Growing Orchids for Beginners

So you want an introduction to growing orchids for beginners? You're in for an adventure, since growing orchids is addictive! I'll give you some "gateway" orchid care instructions below. Once you know how to grow orchids, they'll thrive for you, as most are easy to care for. They'll grow bigger, make more flowers each year, and you'll be far less likely to kill them and feel guilty about it.
Miltoniopsis Maui Mist 'Golden Gate'
Miltoniopsis Maui Mist 'Golden Gate'

Growing orchids is easy! If you imitate a plant's natural habitat, it will thrive. There are very many types of orchids, coming from a wide variety of different habitats (on every continent except Antarctica!) so there is almost certainly an orchid that likes the conditions you are able to provide. The most commonly available orchids, such as the Moth Orchid, Phalaenopsis, are so popular because they do well in typical homes. I give links to specific orchid care instructions for the most common types below, at the bottom of this page.

You might also want to see the page on growing orchids indoors for more information on reproducing orchid habitats in typical homes, or proceed to the slightly more advanced orchid care instructions in the caring for orchids section, which is not specifically aimed at growing orchids for beginners.

Regardless of which of the many types of orchids you are growing, a few tips will help you keep them happy. Growing orchids for beginners mostly involves learning a few basics:

Lighting

Different kinds of orchids have different lighting needs, which are generally divided into three rough categories:
  • High lighting (about 3,000-5,000 footcandles, or 30,000-50,000lux) is typical for south-facing windows in the northern hemisphere. Direct sunlight should usually be avoided, particularly at hotter times of the day. Some common types of orchids that like high light are Cattleya and Vanda orchids.
  • Medium lighting (about 2,000 footcandles, or 20,000lux)
  • Low lighting (about 1,000 footcandles, or 10,000lux) is common for shaded windows, or east-facing windows. Low lighting is preferred by Phalaenopsis and Pahiopedilum orchids, among others.
As a general guideline, orchids should be given as much light as they can happily tolerate. Leaves will tend to become greener when lighting is low, and yellower (occasionally with red spotting) when there is a lot of light. If sunburned black or brown patches appear on the leaves, reduce the lighting.

Orchids with thicker and/or more erect leaves tend to be able to tolerate more light than those with thinner or more horizontal leaves.

Too little lighting is one of the more common mistakes in growing orchids for beginners.

Temperature

Orchids are often divided into three general temperature categories:
  • Warm-growing orchids like day temperatures between 70°F (21C) and 85°F (29C). This includes most Phalaenopsis orchids.
  • Intermediate orchids like day temperatures between 65°F and 75°. This is typical of Cattleya orchids.
  • Cool-growing orchids like temperatures to stay below 70°F (21C), say from 60°F (15C)-70°F (21C) during the day. This includes most Masdevallia orchid species, for example. Because this temperature range is difficult for most people to provide, these plants are not very widely marketed, except at places that mostly cater to orchid hobbyists.
Orchids generally appreciate a 10-15°F drop in temperatures at night (6-8C).

Most of the commonly-available orchids are chosen to make growing orchids for beginners easy, which means that if you got your plant at a supermarket or orchid mass-market place, it will probably do well in temperatures that are comfortable for humans.

Humidity

Most orchids like humidity to be about 70%. This is considerably more humid than most homes, so you'll want to make some effort to provide your plants with extra humidity.

Orchids usually appreciate misting with a spray bottle. If the plant has aerial roots growing up out of the pot, those roots will especially appreciate getting some moisture.

You can also set up a humidity tray: put water in the bottom of a tray, with enough gravel that a plant set on top does not sit in the water. As the water evaporates, it will provide some extra humidity for the plant. These are a great help to growing orchids for beginners, or anyone else keeping tropical plants on a windowsill.

Water

Overwatering kills far more orchids than underwatering; it's the most common cause of orchid disease. So when in doubt, don't water! The potting mix used has a lot to do with how often an orchid needs watering, but most orchids are sold in mixes that allow for roughly weekly watering. For most orchids, stick a finger a couple inches into its potting mix, and if the mix is dry, it's time to water. Don't water until it's at least approaching dryness.

To water an orchid, take it to the sink and run water through the pot until it flows out the bottom, trying to get as much of the potting mix wet as possible. Alternatively, submerge the plant's pot in a bucket for a few seconds, then lift it out and let it drain off excess water.

Symptoms of overwatering are similar to symptoms of underwatering: the plant appears to shrivel and dry out. In the case of overwatering, this is because most of the roots have died and rotted. If in doubt whether you're overwatering or underwatering, lift the plant out of the pot and see whether the roots are firm and white (healthy) or soft and mushy (dead). In the latter case, the plant should also be repotted.

Orchids often grow aerial roots up and out of the pot; try to get these wet when you water.

Repotting

It's best to repot orchids every couple of years as the mix (usually bark) that they're potted in starts to break down. Most orchids are epiphytes (they grow on trees as air plants, rather than in the ground) so if the potting mix is starting to decompose, compress, and become denser, orchids get unhappy because their roots expect greater access to air.

