Orchid Gardening 101: How to Cultivate the 'Show-Off Plant'

Jenny Rogers

Orchids can be tricky, but with tips from a Franklin Park Conservatory expert, you can successfully cultivate these floral showstoppers.

"They're the show-off plant," says Liz Coverdale, a horticulturist at Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. Of course, she's talking about orchids. "Everything about them is about inviting attention, whether from insects or people." And, like anything great in life, a gorgeous orchid plant is difficult to achieve. We asked Coverdale to walk us through a beginners' guide to orchid gardening. Here's what she had to say.

Orchids have a reputation for being high-maintenance.

I wouldn't say they're high-maintenance, as much as you need to pick the orchid that's right for the environment you have.

I think what happens is people see phalaenopsis [aka the moth orchid] in the big-box stores and want to bring orchids into the home. But they're not necessarily the easiest to grow, because they need that temperature difference between day and night. That's not impossible to achieve; you just need to realize that this is what's needed. The change can be as little as five degrees-the average would be eight degrees-and you can get that temperature difference naturally by putting your orchids near a window.

Where should every orchid gardener begin?

The most important thing is to know what orchid you're getting. Weird things can happen with orchids-you can buy an orchid that blooms out of the bottom of the pot, for example … crazy stuff like that. For the average homeowner or gardener, I'd say to go with the dendrobium. Dendrobium is an orchid you often see used by florists. This plant will bloom easily for four to six weeks, and it comes in a lot of colors. These orchids like brighter light, whereas the phalaenopsis likes a little more shade. Dendrobiums like temperatures a little warmer, too, like an evening temperature of 50 degrees and a daytime temperature around 70. Put them in a nice, bright location.

The phalaenopsis is great because it's one of the types of orchids you can cut back and see re-bloom. Most orchids send up one stock and when it's done, it's done. With the phalaenopsis, you can get it to bloom a second time, which is really rewarding.

What do orchids need most?

Water is always going to be the most important thing. Most orchids are from tropical areas and tend to grow epiphytically (on another plant while deriving nutrients from the air and surroundings). We pot them, which isn't the ideal medium for orchids, as having them sit wet will rot them pretty easily. So, it's important you make sure your orchids drain really well. With a lot of orchids, you can water once a week and then mist them in between. After a thorough watering, put your plant in a sink or a bathtub to totally drain it before putting it back in the pot.

Also, any plant that's going to put out something that beautiful needs energy. Fertilizing is incredibly important-but just during the growing season in the spring. The rule of thumb is to work with fertilizer at 50 percent of the recommended strength; you want weak but frequent fertilization. A lot of orchid hobbyists will actually fertilize as often as they water. In most cases, that's every week.

If something goes wrong and the plant withers or dies, can anything be done?

Orchids tend to be a bit more difficult to recover. We say at the conservatory: "What you do to an orchid a couple weeks ago is what you're going to see now." If it sits too wet and some of the roots start to die or rot, it might look dry to you, and you may think you need to water it. But that isn't the case. And, like with most plants, the first thing you should not do is fertilize a plant in a weakened condition. Follow the basic rules: the right temperature, the right light and enough time to dry down between waterings. And, if you have questions, call the conservatory! The orchid family is the biggest family of flowering plants in the world, and they grow on every continent. To get advice that's specific to the orchid you have, call us.