THE KEY TO SUCCESS WITH ALL ORCHIDS
By Brent Baker
My purpose for writing this paper is to clear up the vast confusion that goes along with orchid cultivation. Orchids are considered by many to be exceptionally difficult to cultivate, therefore many individuals are reluctant to take on the endeavor. My desire is to show that anyone can grow orchids and grow them to perfection.
It is at this point I would like to make note that there are over 30,000 species of orchids and millions of hybrids. This paper is for the novice and the advanced grower. It has taken me over 15 years and thousands of hours to come to this simplistic method of cultivation. Much of the information on the internet is not correct and can be deceiving and just because someone is able to write and publish a book on orchids DOES NOT imply or even suggest they are by any means an authority on the subject. Unfortunately, most information published about orchids is made to sound so complex and tedious that it is not surprising that many people are still in the stone ages when it comes to understanding the nature of the orchid. Whether you are a novice that would just like the dead stick with leaves in the window to re-bloom or the advanced grower attempting to grow a cool growing orchid in a hot environment, I believe the methods described in this document should satisfy both types of enthusiasts.
MOST ORCHIDS GROW ON TREES OR ROCKS not in the ground.
In the wild the majority of orchids grow attached to trees (epiphytic), not as parasites but simply for protection from the unstable environment of the forest floor. This is an adaptation that the orchid has developed and is most certainly why orchids have been so successful in their survival and supreme evolution beyond any other species of plant life. Many orchids also grow on rocks (lithophytes), but the cultural requirements are virtually the same. The reason behind this type of growing behavior is also for stability, but in some cases it can also be beneficial in the form of nutrition namely calcium (limestone).
AIR AND WATER RATIO:
It is my belief that this is the key to success. The problems that people have when attempting to grow orchids is simply the misunderstanding of the natural features and requirements the orchid has developed from its adaptations in the wild. Orchid roots are designed differently than any other species of plant. The roots are often exposed in their natural habitat (meaning visible) and are always in contact with fresh air. Many orchids have a layer called velamen that covers the roots for protection. This layer is the white cover that you will see on many of your orchid species, Phalaenopsis, Cattleya etc. It is simply a protective layer of dead plant cells. It is important that you water heavily enough to penetrate this layer; otherwise the orchid will not be able to retain any of the moisture provided. The way that you can tell that your watering is sufficient; the roots will turn from white to green and the root tips will be pointed and growing down. Color of root tips may vary and roots’ growing up toward the plant simply means lack of humidity/moisture or a waterlogged decomposed mix. Air is as important to the roots as water. It is this understanding that must be mastered. To make it short and sweet, orchids want to get really wet and then dry really fast, how dry and how fast will depend on the species and what they are accustom to in their natural environment. In general, most orchids are quite adaptable and therefore proper cultivation from species to species many times is very similar.
THE BIG TEN: water, light, temperature, humidity, air circulation, fertilizer, proper pot, potting mix, seasonality, and understanding of plant species natural environment.
WATER: I decided to begin with this particular requirement because it is simply the only part of the cultivation of orchids that must be mastered by you and will over time become almost instinctual. Water quality is of exceptional importance and cannot be underrated. It is extremely important for you to know what elements are in your water, orchids in particular receive very pure water in the wild, that being rain water and a similar approach must be used. Water quality is usually described by TDS (total dissolved solids) and in many states, the water quality is perfect out of the tap and improvement is unnecessary. However if you live in places such as Southern California, the water must purified to a certain degree. The main enemy in tap water is sodium/salt (bicarbonate), this solid has a tendency to burn roots and render them unable to take up any necessary elements. Also over time it will build up in the pots and lead to the quick demise of your orchid. The best method for purification is the use of RO or reverse osmosis. This is a simplistic filtration system that removes approximately 90-95% of all the elements in your water supply, making the water very pure. Unfortunately, there are many good elements in the water that are removed as well, these must be added back in, typically with a fertilizer designed for use with RO water. The most important elements to consider, that are removed and uncommon in ordinary fertilizers, are calcium and magnesium. Calcium is the element that holds your water in a state of secure PH, and will help prohibit anything from causing significant fluctuations regarding the alkalinity or acidity of your water. All fertilizers will turn your water slightly acidic and it is the calcium/magnesium that will help stabilize the PH level. Orchids in general, and this goes for nearly all plants, can only utilize nutrients at PH levels of 4.5 to about 7.5, 7 being neutral. Most fertilizers do not contain magnesium or calcium, so you must make sure to use the correct fertilizer or add back approx. a third of your tap water to retain the necessary element. Overwatering is without a doubt the main reason for the demise of most orchids. Remember, even in the wild, orchids many times do not receive water every day and may go days if not weeks without any rainfall. How can they do this you may ask? The answer is simple, humidity.
