This article has been written for the Foothill Orchid Society newsletter and is for the value and reference of other growers in the Calgary and Alberta area. *The info & advice outlined in this article is not approved, suggested, or recommended by the FOS, AOS, or any other orchid affiliation; it is merely the experience and thoughts from a fellow Calgary orchid grower.
Overview: Bryan and I have over 150 types of orchids and about 250 individual plants. We grow them all at East and South-facing windows in our condo in the Beltline area, just off 14th street SW. I’ve been growing orchids for over 10 years and I manage an orchid blog & YouTube channel called, Here…but not; Bryan started helping me pick the orchids I get to buy about 3 years ago. Our orchid collection consists of various species and hybrids, but at least 35% are Phalaenopsis.
Photos of our condo growing areas
I know people often “pooh pooh” on phals because they’re seen as “basic”, but we love them because they flower often (rewarding enough to pay their keep), their colors can be vibrant purples, pinks, oranges, and yellows, and many are fragrant; we have one that smells like a mix of Diet Coke & cilantro, and another that smells like goat cheese!
Getting back on topic: It has been a challenge to learn how to grow orchids in Calgary. A lot of the orchid culture info you find online is geared toward people who live in “ideal orchid conditions.” In case you are unsure, Calgary DOES NOT have an ideal orchid climate; it’s dry, it’s cool, it’s dark in the winter, and our water is alkaline (high pH & lots of dissolved minerals). While this makes growing orchids here more challenging, it’s not prohibitive.
History: Before we continue talking about how we currently grow our orchids, I’m going to level with you…I killed every orchid I had acquired in my first four years. Back then, I followed all the rules. I used “pure” water (distilled with MSU fertilizer for RO water). I feared and avoided “getting orchids wet.” I kept them in “low & in-direct light.” I NEVER let plants soak…and it’s because I followed these rules so strictly that I killed many many orchids!
It wasn’t until I began breaking the “orchid rules” that I found success. I started using Calgary’s tap water and I stopped fussing with humidifiers, humidity trays, and grow tents. To this day we don’t run a single humidifier in our home and I still get nosebleeds during our incredibly dry winters. While Calgary air may be dry, the key to success has been consistency and our ability to provide adequate light (brighter light is needed than most of us growers think), good airflow, sufficient hydration, and optimal nutrients. Using tap water simply gave me the freedom to water abundantly and as freely as needed.
Some of Our Orchids
Care & Culture of Orchids in Calgary
Wet Leaves & Watering: On watering day, we have a process: Bryan works on homework or watches “I Love Lucy”, and I take each plant to the sink and flush the pot with tap water, fertilize with pH-adjusted tap water (with nutrients), let it drip dry for 5-10 mins, then return it to the shelf by the window.
I want to make one thing crystal clear about why I can water this way: I always ALWAYS repot every orchid I get into a media that I can trust will dry within the week (see “potting media” below). I do not recommend you take a newly purchased orchid and water it like this until you’ve potted it into new orchid media in a pot with holes in the bottom. Often they’re planted in packed sphagnum moss that when soaking wet, plugs up, becomes anerobic, and chokes healthy roots. They use this media in greenhouses because it transfers small amounts of water very well. However, because we Calgarians are using alkaline tap water…we don’t have the luxury to “only water a little bit”—plants must be drenched to removed alkaline salt buildup.
Hard Water – Leach/Flush: When using alkaline tap water, leaching or flushing your pots is a vital practice; it ensures hard-water minerals don’t build up week-after-week. If you don’t flush, those minerals accumulate and as they concentrate they make your potting media pH fly up over 9—and that can happen in as little as a few months. I probably don’t have to tell you, but that’s bad—like really REALLY bad. So a tip: if you’re using Calgary tap water on plants (orchids or others), LEACH/FLUSH YOUR POTS OFTEN!
When watering, I fearlessly drench our orchids (leaves included). Wet leaves are good for a few reasons:
1) Orchids are foliar feeders and
2) Water helps keep the leaves free of dust and debris (better for photosynthesis)
3) Wetting leaves helps keeps those pesky spidermites at bay.
I know, I know…LOTS of what you read says, “wet leaves in a phal causes crown rot.” Well, this is me breaking the rules! I’ve never had a phal suffer from crown rot. Truthfully, if someone experiences issues with crown rot, it likely has to do with a Calcium deficiency or poor oxygenation caused by stagnant air…NOT a watering problem. If you want to learn more about water & crown rot, read this.
