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If you have ever received a lovely orchid as a gift when ill, having had a child, a birthday, Mother’s Day, or any other celebration, this post is for you. If you have watched your orchid bloom, then suddenly seem to dry up and/or go limp and begin to die, this post is for you. The scenario is common – and in almost every case is easy to prevent – and sometimes fix.
Most people think orchids are an especially hard plant to keep healthy. Actually, they are really very hardy and easy to grow – once you understand a couple of VERY basic characteristics. So, if you have that little ailing orchid sitting in your window, or just got a new one recently, bring it over to your computer and let’s all have THE TALK. You will want to also read Part 2 and Part 3 of this series before you repot.
First, let me introduce my oldest orchid. This one is well over 20 years old. It blooms multiple times throughout the year. But the very first year, this beauty got down to two little leaves and about three little roots. I thought it was a goner for sure. But I poked around online (it was a different web in the 1990’s), and headed to the public library and found some pointers. It took more than a year to get six leaves – and it still doesn’t have many more than that. But oh my goodness, does it have roots and blooms! Your sad little orchid may not make it – but it might – so don’t give up too fast. And if it doesn’t – you can take what you learn here and have much better success with the next one.
Part 1: Saving Your Orchid (it’s likely already dying…)
Yup – that’s likely the sad truth. By the time you receive a gift orchid – or purchase one off store shelf, it has already gone through a LOT of challenges. First it has been tightly “swaddled” at the base with a bit of very wet sphagnum (or other) moss. That swaddling is typically tied up with string or worse, plastic ties, to keep the roots confined closely to the moss. The plant is then “potted” with the bare minimum amount of soil and given a “look” before selling. Looks include a tall stick to which any blooms are attached with plastic clips, and a plastic wrapper around the pot to add a bit of color/glammer – and to hold in moisture. The bigger the orchid, the more fancy some of the wrappings. At this point, it sits on the shelf – slowly dehydrating while getting root rot due to the tight swaddling. If it is especially unlucky, someone in the store will come around and water it, causing the wrappings to be soggy, the “swaddled” roots to be even more choked by the moss that is now partially hardened and partially soggy, and the pot bottom cannot drain so any roots that managed to break free are now slowly smothering.
Many orchids in the wild do not grow on the ground in soil at all. Instead, they are epiphytes, meaning they anchor themselves to another plant and their bare roots absorb and store water and nutrients taken from rainfall. Some have pseudobulbs that help store the water for longer periods of time. If those orchids are instead constrained and “buried” within soil, the plant will likely fail to thrive at best – or will often die. Your little store baby is in deep shock at this point.
To make matters worse, you often get a little helpful advice from the store owners to use an ice cube to water your plant. Just keep replinishing that ice cube and your plant will survive. NOT. It simply delays the inevitable. Your little store baby’s roots are now slowly drowning AND dehydrating at the same time.
What’s a Plant Mama To Do?
As soon as possible after receiving or purchasing an orchid, head to Home Depot or a similar store and buy a small bag of basic orchid potting mix and the smallest block of sphagnum moss available. You should also pick up a clear pot – about the same size or only slightly larger than the pot in which your plant arrived. If you cannot find these locally, check Amazon with the following links:
Orchid Pots (I like the ones with slits vs. holes) – Orchid Pots
Orchid Potting Mix (I use Miracle-Gro but there are several available on this link) – Orchid Potting Soil
Sphagnum Moss – I use this New Zealand moss and get the smallest package possible. A bag goes a very long way!
More expensive is not “better”. Unless you plan to become a hard-core orchid caregiver, just get the basics. You can “gear up” once you have more experience. For now – let’s just focus on saving the baby in hand.