HUMIDITY: One of the most underrated and possibly the most important factor in the cultivation of nearly every species of orchid. In most of their environments, humidity plays a key role in their sustained survival. The minimum should be at least 50% and this must be replicated or your plants health will inevitably decline, particularly over time. Orchids have adapted to harsh environments in the wild and humidity has given them a buffer for adaptability. It is my understanding after substantial observation that this factor alone enables growers to cultivate a wide diversity of species, to which otherwise would never be able to survive much less thrive together. There are many ways to increase humidity such as fogging systems, humidification etc. A word of caution however, do not supplement more watering with adding humidity, the two serve two completely different purposes. Humidity if applied artificially can also cool the temperature in the greenhouse enabling you to increase the sunlight and its intensity, which directly correlates to better flowering. It has been my experience that a comfort zone is created with added humidity and over time many species, regardless of their original growing region will adapt and impress you with strength and vigor.
One more important topic in regard to sustainable health for the growth habits of orchids is nutrition, also called fertilizer.
FERTILIZER: Specialty orchid food is one of the most over stated and unnecessary aspects of successful orchid growing. Orchids have adapted to an environment that gives them very little fertilizer all the time, meaning every time it rains. The plants receive this through a multitude of items that make contact with pure rainwater; decaying debris, dead insects, and any other natural element it may come in contact with on its way down. Major elements: first # is nitrogen, very important especially for orchids planted in bark. The preferable source is nitrate; ammonia is good, stay away from urea. One important aspect regarding the ability orchids have in reference to nutritional uptake is that they must be able to use it quickly, so the source must be easily retained. Urea nitrogen is what is encountered many times and is designed to release slowly, great for many terrestrial plants, dangerous for orchids. Phosphate, the center #, is considered by many to be the bloom booster. Phosphate is certainly very necessary in flower and root development, but in my opinion, excess phosphate or bloom boosters are unnecessary and are only needed in excess if the plant is in fact lacking in phosphate. To my knowledge, no one is certain of its capabilities in regard to better blooms. If using a bloom booster, you must make sure that the magnesium sulfate levels are very low as phosphorus reacts with magnesium and will cause it to precipitate and fall out of solution, converting it to a dangerous salt ion. Last # potassium good for us and good for the plant, apparently they do not like leg/leaf cramps either 😉 Potassium is in my experience very important and plants can take abundance without any problem. This is also the primary element used to buffer/ raise the PH of your irrigation water and with bloom boosters you will always see this element combined with phosphorous to prevent the PH from dropping to unacceptable levels. The only other factors at this point are magnesium and calcium. If you are using tap/ well water your calcium is fine, RO or reverse osmosis, needs calcium/magnesium to buffer/stabilize the fertilizer at a level/PH that the plants are able to efficiently use. Magnesium sulfate is amazing! It does wonders for your plants and builds the nice cell walls that create the beautiful green you see in your plant leaves. It assists instrumentally in your plants ability to utilize Nitrogen and in my opinion does assist in flower spike development. You will see it sold as special/ magic formula and it is simply deceiving words for Epsom salt. Yes, Epsom salt is what that bag you just paid 15 dollars really is; save some money and go to the local grocery store, the same bag can be found for around 99 cents. Use ONCE per month, capital letters mean IMPORTANT. Orchids do not require large quantities of fertilizer. Consistency at low rates, with an occasional nutrient boost such as Epsom salt is the key.
