Dendrobium Caesar orchid

Orchids may look very delicate but they are not that difficult to grow or keep alive. Key methods of care such as proper potting and potting medium, watering, ventilation and sunlight exposure will ensure that your orchids flourish. 

Orchids can live indefinitely with proper care. Our national flower Vanda Miss Joaquim was first described in 1893, and all the plants of it grown today are cuttings of that original plant. An orchid’s lifecycle usually consists of an initial bloom, a dormant period and a rebloom. If the orchid is well cared for, it is likely to repeat the dormant and rebloom stages every few months.

Dr John Elliott, 1st Vice President of the Orchid Society of Southeast Asia (OSSEA), shares 10 tips with us to keep our orchids alive and healthy.

Dr John Elliott, 1st VP of the Orchid Society of Southeast Asia

1. Choose an orchid that is suitable to the conditions you can provide it 

Some orchids demand direct sunlight to grow and flower, others need shade, and most are somewhere in between. Therefore, you should first consider where you are going to grow the orchid. Is the site sunny or shaded, and can you adjust the shade? Is it a dry windy balcony or a moist position under a tree? Orchids do not like stagnant air, so a breeze is good. Is it covered or open to the elements? Can you provide water on a daily basis? Then, choose your orchid accordingly.

The vendor should know the light requirements of the orchid, but as a general rule – Phalaenopsis orchids do best in light shade. Dendrobiums, Vandas and Cattleyas prefer more sunlight, and Arandas, Renantheras and Papilionandas need a lot of sun to flourish. Choose man-made hybrids rather than wild species – they are showier and easier to grow, and there are no conservation issues. 

Aranda orchid

2. Pick a healthy orchid

The process of selecting a healthy orchid to take home is a crucial one.

The leaves should be clean, green, undamaged and free of black spots or streaks, and not too yellowish which is a sign of too much sunlight or sometimes fungus infection. Dark green leaves can be a sign of insufficient light, but some shade loving orchids have naturally dark leaves. Whitish or black patches under the leaves are often a sign of spider mites and should be avoided.

If it has new, white roots with green or purplish tips, this is a good sign. If it has new leaves or shoots visible, this is also a good sign. The condition of any flowers or buds should also be unblemished. 

3. Choose the right potting medium

Orchids should be planted in a pot that has plenty of drainage to ensure that any excess water is drained completely.

Most commonly sold orchids are potted in charcoal or in sphagnum moss. Orchids in charcoal have usually good drainage and need daily watering.

Orchids potted in moss need to be kept under cover and 
 watered only when the moss is almost dry, maybe once or twice a week. It is also possible to grow some orchids on hanging wood or fern root slabs, or in wooden baskets – this should only be done when ample watering once or even twice daily is possible.

4. Know how much to water

Only a few tropical orchids are terrestrial and grow in earth. Most orchids are planted as just described.

Watering should be regular and frequent when the orchid is in active growth, but can be less when it is resting.

For plants grown in moss, there is a risk of overwatering which can cause root rot, a common disease found in orchids. For this reason, and also to prevent the risk of mosquitoes breeding, do not stand your orchid pots – even where the potting mixture is charcoal – in saucers or dishes to collect the draining water. Many people make the mistake of keeping their potted plants in dishes to catch surplus water when they are watering their plant but this should not be done with orchids.

5. Say yes to fertilisers

Orchids need to be fed regularly with fertilisers.

Inorganic fertilisers have no smell and are best for most situations. Fertilisers for orchids are advertised as such and can be of the type to encourage growth or flowering. Which one you use depends on the stage of growth of the plant.

Most local orchid growers deliver the fertiliser solution in a fine spray. This is called foliar feeding, and is much more efficient and economical than pouring a solution of fertiliser over the roots of the plant. Fertilisers should be applied according to the manufacturer’s instructions, but many orchid growers recommend the "weakly, weekly" approach, which refers to applying a diluted amount of (1/4 strength) fertiliser each time they water, instead of giving it as a potent one full dose less often.

Phalaenopsis orchid

6. Know when to repot: Orchids with new shoots and roots

The best time to repot an orchid is when it is showing fresh growth, with new shoots and roots appearing at the base of the old ones, and when the plant seems too crowded in its pot and is growing over the edge. These are plants where the growth is sympodial, that is, consisting of a number of shoots or canes growing in succession (e.g. Dendrobiums).

When repotting, trim off old dead roots and dead back bulbs if any, and above all don’t bury the new shoots in the potting mixture in an effort to keep the plant stable. It will cause them to rot. If the plant has numerous “keikis” or “anaks” – little baby plants high on the mature canes, it is usually a sign the roots are rotting and the whole plant will need repotting. The babies can be detached and planted separately if they have a good root system.

7. Know when to repot: Orchids with long single stems

Plants that grow straight up as a single stem can be repotted in their entirety. If the plant has a long stem with aerial roots, you can cut off the top few feet and repot it as a cutting. The term for such a habit is monopodial growth and it occurs in orchids such as Phalaenopsis or Vandas. For short stem monopodials like Phalaenopsis, repotting is best done when the orchid is showing a new leaf and root growth, and the roots seem too crowded.

Orchids potted in moss will need repotting every two years, or even less.dd

8. Keep an eye out for signs of pests or disease

Plants can fall sick and catch diseases too. Spray the plant once a month with a good natural pesticide to get rid of or deter mealybugs, scale insects, spider mites, or aphids.

Cinnamon powder is a natural alternative that is also an effective fungicide to treat orchid infections. Dust the plant with cinnamon powder from time to time. Commercial insecticides and fungicides are often dangerous to children, fish or pets and are better avoided. Anti-ant powder is relatively safe (but not for fish).

Vanda orchid

9. Understand how your orchid flowers

You buy a beautiful orchid, but then it proves hard to make it flower again. You need to know what kind of orchid you have to understand its cycle of flowering and growth. You also need to understand that commercially supplied orchids are grown under the most optimal conditions, and your plant will take time to adapt to its new home.

In general, a mature sympodial plant will flower again when its new shoot is fully grown, and the limiting factor is how often it produces a new shoot. A mature sympodial orchid will flower every few leaves, and the rate of growth of new leaves determines the timing of new flowers. Note that for Phalaenopsis orchids, you can sometimes get an additional flower spike by trimming your orchid flower spikes. After the first blooms have faded or dropped off, cut the entire flower spike at an angle, snipping just above a node (really a scale-like leaf) a few inches below the base of the original spike. 

10. Join an Orchid Society

Orchid societies – such as the Orchid Society of SE Asia, OSSEA – exist to encourage growers, and new members will be able to see orchids on display at monthly meetings, attend talks on orchids, and get advice on their own plants.

The OSSEA Orchid Show 2019 is happening at Tanglin Mall from 7 to 15 September. Head on down to catch live demonstrations of orchid arrangements and bridal bouquets, along with talks during the weeklong show.