If you’d like to see how I water, here’s a link to one of my YouTube videos; I have made one slight adjustment since I published this vid—now I pH-adjust my fertilizer water…
The Value of Low pH: I have been using Calgary tap water for the last 7 years, but in spring of 2018 I started pH-adjusting (acidifying) the water I used for fertilizing. Why? Lowering the pH of water ensures that the plant nutrients dissolved in it are not bound up as unusable compounds. Conceptually, think about how we get lime in our sinks and tubs – adding vinegar (an acid) dissolves the calcium carbonate by altering the chemical bonds of Calcium Carbonate…that’s the essence of how acidic conditions make nutrients more available to the plant—they ensure nutrients are not bound up in non-usable chemical compounds such as Calcium Carbonate.
To lower the pH of water, I use a product called “pH Down” (phosphoric & citric acid)—you can buy this at any of the hydroponic stores, and I think even Lowes carries it. I adjust the fertilizer water to 5.8pH; however, when pots are being leached/flushed, I just use “regular tap water” (7.5pH). The swinging pH doesn’t appear to bother the plants, and it has a bonus of keeping the media “sweet” (not too acidic).
Note: I’m not trying to scare you into adjusting your pH. I truly believe it’s not something you HAVE to do. I did not for many years and I grew many orchids very well with just regular tap water. I’m just telling you what I do now, because it did have a noticeable effect on my plant’s growth and flowering. If you want to know more about pH, Hard Water & Orchids, follow this link.
Potting Media: I like to tinker, so my potting mix varies by orchid genre and species. Generally, I use a mix of fir-bark, pumice, perlite, a bit of charcoal, and some sphagnum moss; but I always finish by top-dressing each pot with a thin layer of sphagnum moss. This layer of sphag-moss helps hold moisture in and it’s also an indicator of when I need to water. If the moss is crunchy or crispy-dry, it’s time to water; if it’s spongy or soft, I wait. I use pine bark (Orchiata) for my paphs, but I prefer fir bar for the phals as it’s overall more water-retentive. I’ve also been adding a little bit of peatmoss to my mix as it helps hold moisture a little longer—it works very well with the seedlings and plants in smaller pots, but you’ll want to add at least 50% perlite to match the peatmoss you add (otherwise it might stay too wet for too long).
The goal with my “custom potting media” is to find a balance of ingredients that ensure the mix reliably approaches dryness by end of the week (or approaches dryness based on the requirements of the orchid). Plants like a Vanda or Tolumnia like to have dry roots immediately after watering, so they get very airy media (wine corks for the Vandas or pumice for the Toluminas) and are dry within 24h. Plants like “classic grocery-store phals” get a bit of sphagnum moss (10-15%), while the summer-blooming fragrant types get more sphagnum (25-35%) because they prefer to stay evenly moist. If you want to know more my potting mixes, check out this link.
Light – Mostly Natural, Some Artificial: All our orchids are grown by the windows in our Southeast-facing condo, but some get additional LED light. Orchids that require bright light are at the South windows, and any that require less light (the paphs & phals) at those windows, have a translucent plastic sheet at one window that blocks some of the sun’s intensity in the summer. Our windows are well-insulated, so while many of our plants are in direct sun, their leaves stay cool-to-touch (because bright light doesn’t burn leaves, heat from the sun burns leaves). I would be careful about putting orchids at South-facing windows in your home…test it first; and beware that in the spring & summer the sun can get so hot it will easily burn leaves of most orchids if your windows let in a lot of heat. The orchids that prefer low-to-intermediate light are at the East-facing windows and get direct sun until the sun pops over the condo around 11:30am.
Artificial Light: We use LED strip lights on the plants in the East windows to help supplement light in the afternoon, and through winter as the sun drops lower in the sky. It’s not a requirement, but it keeps them growing through the winter, rather than stalling from September thru April. The LEDs we use are QuickGrow LED “Flower Spectrum” and SunBlaster LEDs – the high-intensity of these full-spectrum grow lights means we get good growth at maximum intensity, without having issues with leaf burn caused by excessive heat. We keep the orchids about 12-18” away from the bulbs to prevent chlorosis (yellowing) of the leaves.
That pretty much sums up “how we grow”; if you have been struggling with orchids, I encourage you to consider this: much of the information you read online comes from people who grow in a greenhouse or in places that are tropical and abundantly humid. As an indoor orchid grower in Calgary, you face unique challenges like low humidity, and alkaline water…so don’t be scared to bend the rules a little and see what works for you and your plants.
If you have further questions about how I grow, or for clarification, you can reach me on Facebook at:
A few more orchid photos