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I keep killing orchids - help!

Gardening novice alert!

Perhaps this is a hereditary problem, as my parents also seem to have trouble keeping orchids alive. However, over the past few months, I seem to have managed to kill two previously beautiful plants.

I have read various advice, both online and on the literature provided with the orchids. Watering a little once every two weeks; adding a couple of drops of orchid feed once a month; keeping out of direct sunlight. However, within a couple of weeks, one flower drops off, then another, then another... soon it's bare and the leaves begin to go wrinkly.

Firstly, I wonder whether I need to put some pebbles underneath the plastic container inside the pot, so that they don't sit in any water at all (not that I give them much). I kept them exactly as they were provided by the garden centre, assuming that set up would be fine.

I also wonder about positioning. The first I kept well inside the flat (i.e. not near a window) as a friend's orchid seemed to thrive in his living-room, despite being well away from the natural light of a window. Fail! So, for the second attempt, I placed it on the window-sill, which is brighter, however this position never gets any direct sun-light due to the positioning of the flat. In fact, we only ever have indirect sun-light in our living-room - which is where I want to keep it.

Amount of water and regularity - the same friend with the successful orchid said "neglect is the key" to keeping his lovely plant. However, upon trying this technique with the second orchid, I found that treating it mean did not keep it keen.

Does anybody have some tips that might enable me to go out this weekend, buy an orchid in the confidence that I can keep it alive, and not lament the waste of money a month or two later?!

Thanks for taking the time to read.

Mark

Comments (12)

  1. Grower

    Helene U Taylor

    Hi Mark

    Let’s talk orchids and watering first!
    There are so many different instructions on how to do this, and I can’t tell you what the perfect way is, but if you are killing orchids you could be doing something wrong. I have 8 orchids and some of them are almost 10 years old. They flower every year, most of them for 5-6 months at the time. I have all my orchids in the plastic pots they came in, and then in outer pots. I don’t use any gravel or clear pots etc, but make sure the outer pots are not too deep. The aerial roots need to be able to peep out over the rim and cascade down.

    Once a week or every 10 days or so I water them all like this: I take all the orchids into my kitchen next to my sink. I pour water from the tap into the pots, filling the pots completely up with water, and since the outer pots have no holes the water stays. I fill up all the pots to the rim like this and LEAVE the water in the pots for at least 1 hour, in the summer you can give them up to 2 hours. After the time is up I take one orchid at the time and lift out the orchid pot out of the outer pot and put the orchid in the sink to drain. I usually do two at the time so one can stand and drain while I lift out the next one. Tip each pot a bit over the sink to make sure ALL the water has been emptied out, then put each orchid back in its outer pot. In the spring, summer and autumn I give water straight from the tap, but in the winter I use a large jug and mix water to about 15-18 degrees, cold to your hand but not as cold as the cold water in your tap.

    As for fertilizer,
    I use a spray called ‘Orchid Myst’, I buy it on Amazon and it is very easy to use because it is not mixed in the water so doesn’t just run through the plant as most orchid fertilisers do. This one is sprayed on the leaves twice a week or so. Easy. A bottle keeps for forever if you have only one or two orchids.

    And then to flowering.
    All orchids come in flower when you buy them, that means they are already past their best. Many orchids will start dropping flowers after just a few weeks whilst when you get the orchid to flower next time, the flowers will last for months!

    About positioning.
    I have mainly Phalaenopsis orchids, if you are going to invest in some new ones try to get one or two of these as they are the easiest to grow and get to re-bloom, especially if you have challenges in terms of light and day/night temperature differences in winter. Phalaenopsis is not very fussy with either and can tolerate a cold house at night where the heating is off, many other orchids cannot and it means you need to keep your heating on at night during the winter. I have most of my orchids in a west facing window in my kitchen, there they get some direct sun, but late in the afternoon. It is also easier in terms of watering to keep most of them in the kitchen the way I water them. The two I don’t have room for are in my bathroom but they get to come out when in flower – I just do a rotation whenever necessary! Your living room window sill sounds good enough in the spring, summer and autumn, I would possibly try to find a different window in the winter so it can get some bleak afternoon sunshine, but you might get away with having one in your living room all year round.

    There are so many aspects to growing orchids, it is difficult to cover everything here, what I can say is that most people kill orchids by watering them TOO MUCH or TOO OFTEN. Mine are seriously neglected at times, and as they are Phalaenopsis they can take it, with lack of water they will use their aerial roots and draw moisture out of the air around them, that’s what these messy roots are for. But they can’t take standing in water for too long, then they will rot.

    Please remember that what I do might not be what everyone else do, I have found my way through reading and asking questions too, and tried to wade through all the various tips and recommendations. All I can say - orchids are so fun, and whenever you get new bloom spikes growing it is very exciting! Go out and buy a new one and start watering like I do, don’t be sad when it drops its flowers, it is the next set of flowers in about 9-12 month’s time that you will really enjoy!

