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Beginners Advice

This article on “Beginners Advice” is intended to answer “Can I grow orchids?” and “What kind?”.

At one time, this was a questionnaire, but I found that a great many of the submissions led me to nearly identical responses, so I thought I’d simplify things a bit by posting the general recommendations.

To the first question, “Can I grow orchids,” the answer is “Of course you can!”, but as in the old psychologist jokes, “you have to want to.” Most people kill orchids simply because they don’t understand what the plant needs. That will be more understandable as we address the follow-up question, “What kind of orchids can I grow?”

One of the biggest problems novices get themselves into is that of buying plants they like the looks of and hoping they can grow them, rather than understanding the conditions they can readily provide, and then buying the plants that are well suited to those conditions. That sounds like it’s asking a lot, but with some 20,000-30,000 natural species and countless hybrids, with very few exceptions, there are bound to be orchids that will grow under your conditions.

Another common problem is that of folks buying one or two of each a wide and disparate variety of plants before they become an experienced grower of one or two types. Orchids, being a very highly evolved group of plants, have become developed for very specific cultural niches, so conditions that are great for one may be totally wrong for another.

I typically recommend a conservative, multi-step process:

1. Read, read, and read some more. Start with the culture guides on our website, then hit the library to learn more details. The books “Orchids for Dummies”, “Miracle-Gro Complete Guide to Orchids”, and Better Homes & Gardens “Orchid Gardening” are all pretty good basic reference, and at about $11-$15, they’re not too bad on the budget, either.

The key items to consider are the amount (intensity and duration) of available light, whether that’s outdoors, through windows, or from artificial sources, the maximum and minimum temperatures in the growing area, and the humidity.

For most people growing in the home, the phalaenopsis, or “Moth Orchid” is a good choice, as they do not need a lot of direct light or high humidity, and prefer temperatures similar to those that people do.

2. Talk to local growers, both commercial and hobbyists. If you point your web browser to, the American Orchid Society website, you can look up local orchid societies and vendors. They’re both great resources, as they’ll know more about your local conditions than I. The Orchid Mall ( is another great resource for identifying nearby vendors, and asking questions directly of me or of folks on the rec.gardens.orchids newsgroup is always available to you.

3. Then, and only then, go buy one plant. Home Depots and Lowes are good places, as even though the folks there tend to not know a thing about orchids, the prices are hard to beat!

One of the most important aspects of orchid growing – and the one that trips up beginners the most – is that of understanding the balance between watering and keeping good air flow to the roots of the plants.

Orchids, for the most part, are epiphytes that grow with their roots attached to the bark of trees, not submerged in soil. In the wild, they generally get watered frequently, but dry out quite quickly. As you’re not likely to be transplanting a huge tree to your living room so you can attach orchids to them, we have to find a way to simulate the conditions for the home. Most often, for growing plants in pots, we utilize pieces of fir bark, coconut husk or loose sphagnum moss – singly or in combination, and often with other additives – to provide a moist but airy environment for the roots. There are two aspects of the growing medium that you must pay attention to: the moisture-holding capacity and the degree of packing, which controls the air flow to the root system.

While you are researching your preferred orchids, pay attention to the recommended growing conditions and to the plant structure. If the plant has pseudobulbs, it can probably do fine if the medium is permitted to dry out between waterings, while those without pseudobulbs should be kept evenly moist, but not sopping. It seems that everything about orchid culture is a matter of degrees, not a concrete rule. For example, both cattleyas and oncidiums have pseudobulbs, but have different watering needs: a cattleya, with it’s thick rigid leaves can stand relatively long periods of “drought,” while an oncidium, having thin, strap-like leaves, will lose more water through transpiration, so requires more frequent watering.

When buying plants, and later in your ownership of them, check how densely the medium is packed. If it looks like it provides little room for airflow to the roots, avoid buying it, or repot.

4. Once you feel you’re doing OK with that plant, consider buying more of that type – probably with different colored flowers – and get really comfortable with them, especially proven by your ability to have them bloom again.

5. After that, then you might consider other genera, and really expanding your collection. WATCH OUT! Orchid collecting can be wildly addictive!

As you do your research, you may find some seemingly conflicting information, such as “Grow Cool to Hot” or “Full Sun to Deep Shade”.  So how are you supposed to interpret that?

If you are like me, we seek out a lot of our orchid culture information online (I always go to Jay Pfahl’s Internet Orchid Species Photo Encyclopedia (IOSPE) website first). In those online references, you’ll often see very broad ranges of cultural conditions mentioned, sort-of like my subtitle above. So what is that telling you?

Many interpret that type of cultural guidance to mean the plant can handle pretty much anything. However, there are more things to be considered when interpreting that information.

Knowing that orchids are very highly evolved, and that each has its own “niche”, we should consider that it may mean that the populations in nature may come from a wide variety of different conditions, not that an individual plant will tolerate all of the above. You may have one that grows hot, while another might prefer cold, depending upon its source.

Good references will tell you geographically where the plant originates, and at what altitude it can typically be found. The “where” part can give you some idea of the typical temperatures and humidity levels, as well as possible seasonality, but the “altitude” part may lend information about changing the conditions and adding day-night variations to the mix.

Let’s start with seasonality. Species native to equatorial regions may be exposed to pretty much the same temperatures and humidity levels all year. Both will tend to be higher than those seen in more temperate regions, but local conditions can still vary. A plant growing farther from the equator, on the other hand, will see seasonal variation (and likely lower levels) of both, and changes in light levels as well. We are aware that light intensity decreases as one moves from summer to winter, but plants growing in deciduous forests may actually see an increase in light in the winter.

Then there is diurnal range – that phalaenopsis species growing close to sea level near the equator will likely see similar daily highs and lows year round. whereas a Mexican laelia growing at high elevation might see highs in the 80°s and lows in the upper 30°s! The Baker’s website is a fantastic place to get such information on species.

OK, so how do we deal with such information?

First, learn before you buy! Don’t acquire a plant that simply cannot tolerate your conditions. However, if you simply have got to have it, start somewhere in the middle, growing the plant in intermediate temperatures and partial shade for several weeks to a couple of months, and observe. Are the leaves getting darker? Consider increasing the light levels. If not, but is the new growth is elongating, getting “leggy”? It’s probably too warm.

Keep heat dissipation in mind, as well. A plant grown brighter will absorb more solar energy, and will turn more of it into heat, so it may need to be grown cooler to compensate.

With patience, experimentation, and good powers of observation, you will likely find the “right” conditions for such wide-ranging plants, and can probably “push your limits” as you gain experience.