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The Care and Keeping of Phalaenopsis Orchids

Julia Dimakos

Hi, I'm Julia from Mono, Ontario, Canada. I began my gardening adventure after having children. Since then, my interest grew into a passion. I love growing vegetables, herbs, flowers, fruit and medicinal herbs. I'm here to show you that growing your own food is not difficult and in fact can be simple.

A popular houseplant, well-known to most, is the Phalaenopsis Orchid. Also known as the “Moth” orchid, it is widely available in most garden centres, grocery stores and plant nurseries. Although there are many other species of orchids available on the market, Phalaenopsis orchids are the most popular and the easiest to find.

In this post, I will discuss the care and keeping of Phalaenopsis orchids. I will share what I learned over the years and will discuss the easiest way to care for them to encourage flowering and luxurious flower spikes.

Phalaenopsis orchids originated in rainforests. In their natural habitat, they are not found growing in the ground, with their roots buried. Rather, being an epiphytic plant, they may be found growing on top of other tree branches and trunks as support. Epiphytic plants are not parasitic and won’t take nutrients from the plants they grow on.  Instead, their aerial roots absorb nutrients and moisture from the air and rain around them.

Light Requirements

It is best to set your orchid in an east or north-facing window. In this location, your orchid can remain all year. The strong light levels of summer can burn the foliage of orchids set in a south or west-facing window. However, during the low light levels of winter, they won’t be affected. If the only window you have is south or west-facing, move your orchid back from the window or set it behind a thin window covering during the summer months.

You will know that your orchid has had too much light if you find its leaves begin to show signs of burn. At this point, set it back out of the direct sunlight and it will recover.

Tip: A great location to grow orchids is in the bathroom! The humidity in the air allows the roots to absorb moisture, resembling their natural habitat. Another benefit is the wonderful ambiance they provide to the space.

Watering

This depends on the orchid media and closely observing the state of the roots to see if they are dry.

If your orchid is growing in bark chips, more frequent watering is required. I tend to water once a week. Bark chips don’t retain any water, so the roots will let you know when it is ready for more.

To water, sit your orchid either in a sink filled with several inches of water, or fill the outer decorative pot halfway with water and place the inner plastic pot inside. Leave for several hours to absorb, then allow the inner pot to drain before placing back into the decorative outer pot.

If your orchid is growing in sphagnum moss, then you will know when your orchid is dry by feeling the moss. If it is wet, it doesn’t require water and the moisture is continuously providing water to the roots. If it is dry, either allow the pot to soak in water until the moss is fully saturated or run water through the top until wet. Allow your inner pot to drain any excess water, then place back into the decorative pot. I always recommend watering all houseplants from below, to allow the growing media to absorb water evenly. So although you could water your orchid from above, I find watering from below prevents overwatering and discourages pests.

Prior to watering, remove the plastic inner pot from the outer decorative one and observe the roots. If they look green and lush, your orchid does not require water. Give it another week and look again. However, if the roots are a dull silvery-green colour, your orchid requires water. By following this technique, you will prevent your orchid from rotting and being overwatered.

Orchids don’t like to have wet feet and their roots don’t hold water. Watering is needed just to wet their roots. 

If your orchid is growing is a soil medium like potting mix or coconut coir, this substrate is too heavy for orchid roots and would hold too much water, as orchid roots need to breath. In this case, wait for your orchid to finish blooming, trim back the flower spike to the base, and change the soil to a recommended orchid medium.

Orchid Anatomy

Flower spikes

A flower stem that emerges from the base of the stalk. This occurs on either the right or left side of the plant and occasionally two stems will develop, one on each side and at the same time.

Flower spikes will develop directly below the second leaf from the top leaf.

The Care and Keeping of Phalaenopsis Orchids

Newly emergent flower spike

The Care and Keeping of Phalaenopsis Orchids

You can see where the flower spikes developed and always down two leaves from the top leaf.

Leaves
Leaves are leathery, thick and dark green. Shape is oblong, length varying with size of plant.

Aerial roots

Orchid roots are aerial, meaning they reach out into the air. In their native habitat, orchids grow on bark and branches. If you see your orchid’s roots extending upwards and outwards, leave them as they are and don’t cut them off. 