Pruning

Many people growing orchids as beginners wonder about pruning orchids. Trimming old flower stems that have turned brown is a good idea. If it's still green, it may rebloom, either from the tip or by branching further back on the stem. So don't cut back green flower stems.

Pruning orchids to keep them small is a bad idea, because it is very stressful to the plant. If you cut a leaf, often the whole leaf will die back. Cutting stems is also usually bad. The only stems to cut on orchids are rhizomes (when dividing a plant; leave at least three or four growths per division) and flower stems (when they're done blooming and have turned brown, or if you want to put cut flowers in a vase.) Trimming orchids should really only be done to remove leaves, roots, or flower stems that have already died and turned brown.

Also, sterilize your cutting tools (or use disposable razors) so that you don't spread orchid diseases between your plants.

Common First Orchids

If you already have an orchid, and are trying to figure out how to care for it, these pages give specific orchid care instructions for some of the most common first orchids, so they are useful additions to the general orchid care instructions above. There is also a page on the many other , which indicates the ones that I think are good choices for beginners.
Cattleyas were discovered in 1824 when William Cattley received a sickly plant of Cattleya labiata used as packing material in a shipment of orchids and nursed it back to health. When it bloomed, it created quite a stir! Cattleyas are still among the most popular types of orchids today.
Dendrobium is a large genus, with about 1200 species. They come from many different habitats, so it's necessary to read up on the particular type you intend to grow. They tend to like bright light, but most other care requirements have exceptions. They are one of the most popular types of orchids, and many are quite beautiful.
Many Oncidiums produce long, branching sprays of hundreds of flowers. They appreciate lots of water, and lots of air to the roots, a somewhat tricky combination! The flowers of some species and hybrids are so numerous that blooming plants are sometimes mistaken for swarms of bees.
Paphiopedilums are slipper orchids that come from southeast Asia. Many have attractive, mottled leaves, too! They grow well in relatively low light, which can be convenient for indoor orchid care. They are quite easy to grow, and are among my favorites; my first orchid was a Paphiopedilum.
Phalaenopsis, the Moth Orchid, is one of the most commonly available and easiest to grow orchid genera. It is often the best choice for orchid growing beginners. They have large, showy flowers that come in a wide variety of colors. Most species have several flowers per stem, but some have more, and others have as few as one or two. There are a great many hybrid varieties on the market.

Ask Orchid Care Questions!

Beginners usually have lots of questions about how to grow orchids! Ask them in the form below; other readers will help out, and I'll try to answer as many questions as I can, too. Pictures are helpful in answering many orchid care questions, so include one if you can!

Question Title

What Other Visitors Have Asked

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Pruning 2 long, dried stems from my orchid.  
The leaves on the plant still look healthy and strong. The long cascading bloom stems are dried and wood like. I was told by the plant store to trim …

Leaves growing on stem 
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Aerial Roots 
what do you do with aerial roots that are growing outside the pot?

Footcandles are complicated 
Are apps like https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/mq-greenthumb/id719137092?mt=8 this good?

Best way to water 
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I have a hollow tree stump. Would my orchid grow and thrive if I planted it in the hollow stump?

Phalaenopsis 
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orchid roots 
our orchid has started to grow shoots on the roots can you please tell what is happening

Roots 
Will it hurt to cut the roots back that have sprawled outside the pot?

new stem 
a new stem seems to come up, I am not sure it is good, it has a tiny leaf at the bottom and it looks different from the exterior roots that come up here …

Dracula quasimodo 
why has my Dracula quasimodo closed up?

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Hi, I have an orchid that has grown two lovely green leaves but two of it's older leaves are brown and withering. Can you please tell me whether and HOW …

Leaves Up or Leaves Down? 
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Mounting an orchid 
Can you instruct me on how to mount a Haraella retrocalla orchid? Thanks Richard Cozby Lincoln City, Oregon

long roots on the outside of pot 
I know I need to tranplant what about the roots that are on the outside of the pot. Do I cut them off or put them in a big pot.

New plant shoots on old flower stems 
My Phalaenopsis grew a very thick flower stem. The flowers bloomed and dropped off in the usual manner. I did not cut the stem because it appeared still …

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a few questions 
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Is it dead? 
I have a Paphiopedlium orchid, I believe. I got it as a gift and I am sure it was purchased at a grocery store. It was doing just fine until recently. …

The six blooms on my orchid are suddenly wilted. What happened? The plant main leaf of the orchid is beautiful and green. 
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Fertilizer? 
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Where can i grow them? 
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Color in white orchids 
I have a couple of your orchids that say they were a white orchid but with "a little bit of magic" they are a different color. When they rebloom will they …

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phal leaves are shriveling or drying ??? i don't know the problem 
i am not sure why the leaves are looking shrivelled and dry?????

Watering 
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Stem or Root 
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Phalaenopsis Growing Season (southern hemisphere) 
When is the phalaenopsis growing season (southern hemisphere)?

Orchid Leaves 
I have a Phalaenopsis orchid I keep indoors. I have watered it twice in the last 5 days however, this morning I found on one of the leaves a discoloured …

What is damaging my orchid 
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Watering and Misting 
Is it safe to mist an orchid daily and when misting can you mist the petals also?

how to cut back 
where do I cut on the long stem

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