Phalaenopsis Care, Culture and Tips: The Basics
Phalaenopsis need four primary things to grow well and rebloom in your home: water, light, nutrients (fertilizer) and a good potting medium that allows for air flow and evaporation. In order to keep your orchid happy and blooming you’ll have to provide the right amount of each. I’ll cover the methods I use to successfully re-bloom my plants and hopefully you can find value in this as you compare it to your own experience.
If you’re new to orchids you may find this post a bit overwhelming; check out my beginner version for new growers which should be a little easier to follow.
What makes me an authority on the topic? Nothing, but my phals (all of them) bloom consistently every year and are often in bloom for 6 months or more. When they’re not in bloom they’re GROWING—big leaves, or lots of roots. I grow my orchids in my smallish apartment in Calgary, Alberta Canada where the winters are cold and dry, where the outside seasonal differences range from -35 to +35, and where my tap water is mountain runoff with a high pH, loaded with minerals. More importantly—like you, I don’t grow my plants in a greenhouse.One thing that has greatly helped me grow healthy plants (beyond the care I’m about to outline in this post) is being able recognizing signs of Phalaenopsis distress. Being a successful orchid grower largely has to do with your ability to recognize signs of failure and then being able to correct the issue as soon as possible. If you’re not sure what a distressed phalaenopsis looks like, check out this other post I wrote.
Getting back on topic—how do you KEEP your plant healthy, happy and producing flowers year after year? Let’s dive in…
The Four Important Aspects of
Successful Phalaenopsis Culture
4. Substrate & Potting
I Have 2 Preferred Potting Mixes for Phalaenopsis Orchids:
- Fall/Winter-Blooming, Cascading or ‘Large-Flowered’ Phalaenopsis
A ‘Dry-Out’ Potting Mix Recipe
(for the classic-looking, round types you find at the grocery store)
This mix dries quickly because it allows for more air movement around the roots. These larger-flower phalaenopsis types tend to require wet and dry cycles. Note: I still add a bit of sphagnum moss to the mix to hold some moisture because I don’t want to water every 2 days.
• 60% bark
• 15% perlite
• 15% charcoal
• 10% sphagnum moss
- Summer-Blooming, Waxy-Flowered, Fragrant Phalaenopsis Species & Hybrids
A ‘Stay Moist (but not wet)’ Potting Mix Recipe
(for fragrant and star-shaped Phalaenopsis and hybrids of violacea, bellina, gigantea, tetraspis, venosa, amboinensis, mariae, bastianii etc.)
This mix holds water a bit longer and is better for water-loving phals because those species come from more equitorial regions that experience consistent seasonal conditions (and therefore the plant’s don’t like to fully dry out between waterings).
• 30% sphagnum moss
• 30% bark
• 25% perlite
• 15% charcoal (more in the bottom of the pot than mixed throughout)
Want to know more about Summer vs. Winter spiking phals?
Check out this diagram I made outlining the difference.
I repot every Phalaenopsis I buy. I don’t want to risk losing a great plant to root rot, and I’d rather risk losing the buds than lose the whole plant. That said, I’ve never had a plant “bud blast” after repotting.
Steps to Repotting:
- First, I remove all of the old potting medium. It can be a slow process, picking all the old sphagnum out from between the roots, but I prefer to start fresh. I’ll spray the roots off under the tap to clean off any residual particles before I pot them into the new medium.
- Then I’ll fill the bottom of the container with the largest pieces of potting mix and I’ll include a higher ratio of charcoal.
- Next I’ll add a handful of mix and slope it to one side.
- Now I’ll place the root ball down into the open space and lean the plant up against the slope.
- Then I’ll fill in the other side with the potting mix.
- Then tilt the plant back towards that side and fill in the remaining gaps.
- I’ll lift the crown up and down and shuffle the plant around to help sifts the medium down into the roots.
- I’ll finish by moving any media into the large gaps using a chopstick.
After my plant is repotted, I’ll put it in in the sink and soak/spray it with water for a good 2-5 minutes from the tap. Some people prefer to wait a few days to let any potential breaks or damage (that happened during the repotting) heal before they soak it with water — this makes sense to me, but I’m more fearful of letting old roots dry out too quickly especially if they’re not the more robust aerial roots.
NOTE: When using tap water on orchids — it should always be a tepid temperature (it shouldn’t feel warm or cold on the hand). Be extra cautious about this: hot water will kill your plant and cold water can damage the leaves if it’s too cold. Sometimes your tap will take a bit to adjust so don’t just fire the plant under the tap and walk away.
Here are a few photos of the repotting process:
3. Light for Phalaenopsis
If you live in the Northern hemisphere, your plant needs East, West or South facing windows in order to get enough light or you should consider using artificial light. If you live in a condo or house with only North-facing windows you’re probably going to have a difficult time re-blooming your orchid without some sort of supplemental light.
East Windows are best for phalaenopsis
Despite what you’ll read online direct sunlight is really good for your orchid, especially in the morning at an east-facing window. The biggest issue with direct sunlight is heat, which can burn the leaves; so any direct sunlight in the morning until about 11am shouldn’t be too hot for your plant, and it’ll be bright enough to really give your plant the light it needs for the day.
South Windows are good, but you need to reduce the intensity
Direct sunlight in a south-facing window will probably be too bright and too hot for a phalaenopsis unless you have very thick, or double-paned windows. You’ll risk burning your plant’s leaves and killing the plant if you put it in an unfiltered south window so be EXTREMELY careful if you’re unsure. The advantage of a South-facing window is that you can always reduce the light by putting up a sheer curtain and blocking about 50% of the light. The advantage to this is you’ll get bright light for the whole day, rather than just in the morning (east windows) or evening (west windows).
West Windows are okay, but they may be too hot so use caution
Pay close attention to the temperature near your west windows. If the room is going up over 25°C during the day and then the sun directly lands on your phals leaves at around 4pm it could be too hot and you’ll risk scorching the plant’s leaves. West windows are still workable–but it may require some thought on your end and a bit of attention when you first place the plant there. If it’s too hot, move them away from the window, or put up a sheer cloth.
North-facing windows won’t get any direct light and your plants will struggle
I’ve been told since I posted this that people have indeed grown and bloomed phals successfully at a North-facing window. I question the results and as a general rule, I’d avoid growing your plants at North-facing windows–the Amercian Orchid Society has the same perspective about North-facing windows. You should also beware: there are many species of phalaenopsis (especially the fragrant, summer-blooming species) that require brighter than “low light” to bloom. You simply won’t get enough light at a North window without supplemental lights.
You can read more about this topic on the American Orchid Society – light for orchids.
2. Nutrients and Fertilizing Phalaenopsis
This is a tricky topic; in my opinion, fertilizer information is kind of convoluted and very unclear to your average grower. The trickiness gets more complicated when you consider that your results of fertilizing (good or bad) will take months to years to really be apparent. Because of this complexity, I err on the side of caution and follow what’s routinely touted online as “Weakly every week”. That means I fertilize 1/4 strength at every watering (yes, even in the winter).
I generally use MSU Orchid fertilizer (13-3-15), but I have a couple other brands with higher phosphorous that I’ll use every now and then also. I’ve heard of people using standard fertilizer (20-20-20) at 1/4 strength as well, and obviously any specialty orchid ferts should work just as well. There’s debate about nitrogen source (urea vs. urea free), but I haven’t dove into the details, nor do I care because the MSU formula works very well for me.
Other modifications to my routine: Occasionally I’ll do a heavier dose of 1/2 strength fertilizer. Sometimes I’ll add a bit of Superthrive as well (once every 6 months?).
In 2018 I was experimenting with adding a tiny drop of dish soap to the fertilizer water (because I was told it helps break the water tension and improve water absorption)—however, I abandoned this practice after about 6 months as I found it dried the leaves and potting media out too; it also was pretty destructive to my predatory mite population and ended up pretty much killing all of them – after that I had an influx of pests, so I don’t bother with the dish soap now unless I’m treating for pests.
Looking to the future: I’d eventually like to get some fertilizer from Bill Thomas, “Bill’s Best“, as well as “Potion #9” — I have no justification, just some whispers that it’s really great. I’m sold.
Should you fertilize your orchid before or after you water?
I fertilize first, then water and flush with tap water to remove salt and fertilizer buildup.
I have attended orchid presentations where the speaker says to water first, then fertilize; I’ve also been to presentations where I was told to fertilize first, then water! My logic is as follows: orchid roots have adapted to take up the most water possible in the first 60 seconds they’re exposed to water, I’m using a diluted formula, so why not get the most into the plant from the start? I try not to let the the roots dry after I’ve fertilized and before I water. I’ve heard fertilizer crystals can form within the root as it dries, which is what causes the visible damage within the velamen (that thick, spongy, root material); this is why I rinse/water AFTER I fertilize.
