Marianne Ophardt: Too much love kills orchids

May 2, 2013 

Mother’s Day is approaching. Some lucky moms will be the recipient of a beautiful blooming orchid plant on their special day, but then comes the challenge of knowing what to do after the blooms fade. Don’t worry. Most orchids are easy to grow.

You don’t need a greenhouse. Place your orchids in a bright window where they will receive indirect sunlight all day. East-facing windows are great, but they also can be placed 1 to 3 feet away from a south-facing window. West windows are too bright and hot, and north ones don’t provide enough light.

Orchids don’t require a warm, tropical atmosphere. Most will do well at normal home indoor temperatures that stay within the 70-degree range during the day and 55 to 65 degrees at night.

The two most critical parts of successful orchid growing are watering and growing media. Orchids don’t have a fibrous root system like that of many other plants. Their roots are thick and fleshy, requiring good drainage and plenty of aeration.

Orchid experts have developed a variety of growing media that are well aerated, fast draining, and able to retain some water. Many of these media have fir bark as the main ingredient. Each expert tends to use his or her own special media mix that works well for them, but there are commercial orchid mixes available at garden stores.

It’s important to note that fir bark breaks down over time, and when that happens, the media fails to provide adequate aeration and can lead to root rot. Orchids should be repotted every year or two to prevent this problem.

I turned to one of our local orchid experts, Betty Wise, to answer some common questions, such as, “Why did my last orchid plant die?”

“Most orchids die because they are loved too much. By that, I mean they were watered too often and the root system died,” Wise said. She suggests that “a little benign neglect is better than too much care.”

If you are unsure when your orchid needs to be watered, watering every seven days should be often enough.

Another common question from orchid beginners is what should be done when the long-lasting flowers die? Wise says to cut the stalk just below the bottom-most flower. If it’s a phalaenopsis orchid, this may induce the plant to produce another set of flowers. If the stalk is turning brown, cut it off just above the leaves.

Another common problem is with fancy gift orchids that come in decorative pots without any drainage. They are doomed. Wise recommends taking them out of their pretty pots and repotting them in a pot with good drainage and aeration.

What causes the tips of orchid leaves to turn brown? Two of the most likely causes are low humidity or a buildup of salts from fertilizer. You can increase the humidity around your plants by placing the plants on trays of moist pebbles, making sure the pots are sitting above the pebbles and water. Salt damage can be prevented by periodically flushing any salts out by taking the plants to your sink and running water through the pot for 30 seconds. Be sure to let them drain thoroughly.

-- Marianne C. Ophardt is a horticulturist for Washington State University Benton County Extension.

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