LIGHT: Everyone has their own ideas about light intensity and duration. It is my belief that to bloom your orchid to perfection you must take the light level to the absolute extreme, without burning or damaging the foliage. The main reason for reluctant blooming orchids is almost always light. Humidity and temperature is the key in enabling you to push the envelope on the light intensity. Burn is a result of the temperature of the leaf getting to hot. Growing a bit cooler and having sufficient moisture/humidity will enable you to bring the light to a level that exceeds many times what they may experience in their native habitat. The plant will visibly show you when it has reached the extreme and this will be in the form of light lime green foliage, such as with Paph. rothschildianum, or in many cases, such as with Cattleyas, purple spotting or streaking. This is in actuality like a sun tan for the plant, and just as with us a gradual light increase is necessary to avoid any damage. Most tropical orchids get the heaviest rainfall in the Summer. When you have rain, you have clouds and therefore low light conditions. It is best to increase your light intensity from end of fall to the beginning of Spring. By the month of May, shading should be increased.
AIR CIRCULATION: There is a very common misconception that most orchids grow in hot steamy jungles at low elevation. There are some species that do, however the majority of orchids grow in the mountains at elevations of 500-12,000 ft. and are therefore exposed to constant air movement that is funneled through the valley by the mountains. Air circulation should be constant in the greenhouse, fans on 24/7. Oscillating fans are good and cover the most sq/ft without drying out plants to rapidly. In many cases multiple fans should be used to cover every inch of the greenhouse. The air should flow just above the plants and it is important that the air movement is indirect; your plants should just slightly move or sway. Keep your air movement all flowing the same direction. This I have found to be very important. It assists in keeping the majority of excess moisture, especially at night, at one end but most importantly keeps bacteria and fungi from circulating throughout the greenhouse. Strong air movement will also enable you to grow in brighter conditions by keeping the surface of the leaves cool. The more fresh air your orchids are exposed to the more transpiration will take place and it is this that will enable your plants to utilize the water and nutrients given to the roots more rapidly. This will also increase your relative humidity. Refining this is critical!
THE ORCHID POT: all the time I wasted drilling holes and pulling plants out of pots to see if my orchid had any roots and if I was in any way simulating the plants desired requirements. Air to water ratio again is the key, you are not just watering you are allowing them to breath. When you water you force air through the pot and therefore allow them to drink and breathe freely, heavily and quickly. Remember when it rains in tropical environments it pours but typically, yes exceptions always apply, the rain ends and the roots yet again are presented with moisture and fresh air at the roots. This you are attempting to replicate with the orchid pot. You should be able to flush the pot with full strength (1000 dram beaker) and see nothing but water pouring through the bottom. Clear pots are in my opinion ingenious and allow you to keep a consistent eye on the root system and the plants growth pattern. This enables you to have or develop a solid understanding of exactly what the plant requires for optimal growth. Clear pots also enable you to understand specifically when to repot as you can see when the mix begins to break down. Regardless, if you are stuck with home depot or some other store of remarkable ignorance, some modification may be necessary. Namely, more holes in the pot especially in the center, below the plant. For some reason the pot manufacturers have neglected to realize it is always the center of the plants roots that decay the quickest, because it stays wet the longest and does not receive amble air. The Solution to this problem is air to the roots and drilling a hole in the center of the pot.
POTTING MIX: Every orchid grower goes through the pain and agony of attempting to obtain the golden mix that will cure all their frustrations and enable their plants to thrive. Some may not take it to the depths of others, but most growers find it imperative that they be on the leading edge of whatever new mix may be available. You do not have to suffer as I did and spend thousands of hours understanding every aspect of the mix in relationship to the plant. The question that you do need to ask yourself is; what are you trying to achieve or simulate? Unlike with most plants, the orchid mix should be very low in nutrients. Honestly the best mix I have found is simply a bark and perlite combination. With species that require more moisture such as Paphs and Phrags, the mix should have about 3-1, organic to inorganic media. With species like Cattleyas that prefer to dry in between watering’s a 2-1 ratio is best. The size of the media is also very important. As a general reference, fine bark/perlite for plants in 3″ pots or smaller and medium size mix, both bark and perlite for plants in pots larger than 3 inches. It does seem important to keep the parts in the mix of similar size. You may have to do some experimentation to find out what is best for your conditions. The one thing I will emphasize is do not repot everything at once in a new mix formula. This may work wonders for one individual and be a total nightmare for another grower. All plants initially are stimulated by repotting and many mistake this flush of new vigor with the new mix, especially pertaining to Paphiopedilums. Allow the plants about 6 months, and then check the roots by simply/gently pulling the plant out of the pot. The key to look for is new roots with live tips cruising through the pot, not just along the perimeter. The best time to repot is late winter/early spring when many plants have slowed growth. This way by the 6 month mark all plants should be actively growing and an accurate assessment of the roots can be made. That being said, most orchids can tolerate being repotted at any time or when needed. As with everything, there are always exceptions and when in doubt, research!
