not hot and direct afternoon sunshine) is best. Then you’ll need to give your orchids a weekly drenching during the summer as well as a regular feed.
Don’t despair if you struggle with your orchids at first. They can be a little temperamental and the key really is in the detail of the care.
Common problems, pests and diseases in orchids
Orchid flowers falling off
Orchid flowers drop off naturally as they age, but if they all drop at once, this is likely to be caused by a sudden change in watering, temperature or humidity rather than any orchid diseases.
- Keep the environment around orchids as constant as possible.
Leaves changing colour
Depending on the type of orchid, leaves may turn yellow or purplish if the light is too bright. Low light will cause orchid leaves to darken in colour.
- Move the plant to a brighter or darker position as appropriate.
Overwatering can cause root rot. The orchid’s leaves turn yellow and the roots look mushy and black or brown.
- Cut off all damaged roots.
- Water less frequently and never leave the plant with its roots sitting in water.
Spider mites are sap-sucking mites that can affect orchids and other houseplants. Severe infestations cause orchids to drop leaves and eventually die. Symptoms include a fine webbing covering leaves and stems, as well as mottled leaves with tiny mites and eggs on their undersides.
- Mist plants to raise the humidity levels.
- A predatory mite can be used as a biological control.
Mealybugs are small white fluffy-looking insects that suck sap, reducing plant vigour. These orchid pests can form large colonies quickly, so any signs of infestation should be tackled as soon as possible.
- Quarantine new plants to ensure they are free of infection, as the bugs can quickly spread to other plants.
- Remove bugs by swabbing them with a cotton wool bud soaked in methylated spirits.
- Heavily infested plants may need to be destroyed.
Key features of orchids
|Flowering season(s)||Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter|
|Foliage season(s)||Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter|
|Soil type||Chalky, Clay, Loamy, Sandy|
|Soil moisture||Moist but well-drained|
|Ultimate height||From 15cm (6in) to 90cm (3ft)|
|Ultimate spread||From 10cm (4in) to 90cm (3ft)|
|Time to ultimate height||5-10 years|