Orchid rescue

So pretty!

I was never a green thumb growing up. My mom’s a Master Gardener, and my dad’s favorite hobby is puttering around their fully landscaped, one acre yard.

Once I became a homeowner, though, something shifted. If our yard didn’t look pretty, it was my fault. That’s some good motivation.

What’s funny is, even though I was never interested when she talked about plants, some of my mom’s knowledge must have seeped in via osmosis, because it turns out I know a lot about plants. I just didn’t have an outlet for it until pretty recently.

But there’s one major difference between me and my mom—I’m way more into indoor plants than she is. I just counted, and there are 42 indoor plants in my house right now. 10 of those are orchids.

I ❤️ orchids

For years I was scared to get one. I killed the first one I ever bought, I think while still in college. But recently I was finally stubborn enough to try again and learn to care for it. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Orchids are finicky

There are a few reasons why people are unlucky with orchids.

Commercially grown orchids don’t set you up for success. They tend to be potted wrong and stores don’t know how to care for them before you bring them home.

The care instructions are always vague, and sometimes wrong. What does bright, indirect light even look like? What do you mean orchids should be watered with ice? No, no, no. We’ll get into this some more.

How to care for orchids

Watering

Please don’t use ice to water your orchids. That “Just Add Ice” thing is so much BS. There is no ice in Southeast Asia where they’re from.

Phalaenopsis orchids grow in hollows of trees in tropical climates, and their air roots pull moisture from humidity. It makes bathrooms a good spot to put orchids if the light is right. But even so, the humidity won’t be enough. My recommendation:

Soak your orchid in a bowl of cool water for an hour, every 10–14 days. That’s it.

Well, not totally it. Other tips include:

Don’t let water get onto the leaves or flowers, only the roots and moss.

After it’s done soaking, pick it up by the middle of the leaves and let the water drip for about 30 seconds.

This means that it being potted correctly is essential, which brings me to…

Potting

Do NOT use dirt to plant orchids. Not ever.

Sphagnum moss is the best way to go. You can get it at hardware stores, or Amazon, or wherever, really.

I’ll go through the steps of how to do this below, but properly potted orchids should look like this:

Notice that it’s a single mass of roots and moss. That’s how soaking them in water works so well.

That plastic pot that probably came with your orchid? Get rid of it. The root and moss ball can hang out by itself in a pot. Make sure it’s not crammed in the pot, either—it needs room for the roots to get out into the air.

If the pot you’re using doesn’t have a drainage hole, that’s ok. Use some rocks at the bottom so that when you put the wet orchid into its pot, it won’t be sitting in water at the bottom. I use these plastic decorative rock thingies:

Fertilizer

Nutrients are super important. I use a couple of sprays of Miracle-Gro orchid food after each watering. Spray it onto the root ball. Easy peasy.

Light

This is the trickiest thing to get right. It might take some trial and error, but that’s ok.

Orchids can’t handle direct sunlight, but they need a lot of light. It sounds contradictory, but it’s not.

If you ever see orchid leaves that are shrively, it’s probably because they’ve been getting direct sunlight!

Here are where the orchids are in my house:

Notice that the blinds are mostly closed in the photo on the left—they’re always like that. The photo on the right has window film on the bottom panes for privacy (it’s a bathroom) and it’s a perfect way to diffuse light for orchids.

Roots

Do you see the roots coming out of the pots in the photo on the right? That’s completely natural and intentional. Don’t cut them or try to keep them inclosed in their pot. Orchids gather moisture and nutrients from the air. When they’re healthy, they look white or silvery with green tips where the growth is happening.

Flowers

Frequency of blooms depend on a lot of factors, including the variety of your orchid. Sometimes it’ll flower multiple times a year, sometimes only once a year.

When it does bloom, you can expect the flowers to last for at least of couple of months, sometimes more.

Once an orchid is done blooming, it’s best to cut off the spike the flowers were growing on. The plant will still try to send energy to it, but once it’s done blooming, no more flowers will happen on that spike. Use sharp scissors and cut it off, being careful to not damage the leaves around it. There’s a photo below to show you where to cut it.

When your orchid starts growing a spike and it’s long enough for it to reach, use the stick thing and secure it to the spike with the little clamp or bendy wire that came with your orchid. It’ll help the spike to grow straight and not droop.

Orchid “rescue”

Because stores are so bad at caring for orchids, they commonly stop flowering and are put on clearance. Nobody wants to bring home an orchid without flowers. Nobody but me, and maybe now you!

I’ve never paid full price for one. The Kroger near my house sometimes has them marked down as cheap as $.99. It’s such an amazing deal. My husband is getting concerned we’re going to run out of space in the house. He should be.

So. I have a process for what to do if you bring home one of these poor, mistreated orchids. Here we go.

I got these two at Lowes. The pots are ceramic and really pretty, and one of them still has a flower, with some tiny buds that might bloom. This is the “before.”

This is the one that’s no longer flowering and needed the most help.

Step 1: take the plastic pot out of the ceramic pot.

Step 2: take the orchid out of the plastic pot and throw the plastic pot away. You’re not going to need it. This one was potted mostly in bark, which is awful.

Step 3: remove the stick thing (save it though!) and cut off the flower spike if it’s done blooming. Try and get as close to the leaves as possible without damaging anything.

Step 4: get all the bark off. Shake it gently, then pick off as many pieces as possible. If your orchid is completely potted in bark, that’s ok, remove all of it. The roots will dangle from the upper part of the plant and will be totally fine.

Step 5: check out the roots. If any of them are brown and mushy or brown and shriveled, they need to be cut off. Here’s one that needed to be cut off this orchid. This sounds scary, but I promise the plant will be happier for it.

Step 6: if your pot doesn’t have drainage holes, put some rocks or other space filler at the bottom. This makes sure that the plant is never sitting in water. These are some plastic decorative rocks I had lying around.

Step 7: add some more moss. Sphagnum moss works best, and you can use lightweight twine to wrap around the root ball to keep it secured. Remember, it needs to be solid so it’ll stay together when you water the orchid.

Since this orchid already had some moss, I didn’t need to add much. If your orchid was potted completely in bark, you’re going to need more than I did. Make a small ball out of the moss and gently curl the roots around it, then add a small layer of moss on the outside and wrap it with twine in all directions. Don’t forget to wrap the bottom so it doesn’t fall off!

Make sure you can still see some of the roots—you don’t want to totally overwhelm the orchid. Too much moss and there will be too much moisture retained when you water it.

And voilà! You’re done.

It probably won’t flower for awhile, but if you follow the care instructions above, it almost certainly will! I can’t wait to see what color this one is.

Tips for buying a “rescue” orchid

Take a look at the flower spike. If there are buds on the end, it should flower soon. These are the best to buy because you won’t have to wait as long for blooms.

But! Don’t shy away from orchids that are clearly done blooming. With the right care, they will absolutely bloom again, it’ll just take awhile.

If all the leaves on the plant are shriveled, yellow, or otherwise discolored, it might not be worth taking home. Plants with more serious issues like this can still bounce back, but they require more patience, and might not survive.

Good luck!

Hopefully this long-winded explanation of orchid care won’t scare you away from them. They really are low-maintenance, but need the right environment to thrive.

Kate Messing Wehner

Written by

Information Architect at IU. Accidental marketer. Adjunct professor. Dog mom. Mega nerd.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade