This article has been written for the Foothill Orchid Society newsletter and is for the value and reference of other growers. *The info and 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 orchid grower.
Overview: Bryan and I have over 150 types of orchids and about 270 individual plants. We grow all of them at East and South-facing windows in our condo in the Beltline area of Calgary. 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, one that smells like sunscreen, one like cinnamon hearts, one like roses, and another that smells like goat cheese!
A photo of our 3-year-old (and largest) Phalaenopsis – taken Feb 17, 2019
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About Calgary’s Climate & Water
Getting back on topic: It has been a challenge to learn how to grow orchids in Calgary. A lot of the orchid care 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 often dry (humidity ranging from 18-45%), it’s cool (-25C is considered “cool”…right?), it’s dark in the winter (days as short as 7h), and our water is alkaline (high pH & lots of dissolved minerals). While these conditions make growing orchids more challenging, it’s not preventative…and frankly, if Bryan and I can successfully grow orchids here in Calgary, it doesn’t matter where you are…anyone should be able to grow them with some degree of success.
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 the first four years that I started collecting them. 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”; and I NEVER let plants soak! It’s because I followed these rules so strictly that I killed many many MANY orchids (literally over 100 plants)!
It wasn’t until I began breaking the “orchid rules” that I found success. It started by using Calgary’s alkaline tap water, and then 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’s 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” reruns and I take each plant to the sink and start by flushing the pot with tap water, followed by fertilizing with pH-adjusted tap water, then the pots are left to drip dry for 5-10 mins, and then they are returned 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) and I recommend you repot every new orchid as soon as you get it home…even if it’s currently in bloom. In my opinion, you’re better to lose a few buds to potential bud-blast, than rot out a those healthy roots. PS – I’ve never lost flowers on a newly-repotted phal. I specifically do not recommend you take a newly-purchased orchid and water it like this until you’ve repotted it into new media in a pot with holes in the bottom. New orchids are often planted in packed sphagnum moss and when packed sphagnum moss gets soaking wet, it plugs up, it becomes anaerobic, and it chokes healthy roots. In greenhouses they use this media because it transfers small amounts of water very well. However, because we Calgarians are using alkaline tap water…it means we don’t have the luxury to “only water a little bit”—our plants must be drenched to remove and prevent 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 your potting mix with fresh water regularly, those minerals will accumulate and as they concentrate they make your potting media pH sky-rocket! I once did a small experiment where I didn’t flush an orchid pot and within 8 week, the potting mix pH measured over 9. I probably don’t have to tell you, but that’s bad—like really REALLY bad because at a pH of 9 may plant nutrients are locked out and not soluble for the plant to take up through its roots. So a tip: if you’re using alkaline tap water on plants (orchids or others), LEACH/FLUSH YOUR POTS OFTEN!
I LOVE Wetting my Plants
When watering, I fearlessly drench our orchids (leaves included). Wet leaves are good for a few reasons:
1) Orchids are foliar feeders;
2) Water helps keep the leaves free of dust and debris (better for photosynthesis); and
3) Wetting leaves help keep those pesky spidermites away.
I know, I know…LOTS of what you read says, “wet leaves on a phalaenopsis 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 lack of air flow…NOT due to a watering problem. If you want to learn more about water and crown rot, read this.
How I water: It’s helpful to show rather than tell. Here’s a link to one of my YouTube videos that shows exactly how I water my orchids. I have made one slight adjustment to my watering process since I publishing 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 and are not bound up as unusable compounds. Conceptually, think about how we get lime deposits in our sinks and tubs – adding vinegar (an acid) dissolves the calcium carbonate by altering the solubility of calcium carbonate in water…that’s the essence of how acidic conditions make many plant nutrients more available to the plant—they ensure nutrients are not bound up in non-usable chemical compounds such as calcium carbonate. You might be thinking, “but the pH of water is 7″…and you’d be correct; however, the pH of rainwater is actually closer to 5.5; this comes from carbon dioxide and its relationship with rain water. But it’s good to know because as you may know, orchids are epiphytes and are watered by rainwater…so you see, they have adapted to absorb nutrients at around 5.8-6pH.
How I lower pH: 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 Lowe’s carries it too. I have an electronic pH meter that helps me ensure my readings are accurate and I calibrate that meter often. I only adjust the fertilizer water to 5.8pH, but before I fertilize (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 letting the bark get too acidic from the process of decay).
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 mess with pH for many years and I grew lots of 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 many orchid’s growth and I saw an increase in flower count too. If you want to know more about pH, hard water and orchids, follow this link.
Photo of one of my second-oldest phal – which doubled its flower count in 2019 after I started pH-adjusting
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, it helps keep the base of the plant (where new roots start) moist, and it’s a great 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 bark 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 whatever 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 Vandas or Tolumnias like to have dry roots immediately after watering, so they get very airy media (wine corks for the Vandas or pumice for the Toluminas) that ensures the roots are dry within 24h. Plants like the “classic grocery-store phals” get a bit of sphagnum moss (10-15%) and are allowed to dry slightly in the root area between waterings. The summer-blooming phals (often the fragrant types) get more sphagnum (25-35%) because they prefer evenly moist roots and tend to sulk if they dry between waterings. If you want to know more my potting mixes, check out this link.
Light – Mostly Natural, Some Artificial: All of 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 South windows, are behind a translucent plastic sheet 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 sunlight, their leaves stay cool-to-touch. Bright light doesn’t generally burn leaves, heat from the sun is what burns leaves though, so I would be careful about putting orchids at South-facing windows in your home…test it first and gradually acclimatize new plants to brighter light (just as you would with putting new seedlings for your garden). Also, be aware, spring and summer sun be much more intense than winter sun…so use caution when first getting used to your windows and sunlight situation.
The orchids that prefer low-to-intermediate light are at East-facing windows and while they get direct sun until 11:30am, in the winter the daylight hours are so short that it’s often not enough. Those plants used to stall or pause from October thru March (no roots/no leaves). To remedy this, we started using LED grow lights…
Artificial Light: It’s not a requirement, but it keeps them growing, which keeps me happy during the dead of winter. 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 but still keeps them vibrant and bright green.
Thanks for Checking Out Our Home & Orchids
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, 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