The roots have a spongy covering over them called Velamen. This velamen absorbs water through its cells and transports it through the plant. If you mist the aerial roots with water or leave your orchid in the bathroom, it will have a chance to absorb water and feed the plant.

Orchid roots tend to have a silvery-green colour. Once they are watered, they turn green. Give your orchid’s roots a chance to dry before watering them.

The Care and Keeping of Phalaenopsis Orchids

Aerial roots reaching upwards

The Care and Keeping of Phalaenopsis Orchids

Here you can see all the roots of the Phalaenopsis orchid before potting up.

Orchid Medium

Orchid potting medium is available on the market. This typically consists of a mix of materials. You can also create your own orchid medium by mixing some or all of the following ingredients together. In creating ratios of each one, I go by this rule. If I’m only using two ingredients, then I use 1/2 of one and 1/2 of the other. As I add more ingredients, I create an even ratio of each. For example, 3 ingredients, use 1/3 of each.

The Care and Keeping of Phalaenopsis Orchids

My preferred homemade mix is 50/50 bark chips and sphagnum moss.”

Here are a couple of the individual ingredients that you may add. There are other options that I haven’t included in this list.

Bark chips – create an airy environment. They don’t hold moisture, but allow good airflow circulation around the roots. Since the bark chips don’t hold moisture, the roots will dry quicker and will require more frequent watering – once a week or every 10 days.

Sphagnum moss – an excellent source for holding moisture. Some nurseries only use this moss as the potting medium. The moss stays wet for weeks, allowing for less frequent watering. I prefer to mix this medium with bark chips to allow for more airflow around the roots, while also holding some moisture. Sphagnum moss on its own will only last for 1 year and should be replaced as it will breakdown.

Orchid Potting Mix – an easy solution and more economical. Not a bad option if the other ingredients are not available or are difficult to find. 

NOTE: DO NOT USE POTTING SOIL OR COCONUT COIR! Neither allows for airflow circulation within the pot.

Flowering

How does it occur?

A flower spike will develop below the second leaf from the top. Count 2 leaves down and if your Phalaenopsis orchid hasn’t produced a flower spike, this is where to keep an eye out for it.

If you recently purchased a Phalaenopsis orchid and it has a flower spike, it won’t produce another one until a new leaf grows from the other side of the flower spike. In order for it to produce another flower spike on the same side, new roots would need to develop, a new leaf (on that side) and then a flower spike.

A Phalaenopsis orchid can produce more than one flower spike at a time, but conditions must be ideal for the plant. Occasionally a flower spike will produce a second branch, yielding more flowers on the same flower spike.

Maintenance

What about the spent flower spike?

After your flower spike has finished flowering, I recommend cutting off the spent spike just above the base of the main stalk and below the leaf. This will allow the flower spike to die off and redirect growing energy back to producing more roots, the next leaf and a new flower spike.

If you don’t remove the flower spike, and it is not absolutely necessary to do so, the existing flower spike will likely develop an offshoot on the spike, then a new branch. However, I have found that these branches tend to produce less flowers than a new flower spike.

Examine your Phalaenopsis orchid for any yellowing or dying leaves. This is normal and nothing to worry about. Bottom leaves eventually expire and it does not mean your orchid is sick or has pests. If a leaf has turned yellow, it is a dying leaf. Cut it back at the base.

Feel the aerial roots of your orchid. If they feel hollow and squishy, cut them off to just above where they feel firm. Leaving these roots will take energy from the plant and leave a vulnerable spot on the plant for pest attack. If the velamen has come off, leaving the inner thin root exposed, cut that root off at the point where it begins.

If they feel firm, they are healthy. Even if they look brown, but feel firm, the roots are ok.

Potting Up

Pot up to the next size pot when the plant outgrows its current one.

How do you know when your orchid is ready for potting up?

When the roots are squished in their existing pot, when the roots look unhealthy, brown and rotting or when the orchid medium is 1-2 years old.

