Orchid Care: How To Water Orchids

It’s been a long time since I blogged about basic orchid care! Because I often get questions regarding how to water orchids, I thought it was high time I revisited my original post on watering these beautiful but sometimes challenging houseplants.

Understanding How Wild Orchids Grow

Phalaenopsis (Phalaenopsises? Phalaenopsii?) are the most common household orchid, so they’re often a grower’s first foray into the wide world of these amazing plants. However, some Phals (aka “moth orchids”) don’t come with instructions, while others come with instructions that are more of a marketing gimmick than appropriate care advice. Ever come across an orchid with a tag that says to water the orchid using ice cubes once a week? Please take my advice: don’t do it! I understand and appreciate that those instructions are an effort to prevent folks from overwatering, but when growing an orchid in the home it’s best to try to approximate the conditions it would experience in nature. Most Phals are epiphytic, meaning that in the wild they grow attached to tree branches, trunks, and other organic material, like so:

Phalaenopsis orchid growing in nature
Image credit: aboutorchids.com

Think about it this way: how likely is it that ice cubes would land on that orchid’s roots once a week?

Issues With Watering

Okay, then…why is overwatering a problem for orchids? When an orchid is overwatered, its roots will rot. That rot will prevent the orchid from absorbing water and nutrients and as a result, the plant may die a premature death. As you might imagine, underwatering can also cause problems for an orchid; too little water will dehydrate the plant and slow its growth, meaning the plant won’t offer up as many of those beautiful blooms we love so much.

Proper watering is key to maintaining a happy and healthy orchid, so let’s get to my advice on how to water a Phalaenopsis orchid.

When To Water an Orchid

First things first: how often should you water your orchid? Basically, you don’t want to water when the roots and potting medium are still wet, but you also shouldn’t let the plant completely dry out. A general rule of thumb is to water a Phal every 7 to 10 days. There are a few methods you can use to determine whether your orchid is ready for watering:

Method 1: Look at the roots. What color are they? Dry Phalaenopsis roots are whitish or silvery in color (see the roots near the top of the pot in the below image), while moist roots will be green or yellow-ish depending on the orchid variety (see the roots deeper inside the pot below).

Image credit: gsplantfoods.com

Do keep in mind that brown/mushy roots are bad. Aerial roots—the ones sticking out of the top of the pot in the image above—dry out more quickly than those deep inside the pot, so aerial roots aren’t always the best indicator of the whole plant’s moisture saturation. Planting the orchid in a clear plastic pot like in the above image will give you a good view of the roots. Because the roots deep inside the pot in the above example are still green, that orchid is not yet ready to be watered.

Method 2: If you can’t see any of the roots, here’s a good trick: insert a bamboo skewer into the potting medium (you can trim the skewer down so that it just fits in the pot). When you think it may be time to water, take the skewer out and feel it. Is it damp? Don’t water yet. If it’s dry…time to water!

Method 3: Sometimes you can tell that the orchid needs watering just by picking up the pot. Personally I think this method is more effective if your plant is in a lightweight plastic pot rather than ceramic or terracotta. If the pot feels light when you pick it up, chances are it has sufficiently dried out and needs more water.

I don’t find the third method as foolproof as the first two, but you’ll get a feel for it over time.

How To Water an Orchid

Now that you’ve figured out WHEN to water your orchid, you need to know HOW. Below is the basic orchid watering process that I’ve learned from orchid books, websites, and forums:

• Water in the morning to allow extra moisture to evaporate during the day. If the temperature drops at night and the plant is still wet, it will be more susceptible to disease.

• The simplest method is to water the orchid directly from the faucet using lukewarm water. If the water is too hot or too cold it can shock the roots—another reason that experts don’t recommend ice cubes.

• Thoroughly drench the potting medium, but do so carefully and try not to get water in the orchid’s crown (the center point from which the leaves grow), because standing water there can lead to crown rot. If you do get water in the crown (which, despite my best efforts, happens every damn time I water!), stick a piece of paper towel into the crevice to soak the water up.

• Then—and this is the most important step—let the water drain. To prevent root rot, you want to get as much of the standing water out of the pot as possible. If your orchid’s pot doesn’t have drainage holes, transplant it into a pot with holes ASAP. I usually let my orchids drain on a dish rack for a couple minutes, and then I pick up the pot and tap the bottom to help shake out any excess water.

If you’d like a visual demonstration on how to water orchids, there are a ton of orchid watering videos on YouTube.

Quick note: fertilizing goes hand in hand with orchid watering, so please check out my post on how to fertilize orchids.

And that’s it—the basics of watering a Phalaenopsis orchid. It may seem complicated, but it’s really not so bad once you get the hang of it. Happy watering!

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