Overview: Bryan and I have over 150 types of orchids and about 280 individual plants. We grow all of them at East and South-facing windows in our condo in the Beltline area of Calgary (which is in Western Canada). I’ve been growing orchids for over 10 years and share my experience on my orchid/plant 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
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! I even tried growing in semihydro for two years which prevented me from actually learning what orchids would respond best to in my conditions. It’s because I followed these rules and advice of others so strictly that I killed many many MANY orchids (literally well over 100 plants—I’m embarrassed by that, but it’s important for others to know)!
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. (*edit* I added one humidifier Dec 28, 2019, it was an Xmas gift; I wanted to test the benefits out, but after seeing no obvious improvements and getting annoyed by refilling the humidifier every 24h, I stopped using it less than two months later). While Calgary’s air may be dry, the key to success has been consistency, understanding the necessity for wet, moist, dry tempos (and repeating that) 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 watches Netflix and entertains our cat while I water the orchids. I’ll take each plant to the sink and start by fertilizing with pH-adjusted tap water (you don’t need to pH-adjust if you only have a few plants – this is more for advanced growers which I’ll cover in more detail down below). Once thoroughly watered, the pots are left to fully drain for 5-10 mins, at which point I’ll toss any remaining water in the pot and returned to the shelves by the windows. And every second or third week, I’ll skip the fertilizer and just flush water through the pots to clear out any mineral buildup.
I want to make one thing crystal clear about why I can water abundantly and routinely every week: 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 new orchids as soon as you get them home…even if it’s currently in bloom. The only exception to this rule is for Cattleyas and Catisetinae orchids (because they have distinct root-growth seasons)…but truth-be-told, I generally repot these immediately as well.
Why repot ASAP? In my opinion, you’re better to lose a few buds to potential bud-blast, than rot out a those healthy roots by misjudging the watering need. An orchid without roots can be setback for years, whereas a healthy orchid that loses buds or flowers will generally bloom again within the year. This been said, I’ve never lost flowers on a newly-repotted phal, and I specifically recommend you do not take a newly-purchased orchid and water it like I do until you’ve repotted it into new media in a pot with holes in the bottom. Why? When you buy orchids from a nursery, big-box retailer, or garden centre, they’re 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. Greenhouses use sphagnum moss because it transfers small amounts of water very well meaning they don’t have to use a lot of water in order to sustain plants. We growers who are using alkaline tap water, don’t have the luxury to “only water a little bit”—our plants must be drenched often to remove and prevent alkaline mineral buildup in the potting media.
Hard Water – Leach/Flush: When using alkaline tap water, leaching or flushing your pots is a vital practice and it ensures hard-water minerals don’t build up week-after-week because you’re re-dissolving old salts into the water and flushing it out. What happens if you don’t flush your potting mix regularly is that minerals accumulate. As your potting media dries the salts precipitate out into the media and then you add water again and those salts quickly concentrate making your potting media pH sky-rocket!
I once did an experiment where I didn’t flush an orchid pot. Within 8 weeks, the media pH measured over 9pH. I probably don’t have to tell you this, but that’s bad—like really REALLY bad! At a pH of 9, key plant nutrients are locked out (specifically iron, manganese, and nitrogen), meaning the plant can’t take them up as easily. So a tip: if you’re using alkaline tap water on plants (orchids or others), LEACH/FLUSH YOUR POTS OFTEN (every couple weeks at least) in an effort to keep the pH and minerals lower!
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 used to use a product called “pH Down” (phosphoric acid) by General Hydroponics. I later bought a different brand and that “new” product of pH Down nearly killed half my collection of orchids, so now I just use my own blend of organic acids. 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” (7.9pH). 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 recommending you adjust your pH – for years I grew orchids in Calgary without doing so. Adjusting the pH has allowed me to squeeze an extra 10% out of my plants and get them to grow just a little bit better. It’s easy to screw up pH and kill your plants (or set them back)…so if this seems too complicated, don’t fuss with pH. If you’re curious and want to know more, refer to this article about pH, hard water and orchids.
Photo of one of my second-oldest phal – which doubled its flower count in 2019 after I started pH-adjusting
Potting Media: my potting mix choices varies slightly by orchid genre and species. Generally, I use a mix of fir-bark, pumice, perlite, a bit of charcoal, and some sphagnum moss. I’ll also always finish each pot with a thin top-layer of sphagnum moss. This layer of sphag-moss helps hold humidity near the roots, it helps keep the base of the plant where new roots start more 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 prefer fir bark for the phals as it’s overall more water-retentive, but I’ll use pine bark (Orchiata) for my paphs and phragmipediums. 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. Generally bright light doesn’t burn leaves…it’s the heat from the sun that can burn them, so in an attempt to get your plants into higher light, acclimate them slowly to higher light and be aware of the leaf temperature – touch it and if it feels warm, it’s probably getting too hot. Also beware, the sun is more intense in the spring and summer than it is in the winter…so think about where your plants are placed in the summer vs winter, and be cautious about leaf burn as the seasons change.
I prefer East-facing windows for my orchids that require low to intermediate light. While they get direct sun until 11:30am it’s rarely too hot. In the winter, when the daylight hours are too short and I noticed that many of my plants would stall or pause from October thru March (no new roots or leaves). After I added LED grow lights, this stopped being an issue and my plants now grow year-round.
Artificial Light: They’re not a requirement, but they sure are a game changer and make orchids grow faster and flower more prolifically. The LEDs we use are called, Fluence Ray66 Full Spectrum Indoor, QuickGrow LED “Flower Spectrum”, SunBlaster LEDs – the high-intensity of these full-spectrum LED lights means we get good growth without having issues with leaf burn which can be caused by excessive heat. The orchids are kept at about 12-18” away from the bulbs to prevent chlorosis (yellowing) of the leaves but at this distance the leaves are a vibrant bright green.
Thanks for Checking Out Our Home & Orchids
That pretty much sums up “how we grow” here in Calgary, Canada. 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, alkaline water, and short daylight hours in the winter…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