I want all of the orchids to thrive! And after helping countless other orchid growers with their plants, and seeing so many people struggle (and kill orchids) with semihydro and full water culture, I’ve decided it was time to expose “the other side” to these “always wet” growing methods.
If you’re more interested in how I successfully grow orchids today, check out this post, how I grow 300 orchids in Canada in a condo; and if you’d like more information on caring for phalaenopsis, refer to this guide to phalaenopsis orchids.
What are “Always Wet” Culture Methods?
Semi-Hydro (S/H) or Full-Water Culture (FWC)—what I call, “ALWAYS WET” culture methods—are two ways of growing orchids that are both branded as “the easy way.” In these two growing methods, the roots of the orchid sit in a stagnant pool of water. The intention is to provide the roots and plant with a constant supply of water. You see it’s “always wet“—because the roots are always hanging out in water.
The three problems with always wet orchid culture are:
- Unsuspecting (and new) growers can experience a high failure rate because they assume it’s a care-free method.
- Phalaenopsis growers often run into problems with root growth. Why? Because the cool temps (down to 16•C) that “common phals” need to stimulate flower spikes are a perfect storm for fungal and bacterial rot. Cool + wet == not good for orchid roots! Conversely, the summer-blooming phals (which require evenly-moist roots and warm conditions) often struggle if a grower’s climate is dry because the top layer of the potting media is too dry. Organic media like bark and sphagnum moss are used because they suck up, hold, and distribute water and humidity more evenly across the entire root zone and that can mitigate a dry climate. Saturated Sphagnum moss alone holds over 1,500% of it’s weight in water; bark – over 35%; but LECA only holds 19% of its weight in water when saturated. In a dry climate, the main problem with always wet growing methods, is the top of the pot (and base of the plant where new roots emerge) is harshly dry while the lower half is soaking wet. It requires that the plant adapt to two different climates within the same growth – and some orchids just aren’t adapted to rupicolous (rock) growth. The result is often that new roots often look shriveled and abort before ever reaching the water…setting the orchid back for that growing season.
- Using strictly inorganic media doesn’t allow the grower to custom-tailor the drying rate of the potting mix to the needs of the orchid and their climate. Experienced growers understand that using a blended potting mix of organic and inorganic materials, gives them the ability to regulate the dry-out rate of the potting mix and subsequently the roots. By altering the ratio of organic additives like sphagnum moss and bark to the ratio of structure-providing inert materials like perlite, pumice, and leca you can make a potting mix that dries within days or make a potting mix that stay moist for a full week.
If you’re a phalaenopsis grower, I encourage you to check out this post.
It’s loaded with good information & care tips for more flowers.
I Used to be a Dedicated Semi-Hydro Orchid Grower!
Good Bye S/H, Hello actively watering plants every week
I have since stopped using semi hydro and opted for a more traditional semi-organic orchid potting mix; this also means I have to DRENCH my plants once a week to ensure proper hydration. It was shocking how much better the plants grew with just a few tweaks to care. My phals stopped dropping leaves, orchids stopped dying, and the plants in my collection started to mature and become specimen-sized orchids. I didn’t even know that this was possible, but did you know a single phalaenopsis leaf can last for 3-5 years?! Now, my oldest phals typically hold anywhere from 8-23 leaves and they grow 2-4 leaves per year—it’s not uncommon that my phals will produce 2 leaves AT THE SAME TIME! And of course, because there are more leaves when it comes to blooming, the plants produce more flowers. The roots on my plants are also more prolific—a compounding affect with more leaves—leading to faster growth so it’s been a hobby-changing experience.
I became so confident in my ability to grow orchids that in 2017, I deflasked orchid seedlings and then in 2018, I started breeding and raising my own orchids from seed! And a tip: if you want to find out what growing method, or light, or potting media, or fertilizer works best…Buy a flask of orchid seedlings and test groups of the seedlings in different conditions. You’ll find out very quickly what works and what doesn’t – and if you can’t get a seedling orchid to grow in semi-hydro or water culture…do you really think it’s going to be better for the adult version of the plant?
My two largest non-semihydro / non-water culture phals – ~3 years old
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My two largest phals…glossy bossy Mok Choi Yew and some booger NOID. Thanks @bryankeith560 for being my on-call photographer 😘 • • • • #orchid #orchids #phal #phalaenopsis #phalaenopsisgigantea #orchidsofinstagram #houseplants #houseplant #plant #plantlover #plants #plantsofinstagram #planthoarder #urbanjungle #planta #plantaddict #plantsmakepeoplehappy #plantslover #plantsarefriends #plantstyling #iloveplants #indoorgarden #greenthumb #plantsplantsplants #houseplanthoarder #orchidea #orchidee #green #bigplants
Photos of my current orchid collection – NOT in semihydro
“Always Wet” is bad for Orchids and GREAT for bacteria and fungal growth in the root-zone.
WHAT??! you ask? Yeah, wet is where bacteria and fungus like to grow and it’s how spores germinate and pathogens spread. Constantly wet environments are not where most orchids have adapted to grow (excluding some Phragmipediums of course) and so they become more susceptible to infection. The vast majority of orchids grow in habitats that experience wet/dry cycles—you know, in a rain forest. That’s why orchid roots have adapted to suck water up quickly and store it. At that foundation level, it seems to me that always wet cultural methods just don’t make a lot of sense.
A side story: When I was growing in S/H, I ended up losing nearly 35% of my collection to what I assume is a fungal or bacterial infection (but very well could have been a virus). Below are a few photos of what I was dealing with. It happened because I was reusing water…not much mind you…but I reuse some and the pathogen spread across a third of my collection, killing all that it infected.