When I water: I fertilize (1/4 strength), then spray with fertilize again, then rinse with regular water and flush pot and substrate thoroughly. I have a recycled water bottle with holes melted in the top to create a few streams. I fill that with my 1/4-strength fertilizer water and use it to apply it to my plants. I apply twice about 30sec-2mins apart, then I fill the decorative pot (with the orchid and pot inside) with tap water, let it sit for another 3-10 minutes. I finish by draining the pot and flushing once more with fresh tap water.
How long should you leave your roots in contact with fertilizer water?
Minutes (2-5 ish); because I’m going to be watering more thoroughly, I just make sure that the fertilizer water saturates the root a few times, and then I follow with a tap water rinse.
Not convinced? Check out this very thorough interview from Motes Orchids in Florida — it’s orchid growing gold.
Water is the single most important aspect of orchid care. These plants grow in tropical, humid climates, where water is abundant both in the air and at the roots, and where rainstorms pass by multiple times a day. If you don’t live in the jungle and you don’t live in a humid city by the ocean…you’ve got to be very diligent about providing the right conditions to keep your plant hydrated.
Warning: The following advice on watering orchids only applies if you’re using the same airy potting medium I have listed above. If you haven’t repotted your plant after you bought it, do not water this way! Dumping a bunch of water into a pot with tightly-packed sphagnum moss will surely cause anaerobic conditions and kill the roots.
How to Water Phalaenopsis
I water once or twice per week on Saturday and Wednesday. On Saturdays all plants get watered, on Wednesdays water the plants whose substrate has dried to the point that I don’t see any condensation in the pot. When watering, I follow my standard method of watering phals, which is a heavy drench with tap water. By heavy drench, I mean I run tap water (at a tepid temperature) through the medium for a couple minutes.
After the pot has had a quick rinse, I put the growing pot (which is clear and has holes in the bottom) inside it’s decorative pot (white and has no holes in the bottom) and fill it with water up to the bottom of the crown and leave it to sit for about 5 minutes. I should note: I also drench the whole plant liberally while filling the pot with water — I spray each leaf on the top and underside to get off any dust, and potential bugs (LIKE MITES). I then dump out the water, put it back inside the decorative pot, wait another 15 minutes for the remaining water to drain, and then finally I’ll dump any remaining water and put the plant back by the window. A great amount of water never sits in the bottom of the pot after this process is complete–sometimes a bit, but never enough that the bark is soaking in a pool of water.
If a plant is severely dehydrated, I have found the best way to rehydrate it, is to soak the pot and medium. You can leave an orchid to soak for many hours (despite what many online resources say), from what I’ve read though after about 20 minutes your plant won’t take up much more water. I leave mine to soak for 30 minutes to an hour. In some cases a phal will have roots that reach up into the air above the leaves, in those cases, I’ll put paper towel over the root and wet the paper towel as well while the plant soaks in the bowl. The key is to get all of the roots very saturated with water during this watering process.
By the way, I do this long-soak about once ever 2-3 months for most of my phals, or if I find that the’re drying out very quickly (generally in July and August when the humidity in Calgary can go as low as 20%) I’ll do it as needed (based on how the roots look).
A Grow Pot INSIDE a Decorative Pot
In the photo above, the grow pot has holes in the bottom and it’s transparent. This allows for some photosynthesis to happen via the roots and it lets you to see how the roots are doing. The decorative pot is wide enough that it allows for air flow right to the bottom of the pot (make sure this is the case, you don’t want it fitted because that will prevent airflow to the bottom of the pot); the decorative pot doesn’t have any holes in the bottom, so it’s kind of like a nicer-looking water tray; one that you can fill up with water to soak the roots and bark, giving your plant a few minutes to drink before you drain it.
Tap Water == HARD Water (No big deal)
My tap water is basic and high in mineral content (about 7.5-8pH and has a hardness ranging from 200-250 mg/L CaCO 3) — people routinely say that hard water is bad for orchids…it’s bullshit. Hard water may not be ideal…but if you meet the above requirements, hard water will not be a barrier for you. Having the perfect pH is like the last 10%–but for the bulk of us who just want to keep our plants alive and blooming (the first 90%), hard water is fine–my plants are living proof.
To avoid mineral buildup, I have found that running the water through the pot every week prevents that buildup of calcium and minerals. As a testament, my plants do much better now than when I was using distilled water with special fertilizers (likely because I water freely now compared to before where I was scared to really get my plants wet).
That pretty much covers my foundational and VERY DETAILED (sorry) understanding of Phalaenopsis care for windowsill growers. I follow these same rules for pretty much ALL of my orchids. If you have questions, criticism, suggestions, or other feedback, feel free to hit me up on social media.