It is best to not pot up your plants while in bloom, as this process will likely weaken the plant and cause the flowers to drop off. However, if you find your plant is in a bad state and at risk of dying, it is better to sacrifice the flowers for the sake of the health of the plant.

In normal circumstances, wait until the flowers have died off, then consider repotting. Trim back the flower spike, remove and wash away the old orchid medium and prepare the next size pot. Fill 1/4 of the way with the new orchid medium, place the orchid within the pot leaving the long aerial roots out at the top and fill the rest of the medium around the roots ensuring there are no large air pockets.  Water and drain well, then place into a decorative pot or on a saucer. 

Alternatively, soak the orchid medium prior to using, then drain and begin the potting up process.

Orchids need good air circulation around the roots. Most orchids are sold in pots lacking holes other than those for drainage. However, it is best if you can pot up into a pot that has holes and slits on the sides. These pots are available online and through Amazon. You can also make your own orchid pots if you own a hot tool and can melt holes and slits throughout. 

The Care and Keeping of Phalaenopsis Orchids
The Care and Keeping of Phalaenopsis Orchids

Using a hot tool, I melted slits down the side of the pot and added additional drainage holes throughout.

Pests

Scale – tends to live on the underside of the leaves. Treat by wiping off the scale insects with a wet cloth and moving your infected pot away from the rest of your orchids, as this pest will spread to unaffected plants. Thoroughly wash or clean with peroxide the decorative pot.

Fungus gnats – allow the soil to dry completely between watering. Fungus gnats don’t live in bark chips or sphagnum moss. If you have fungus gnats, then your medium must include peat moss. Better to remove existing media and repot with clean, appropriate orchid medium.

Orchid Myths

#1 Water your orchids with ice cubes
Orchids originate in a tropical climate. Placing ice cubes on tropical plants will shock their cells. It is best to use lukewarm water, as watering with ice cubes is a marketing gimmick.

#2 Orchids require full sun 
As we discussed, Phalaenopsis orchids will burn if set in a south or west-facing window. They will thrive however, in an east or north-facing window. In a rainforest they would have been protected by the tree canopy and out of direct sunlight.

#3 Orchids grow like any other houseplant
This is incorrect, as they have different needs than the common houseplant. Houseplants grow in a potting or cactus mix. Orchids do not require soil to grow. It is better to assess the condition of the orchid prior to watering.

#4 One flower spike orchids only produce 1 flower spike, 2 flower spike orchids only produce 2 and so on…
I learned this from experience. I have an orchid that produced a flower spike on only one side. After repeating this growth pattern several times, it suddenly produced a flower spike on the other side. What I learned from this experience is Phalaenopsis orchids can produce one flower spike, or two or even three. If you give them the best growing conditions, water when they need it and fertilize occasionally, you may be blessed with more than one flower spike.

There is a lot of confusion when it comes to keeping Phalaenopsis orchids. They are different than other houseplants. They don’t grow in potting soil and don’t perform like other plants. 

I believe the confusion begins with the little card that comes attached with your new orchid. It says to place one or two ice cubes on the top of your orchid medium, once a week and you will grow your own healthy and happy orchid. 

However, this is incorrect information. This misinformation leads to dehydrated and dry orchid plants, a mess of rotting roots and potential pests. 

Orchids require very simple growing instructions and I tried my best to include as much as I could to help you care for your own healthy orchid and diagnose when something isn’t right. By following a few simple steps – watering when your orchid’s roots are pale, watering from below, keeping your orchid in a north or east-facing window, trimming back flower spikes after they drop their flowers and more – I believe you too will have success caring and keeping Phalaenopsis orchids.

The Care and Keeping of Phalaenopsis Orchids

A healthy and happy orchid

Happy Gardening!


Here are the tools that I mentioned in the post.

Disclaimer: The links to some of these tools are my affiliate links. Meaning, I will get a small commission at no extra cost to you, should you purchase the product through my affiliate link.

Custom Blend Orchid Media 1 Gallon

New Zealand Sphagnum Moss, 80-Cubic Inch

Premier Horticulture Orchid Mix, 8 Quart, Black

Orchid Pots with Holes Clear Plastic Pot Set

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10 Proven Steps for a Successful Vegetable Garden

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