    Good luck, I am looking forward to seeing photos of your new purchase, here is a selection of mine and photo of where they are in my kitchen.

    Take care,
    Helene

    • I keep killing orchids - help!
    • I keep killing orchids - help!
    • I keep killing orchids - help!
    • I keep killing orchids - help!
    • I keep killing orchids - help!
  2. Grower

    Mark Hughes

    Hi Helene. Wow what fantastic advice, thank you very much for taking the time to write such detailed response! That's the first time I have heard that advice regarding watering. I am going to try that to revive the latest plant; it's interesting that you say the plants are usually past their best when you buy them. Perhaps all is not lost?! Your plants look beautiful, let's hope I can have similar success by following your advice. I started tonight by sitting in water for an hour, hopefully it will recover if I keep on doing this. I'll be sure to post back here if so!

    Thanks again Helene. I really do appreciate your advice!

  3. Grower

    Helene U Taylor

    No problem, I am a bit of an orchid fanatic, even though I don’t really have a good space for them so I can’t keep as many as I want and need to mainly keep to the ordinary Phalaenopsis that are not so fussy :-)

    When I talked about being ‘past their best’, I was mainly talking about orchids, especially cheap ones from supermarkets and garden centres, it doesn’t necessarily apply to all plants and you can find many other plants that will flower for just as long as if you had grown them on yourself. But orchids grown commercially and sold as very cheap plants are treated the same way as vegetables and fruit - in and out of cold vans and warehouses, into hot shop rooms, whilst in full flower. You can be lucky to get one that will flower for a few months, but don’t be surprised if the first flowers start to drop after a few weeks. When you buy your next orchid, go for one with the most buds, and the least open flowers. It will not look so good the first week or two, but the flowers will last you a lot longer!

    Good luck with reviving the plant you have, depending on what the issue was in the first place that might be easy – or not so easy but give it a try. Don’t water it again until it is dry! And I think your plant will be happy if you swap whatever you were feeding it with to what I use instead.

    Take care,
    Helene

  4. Grower

    Jill Pack

    Hi Mark
    I concur with Helene's advice. Remember that orchids in the wild grow in tropical rainforests attached to tree trunks; they get a lot of water but are never standing in water, they are in a very free draining position.
    I would add that once the flowers have finished on a Phalaenopis stalk it is important not cut it back to the base but to cut above a node, say two or three nodes from the bottom. Eventually, a few months later, the plant will grow a new stalk and flower again. If you cut it back to the base you won't see another flower in the future. The same is not true however for other varieties of orchid e.g. Cymbidiums. So it is important to know what type of orchid you have so that you know how to give it the best care; the most common these days is the Phalaenopsis.
    We have a very useful book, Growing Windowsill Orchids, that Kew Gardens publish. Worth getting.
    Once you've mastered this plant you'll soon add to your collection.
    best wishes
    Jill

  5. Grower

    Mark Hughes

    Thanks for the advice Helene and Jill. I had cut the last orchid back, by the sounds of it a little too low. However, I'm going out to get one this weekend, so let's see if I can make it work this time. Good advice on the most buds - the temptation is to go for the one with the most flowers, however I'll resist!

    Thanks again both - really useful and much appreciated.

    Mark

  6. Grower

    Mark Hughes

    Hi Helene - just a quick note to let you know I've taken your advice, bought some Orchid Myst and started soaking the roots. Might be placebo effect but leaves look slightly healthier already! I'll post a before send after photo when recovered. Thanks again.

  7. Grower

    Helene U Taylor

    Good to hear, I hope to see a photo with a lovely flower spike growing in not too long :-)
    Let me know as soon as that happens and I can tell you what to do with it. It’s not easy to see the difference in the beginning between a flower spike and just another aerial root, but after a while you’ll see it really is a flower spike.

  8. Grower

    Mark Hughes

    I will do Helene! Thank you very much!

  9. Grower

    Mark Hughes

    Hi all, thought I'd share with you a picture to demonstrate that your advice has worked a miracle - a plant I was about to throw out all those months ago is now flourishing!

    FYI I did slightly alter the watering regime Helene suggested, as I found that my plants would flower but then quickly fall off. So, once a week or two, I soak the roots under the tap, but I don't leave them in the water for an hour. This seems to sustain the flowers much longer and I've now got two healthy ones on this plant with another soon to follow. I guess this more accurately recreates the kind of watering they would get in the wild.

    Thanks again!

    • I keep killing orchids - help!
  10. Grower

    Jill Pack

    Fantastic, glad it worked. Very attractive flower. We find that watering once a week via the tap and then letting the pot drain before putting it back in the outer container works well.

  11. Grower

    Helene U Taylor

    I am so glad to hear you got flowers! I bet you are hooked on orchids now - easily done!
    I also think that watering once a week is more than enough, I usually water my orchids every Sunday as that makes it easy to remember :-)

  12. Grower

    Mark Hughes

    It's a Saturday morning thing for me - part of the routine now! I've also been making terrariums this weekend. I'll put a post on here about them soon!


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