Garden Tips: Growing orchids is easy

WSU Benton County ExtensionMay 1, 2014 

Several weeks ago, I was in a big box store and noticed that the gorgeous orchids for sale were flying off the shelves while the traditional pretty potted Easter lilies were sitting there. I suspect that many of these orchids were destined to be gifts for someone special.

The owners of gifted orchids are often orchid novices. They are faced with the dilemma of what to do with a beautiful orchid after it stops flowering. Orchids have the reputation of being hot house plants that need to be pampered. In fact, many types of orchids are easy to grow, and novice owners can save their gifts from an untimely demise with just a little knowledge.

While some orchids are fussy about temperature and light, the ones typically sold in big box and grocery stores are Phalaenopsis orchids. Phalaenopsis orchids, also known as moth orchids, are considered low light orchids and can be grown easily in the home. However, "low light" is a relative term. They still need a good amount of light and will do best in an east-facing window. You can also situate them in a southern- or western-facing window, but they will need the protection of a sheer curtain to block them from direct sunlight.

The Phalaenopsis orchids do not need the warm temperatures of a greenhouse. The temperatures that keep us happy indoors will keep them happy too.

When it comes to potting mix and watering, Phalaenopsis orchids, as well as other orchids, are a bit finicky. Orchid growers each have their preferred mixes. Generally, the mixes should drain quickly but also retain some water for good root growth. Orchid potting mix ingredients may include fir bark, tree fern, sphagnum moss, perlite, lava rock and other materials.

Many of the mass market Phalaenopsis orchids come planted in potting mixes that consist mostly of fir bark. It fits the requirements of being fast draining while holding some moisture, but bark-based mixes tend to break down with time. As fir bark gradually decomposes, it becomes a finer and finer texture.

The broken down bark holds more moisture and nutrients, but also does not allow the roots to get as much air as needed. That is when you need to repeat . Local orchid experts tell me that most orchids planted in fir bark will need to be repotted at least every two years. If you don't, the roots will start to rot and the plant will die.

I have six miniature orchids sitting on the sill of my east-facing kitchen window. Because orchids like some humidity, I have them sitting on a bed of moist pebbles in window-box trays. Occasionally, one of my orchids bloom, providing me with a great reward in return for little effort.

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

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