Shame on me for reusing water, right?
Well, that was also a symptom of a bigger issue…I was buying ~4 x 10L jugs of distilled water every month. I would add special MSU orchid fertilizer for distilled water, but buying 40L of water at $10/bottle added up pretty quickly. It was expensive and I tried to cut corners by preserving water. As I filled one pot, I would let the excess water drain from one pot to the next. I never transferred the same water to all of the pots. I literally just used the next pot to catch the excess water from the pot I was currently topping up. So the pathogen spread rather easily considering I wasn’t dunking the pots in a vat of water. Still…shame on me, right?
Probably…but let my failure be a lesson for you. I still have more reasons why I really don’t like always-wet orchid culture.
Why “Always Wet” is bad (the WORST) for Orchids:
- Fungus + Bacteria: Yup, beating this dead horse again (it’s like a bad ex and I definitely have baggage from this one). Baseline concept you need to know: it’s easier to get bacterial & fungal infections in your orchids because you’re creating the perfect conditions (wetness) where those pathogens thrive and spread.
- The “adjustment period”: new orchids have to “get used to” these always wet conditions—some can take up to 6 months (or more) to get the “right roots”. Those that don’t adjust generally just die…but the ones that do adjust are generally set back a bit. It was a shocker to me, but that adjustment period isn’t normal. I literally don’t experience this anymore…and if I don’t see new growth within the first few weeks of getting an orchid, I know something is wrong. 99% of the time, I repot new orchids and they keep growing like nothing happened.
- Old Root Die Off: Older roots die because they go from the old dry conditions to new wet conditions that encourage bacterial growth. Old roots often get rot and fall off which also means there’s a lag from when you repot the orchid into FWC/SH and it’s subsequent establishment in the new always wet conditions.
- Less roots: It seems that orchids grown in water culture tend to end up with less roots overall—likely because the wet/dry cycles that stimulate new root growth…are absent. A lower root count on unestablished plants can easily yield higher rates of death.
- New Roots Abort: Growers will often experience aborted roots because the material (terracotta – Leca/Seramis) actually starts pulling water from the plant when it gets too dry! That’s a big problem if you live in a dryish climate (under 70%).
- Shriveled leaves and pseudobulbs: This happens from dehydration—simply put, when you stop actively watering your plant, it becomes dehydrated. I actually didn’t know this…but Oncidiums ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO HAVE SHRIVELED PSEUDOBULBS! (Same goes for Miltoniopsis—not supposed to have shriveled pseudobulbs).
- Too Dry at the Top: Too much air flow (large pebbles) which dries out the roots too quickly, or rather it dries out the top layer of the medium while the bottom layer is still wet (terrible conditions for new roots). The water-wicking affect of the leca/seramis only works effectively if you’re in a humid climate and the water has a chance to wick all the way to the top.
- Too Wet and Stagnant Around the Roots: Too little air flow (small/variable sized pebbles), can prevent air flow to the deeper root zone (not the end of the world, but air circulation through fans or something should be used to force air through the medium…or you really risk rotting your orchid roots).
- Increase your pH? I have seen videos on youtube that verify that intert substrates can increase the pH of water substantially (into the range of 8.5-9.0)…I’ve also seen videos of people countering this. So the jury is out–admittedly, I don’t really care too much about pH. A story for another post.
But everyone online says Full Water Culture and Semi Hydro are THE BEST…
Yeah, trust me, I’ve heard all the claims too. Here’s the problem, if someone is saying how great FWC or SH is…ask them to share photos of their orchids in in SH or FWC. 90% of the time orchids growing like this look a little rough.
Compare for yourself:
Photos of my phals NOT grown always wet
each with 7 or more leaves
In general an orchid that is growing well and is happy should have firm leaves, good leaf growth (if it’s a phal, more than 3 leaves), numerous flowers (if in bloom) and a good amount of roots. Look for that in the images of the orchids people show you. It’s not a pissing contest…it’s a proof contest. Prove that the growing method yields success, because you’ll find often time it does not.
FWC phals ALWAYS look like they’re on the edge of death…2-3 leaves that are often floppy, 2-4 roots with literally no root growth visible in the water (but often roots growing away from the water), and if the plant is in bloom, it has anywhere from 2-4 flowers (5 if you’re lucky)–NOID phals should generally hold about 7-14 flowers without having to manipulate any major temperature adjustments.
SH orchid sometimes look fantastic…but often times they really don’t—black leaf tips, black spots, bacterial infections (yellow spots or chlorosis) or burnt roots.
I have occasionally been proven wrong…only a handful of times, but in those cases the grower generally lived in humid climate, they grew their plants in a greenhouse, or the plant they have is one that comes from a drier climate where it had adapted to seasonal variations and therefor was better able to mitigate both wet and dry conditions.
Okay, I’m Done Ranting. Choose what works best for you
If you’re having good success with either of the two always wet culture methods, then good for you! This is my experience and observations when watching others struggle with their plants. Further, if you’re curious if it will work—TRY IT! Don’t be scared of growing orchids (or what I have to say), you’ve got to experiment and see what works for you, your lifestyle and climate. This post is intended to help people who are considering S/H or FWC and be a benchmark for people who are already growing in either condition but are suspicious that it might not being as effective as they once thought.
That kind of sums up my thoughts. I will build and modify this post periodically. If you’re looking for help on how to grow orchids, check out this post on growing phals it has all the juicy details that have provided me thousands of happy orchid flowers.
If you’re still planning on growing your orchids “always wet” – Watch this video first
Happy Orchid Growing!
“But Dustin, you said proof is in the pudding…where’s your proof?!”