Sphagnum moss, preferably from New Zealand is something that I do use with quite a few of the plants I cultivate. Excellent for plants in baskets, mounted orchids and for species such as Pleurothallids, Bulbophyllums and all Catasetinae. Watering techniques must be altered however as this moss can hold up to 300 times its weight in water and will rapidly kill plants if care is not taken. It also has the ability to retain a buildup of salts left over from fertilizer and it is imperative that you leach (heavily wash with pure water) the plant in moss with fresh water, preferably once a month to flush out excess. Once mastered this type of mix will likely become one of your largest assets. One thing to consider is the moss has a very acidic PH range and does decay a bit more quickly than other medias and neglect can be fatal. When this moss decomposes it literally is impossible to dry it out. That being said, there is nothing more efficient when it comes to a moisture retaining media than sphagnum.
GROWTH AND FLOWERING CYCLE: Most individuals are outright baffled, even disturbed when I tell them that the key to successfully blooming or re-blooming your orchid is directly correlated to stress, sometimes extreme. Drought, intense sunlight, cool night temperatures, are really the three stress factors that force orchids to flower. An orchids #1 mission in life is to reproduce; however, if conditions are perfect all the time, they have a tendency to just continue to grow. Orchids are beautiful and magnificent! I grow them for the flowers and the excitement of this accomplishment. Orchids in the wild, ALL, go through some type of change in environment that causes them to flower. Most commonly, it is a dry period, excessive sun or change in temperature and in many cases all three in conjunction. This stress must be induced by you and many factors need to be taken into account. Most orchids have a time of year that a specific environmental factor occurs to initiate the flowering cycle. Typically, directly after the plant has matured a new growth or just prior to going into growth. Some research on the locality of your orchid may be necessary to ensure these requirements are timed and induced properly.
Learn about your orchid. Take 5 minutes to find out where it originates. This understanding will enable you to not only understand its requirements for blooming but other plants you have from the same region will also, even if they are entirely different, have very similar requirements in common. Flowering for orchids is also contingent on age. There are some plants that may take 6-8 years to bloom from seedling. Most, should take no more than 2-4 years to flower from seedling. If purchased in flower, the orchid should give you flowers every year and with many species, several times per year (always exceptions).
Orchids are extremely diverse but nearly all can be cultivated together and I say this with experience and evidence. This is undeniably a bold statement; however I personally have some of the warmest growing plants on earth, growing less than 20 ft from some of the coolest. Even with a small greenhouse, there will be various microclimates and identifying these locations is the key! All factors must be taken into account when attempting to replicate these conditions. Sunlight, air movement and humidity are critical to unlocking this ability. No one can sincerely hand you the ability to grow orchids. It is an accomplishment obtained over much time and hard work. The payoff is a passion, unreachable by many. Your growing conditions will never replicate other individuals, you must take the knowledge that you obtain and manipulate your conditions to accommodate the differences you may have at your location. Pay attention to your plants, they will literally tell you what they require. Observation and adaptation is truly the key to success. I find myself still making adjustments to my growing conditions with knowledge, both old and new. You must get out and see how others are growing, observe their conditions and ask questions. If possible travel and place yourself in the heart of what you are so desperately attempting to replicate. The results will undeniably be profound and extremely helpful.
It is most important to remain teachable, for there will always be something new or a new challenge to accomplish with the Endeavour of orchid cultivation. Do not keep your successes and failures a secret. One of the most satisfying things about this passion is teaching or sometimes just simply showing another individual your success. You certainly put in the work, enjoy the smile and pleasure you see when you introduce someone to your magnificent blooming orchid. Share your knowledge of cultivation freely; the future of orchids depends on introducing new people to this passion that few are so fortunate to have encountered.
Good luck and remember hard work, research and perseverance will almost always lead you to success.
Brent T Baker