Once you have your supplies, grab a pair of scissors, rinse them and pour a bit of alcohol over the blades. Fill a small bowl or cup with tap water. Pull four-to-five strands of the moss out of the block and put in the water until fully soaked (swells up and turns a slightly darker color). Fill another bigger bowl with tap water. Cover your working surface with plastic or a towel and slowly remove your orchid from its existing pot. Using your scissors, carefully clip around that swaddled root pack, doing your best not to cut into the base of the plant or the roots. Remove all the moss and dirt or other junk that has been packed around the roots. GENTLY shake out the roots so they can hang freely, and remove as much of the soil as possible.
Some of the roots are going to be dead on arrival. You can tell because if you gently slide your fingers along the root, the sheath will come away revealing a tiny little interior fiber (Moth orchids only – other orchids will simply look shriveled and dried out). If you see any roots that look rotted or rotting, clip those off and dip or rinse your scissors in alcohol again before clipping more. Don’t worry too much at the moment about the ones that may already be dead. We can address that later once you have the plant stabilized.
After you have most of the soil removed (that includes any bark “chips” that might be hanging onto the plant), dip the roots into the bowl of water up to the line where all the greenery of the plant begins. Don’t cover the leaves or much of the stem. Now, swish the water around the roots gently until more of the remaining soil and/or bark comes away. Leave the plant roots soaking for about 5 minutes (TIME it – don’t leave them too long). After 5 minutes, lift your orchid from the water, and lay it on the towel or plastic.
Take the long strands of moss and drape them over the edge of your pot, with the moss hanging on the inside. Strands should reach almost to the bottom of the pot. Space them around the pot edges. If strands are longer than the pot depth, just let the excess hang over the edge to the outside of the pot for now.
Put about 1/3 of the new soil into the new pot. Make sure the bottom portion of the strands of moss are covered by the soil and the moss is still staying primarily along the side of the pot so you can see them through the plastic. Pick up your orchid at the base, letting the roots hang down. Hold the roots over the open pot and let the majority go into the pot, pulling three or four of the uppermost roots up into your hand that is holding the bulk of the orchid. You want to keep these strands from being covered with soil. Carefully and loosely place more soil into the pot, letting it begin to surround the roots, keeping the orchid base just about 1″ below the top of the pot. Once all the roots are covered and the plant is nestled in the soil, fold any overhanging moss onto the top of the soil. Let the roots you held up stay on top of the soil. It’s ok but doesn’t matter if these roots touch any moss that might be on the top of the soil.
Set the newly planted pot into the bowl in which you had soaked your orchid, letting the new soil and moss become saturated with water without displacing your orchid. Once everything seems pretty wet, hold the pot above the bowl of water and let as much water drain out as possible.
For the first 3-5 days, put your orchid someplace away from drafts and out of direct sunlight. Do let it have sunlight – just don’t blast it (more about this in Part 2). Enjoy any blooms, and don’t worry if they begin to drop. That is normal. A few of the leaves may turn yellow over the next days or weeks – that is normal as well.
Watering Your Orchid
Water your newly potted orchid JUST ONCE per week and let the water run through and out. DO NOT let your orchid sit in water. Not now – not EVER. Be sure it drains out after every watering and then you can put a little saucer under the pot – but pour off any water that accumulates. Keep up this cycle for three weeks. IF AND ONLY IF it is winter time and you keep your home very warm, you can water every 5 instead of every 7 days. But never more often unless you keep your home REALLY hot.
In the remainder of this series, we will talk about more intensive root repair, long term watering care, good potting mediums, and helpful professionals I trust to give solid advice.
If you just got your orchid, hold off repotting until you read Part 2 to save yourself some time. If you have already repotted – no worries. Part 2 covers that in more depth and your orchid should do just fine in the interim! Good luck and I hope your orchid baby responds quickly and well to its new environment. You’ve given it the best chance at survival with the steps to this point.
Here are images of some of my other orchids. You will notice that most are NOT in bloom. That is pretty typical. The “Moth” orchid is a frequent bloomer and often produces multiple spires of blooms. My other orchids, however, typically bloom just once – or at the most twice – per year. Some took 10 years before they put on their first blooms for me. When they do, it is really special!