Orchids For Dummies
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Growing orchids at home isn’t as difficult as you might think. This handy Cheat Sheet will help you get started. Take a look at the list of fragrant orchids to decide which sweet scents you want around your house. You'll also find some helpful tips about knowing when and how to fertilize and water your orchids.

Discover fragrant orchids

Not only are orchids beautiful, some have an amazing fragrance. Here’s a list of some of the most sweet-smelling orchids and a brief description of their fragrances:

  • Angranthes Grandalena : Just about all the angraecums and their hybrids, like this one, have a sweet jasmine fragrance.
  • Brassavola nodosa: Its common name, Lady of the Night, gives you a hint of its sensuous freesia or lily-of-the-valley night fragrance. Also, be on the lookout for hybrids that contain this species as a parent. They’re frequently sweet-scented.
  • Cattleya walkeriana and hybrids: This is a diminutive beauty that has a relaxing cinnamon and vanilla fragrance. It frequently passes this quality to its offspring, so be on the lookout for hybrids that use this as a parent.
  • Maxillaria tenuifolia: Who can pass up this orchid that smells like roast coconut?
  • Miltoniopsis santanaei: A delightful small-growing orchid that has the scent of roses. Many of the miltoniopsis hybrids also have this quality.
  • Neofinetia (now called Vanda) falcata: Long admired and revered by Asians for its alluring jasmine fragrance, it’s just now receiving the attention it deserves in the West.
  • Oncidium Sharry Baby: The mouthwatering scent of vanilla and chocolate without the calories makes this easy-to-grow orchid top the popularity charts.
  • Phalaenopsis violacea or Phalaenopsis bellina: Both of these species of phalaenopsis are wonderfully fragranced. Phalaenopsis violacea has a spicy, cinnamon fragrance, whereas Phalaenopsis bellina has a headier freesia-with-a-touch-of-lemon scent.
  • Rhynchostylis gigantea: The citrus fragrance from this one can permeate an entire house.
  • Zygopetalums: A bed of hyacinths is what these gaily colored flowers of this underappreciated orchid smells like.

How to fertilize your orchid

Many people think fertilizer is some type of elixir that will save even the most abused orchid. Actually, if the orchid is in poor health, fertilizers are rarely the answer. Fertilizers are most useful as a boost to help an already healthy orchid grow better.

The number and types of fertilizers on the market can make your head spin! You’ll hear a lot of mumbo-jumbo about why one fertilizer is better than another. Fortunately, the choice isn’t nearly as complicated as some manufacturers seem to make it.

If the orchid’s roots are damaged, applying fertilizers will make the problem worse. If roots aren’t functioning well, they can’t absorb the fertilizer, and if the fertilizer isn’t used by the orchid, it can accumulate in the orchid potting material. This buildup of fertilizer salts can further dehydrate and damage the remaining roots.

The following suggestions apply to most orchid-growing situations:

  • Look at the label and choose a fertilizer that has the words nitrate nitrogen or ammoniacal nitrogen, not urea. Although all forms can be used by plants, recent research shows that the nitrate and ammoniacal forms, not urea, are most beneficial to orchids.
  • Look for a fertilizer with 20 percent or less nitrogen. High amounts of nitrogen, much more than 20 percent, aren’t necessary to grow the best orchids no matter what media they’re grown in. The orchid plant can’t use too much of any nutrient, and, as a result, the extra nutrient merely ends up as a pollutant.
  • Don’t worry about the amount of phosphorus in the fertilizer. Horticulturalists used to think that a high-phosphorus fertilizer was necessary for better orchid bloom. That’s actually not the case.

In most cases, using a fertilizer with supplementary calcium (up to 15 percent) and magnesium (up to 8 percent) is a real plus because these nutrients in sufficient quantities many times aren’t found in the water source, and both of them are important to healthy plant growth.

For most water sources, adding trace elements, including sodium, manganese, copper, zinc, boron, iron, and molybdenum, has been found to be beneficial to orchid growth. Don’t worry about the exact amounts; just check the fertilizer container or label to see if they appear in small amounts.

Any fertilizer that meets these requirements will do. To find out if your chosen fertilizer does, carefully look at the fertilizer container. By law, the manufacturer is required to list what chemicals are included in the fertilizer.

Don’t use water that has passed through water-softening units on your orchids. Such water may contain high amounts of sodium that can be harmful to orchids.

Here are some pointers to help you know when it’s time to fertilize your orchid:

  • Fertilizing frequently at a more dilute rate is better than fertilizing less often at a higher concentration.
  • Never apply more fertilizer than the manufacturer recommends.
  • Drench the potting material, several times in a row, every few weeks or so with fresh water that contains no nutrients to wash out any excess fertilizer salts.
  • Very dark green leaves that are succulent and floppy can be a sign of overfertilizing.
  • When the orchids are actively growing, fertilize them.
  • If the orchids are diseased and in poor condition, stop fertilizing.

How to water orchids

Orchids are killed by improper watering (usually by overwatering) more likely than by any other practice. Discovering how to properly water orchids is one of the more challenging aspects of growing orchids.

The pot-weighting method of determining when to water is one of the easiest. In this method, you’re relying on feel instead of precise weights. Here’s what you do:

  1. Thoroughly water the orchid in its pot.
  2. Figure how much the pot weighs by picking it up. Now you know how heavy it is when it’s saturated with water.
  3. Wait a day or so and do Step 2 again. You’ll feel the difference in the weight as the potting material becomes drier.
  4. Repeat Step 3 each day until you judge, by looking at the surface and sticking your finger into the top 1 inch (2.5 cm) or so of the potting material to see if it’s damp, that it’s time to water. Keep in mind whether this type of orchid prefers to be on the damp or dry side.
  5. Note what this dry weight is. Now the orchid is ready to be watered thoroughly.

This entire process may sound tedious, but you’ll be amazed at how quickly you catch on. And when you do, you’ll always know the right time to water. Just lift the pot, note its weight, and you’ll have your answer.

If you’re still not quite sure about watering, keep the following watering tips in mind:

  • Grow orchids of the same type, growing medium, pot type, and size in the same area. This strategy makes watering them easier because the plants in that area have similar moisture requirements.
  • Water with warm water. Very cold water can cause root and bud shock, which sets back the plant and slows down its growth.
  • Always use a water breaker. A water breaker is a water diffuser that you attach to the front of your hose to soften the flow of water. For only a few orchids, a sprinkling can with a long spout with a rose (a water diffuser placed on the end of the water-can spout) that has many small holes works well. These devices allow thorough watering without washing out the potting material.
  • When you water, water thoroughly. The water should pour out from the bottom of the pot. This method of watering ensures that the potting material is saturated and flushes out any excessive fertilizer salts.
  • Never let the pots of orchids sit in water for over a few hours. If the orchid pots have saucers, make sure to keep them free of water. Excess standing water will prematurely rot the media and roots and will be a source of accumulating fertilizer salts and pathogens (disease-causing organisms, like bacteria, fungi, or viruses).
  • Water the orchids early in the day or afternoon. That way, the foliage has plenty of time to dry off before nightfall. Wet foliage in the evening is an invitation for disease.

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