W. Dave Holder, a Master Gardener and retired electronics engineer specialist, has grown orchids as a hobby for over 30 years. He is a former President of the Alabama Orchid Society and past Orchid Greenhouse Chairman at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.

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Orchids - Methods for Growing the Perfect Phalaenopsis
by Dave Holder       #Flowers

When beginners tell me they want to start growing orchids, the discussion usually gets around to the question, “What is the best orchid to start with?”

My answer is: “Phalaenopsis because it is so easy to grow, stays in flower a long time and a greenhouse is not necessary for good results with this plant.”



Phalaenopsis orchids (Phalaenopsis spp.) prefer 1,000 to 1,500 foot-candles of light. Use a light meter if one is available. Perhaps you could borrow one from a friend who does photography, or you could shop around for a cheap light meter. If no light meter is available, hold your hand about a foot above the leaves of your phalaenopsis and check to make sure you do not see a shadow.


An east or west window will usually work well. Sheer curtains are sometimes necessary if the phalaenopsis orchids face a south window.


When growing in a greenhouse, use a 70 to 80 percent shade cloth to keep from burning the plants. I have measured over 10,000 foot-candles of sunlight in my backyard on a clear summer day here in Birmingham.


Phalaenopsis grows very well under fluorescent lights. A good place to start is 12 to 16 inches from the top of the pot to the bottom of the light tubes. Make the distance from tube to plant adjustable. Never replace all the fluorescent tubes at one time. This will shock the phalaenopsis. I replace one of the four tubes in my setup every six months. I do not wait for the tubes to completely fail. I mark the date for replacement on each tube with a crayon so I do not have to try to remember when it is due for replacement.


One lady in the local orchid society took home many blue ribbons from competitions she won with phalaenopsis grown totally under lights in a windowless room in her basement. Now she has a greenhouse and her phalaenopsis orchids still do well but not as well as those she grew in the basement years ago. Why? Light control. The phalaenopsis grown in her basement never saw a cloudy day. It is, however, much easier to grow in a greenhouse than under lights. 



Water is somewhat critical for proper phalaenopsis culture. Phalaenopsis orchids do not have water storage in the stems like many other orchids. Phalaenopsis should be watered thoroughly and then allowed to go almost, but not totally, dry. You already have an excellent device to determine when to water your phalaenopsis orchid. Stick your finger in the potting medium. If it feels almost dry, it is watering time.


Another method is by the weight of the pot. As the plant uses water, the pot gets lighter. One soon learns to judge when the plant needs water by lifting the pot. A schedule of watering a phalaenopsis every so many days does not work well. A phalaenopsis may need watering every other day in midsummer but only needs water every 10 days in winter.


Do not ever water a phalaenopsis, any other orchid, or your houseplants with water that has been run through a water softener. Rainwater is good if it is not collected downwind from a power plant or other heavy industry. Let tap water sit overnight so that some of the chlorine can evaporate and the water will be at room temperature. When using water right out of the faucet, adjust it to room temperature to help prevent thermal shock to the phalaenopsis.


It is best to water phalaenopsis early in the day so that any water spilled on leaves will have a chance to dry out before night. This will greatly help in reducing disease. Never leave water standing in the crown of a phalaenopsis as that may lead to black rot, which is almost always fatal to the plant.



Phalaenopsis orchids, like most other tropical plants, prefer a temperature drop of 15 F or more from day to night. Ideal night temperature is 60 F and day temperature between 75 and 85 F. They can stand up to 95 F but the growth will not be as good and they will often drop buds and flowers at such an elevated temperature.


Phalaenopsis comes from areas of the world where “winter” night temperatures may drop to a cool 55 F for as long as a month, which seems to help them initiate flower spikes.


Larger than normal temperature fluctuations can cause ready-to-open buds to drop.


Below about 50 F, a phalaenopsis orchid will usually turn black and die.



Phalaenopsis orchids like humidity between 50 and 80 percent. If a relative humidity meter is not available, you might want to buy one. I got mine at a large discount store for $5. While your finger is a good moisture meter for the potting medium, it does not measure relative humidity very well.


Humidity in a house without a humidifier in the heating system may be as low as 15 percent in the dead of winter. This is a virtual desert – ideal for cactus but not phalaenopsis. One can raise the humidity by grouping the plants together. What a good excuse for buying more phalaenopsis orchids! Another good idea is to place the plants on or near containers of stones with water in the bottom of the container. The stones furnish more surface area for the water to evaporate thereby raising the humidity. By raising the humidity both you and the phalaenopsis will be happier.


Another problem caused by low humidity is that the flower petals will stick together as the bud opens up. If this happens, try to gently open the buds with your hands without tearing the petals. A phalaenopsis flower will usually “set” its shape in the first 24 hours it is open. If the humidity is too low, and no help is given to open the flowers, the poor phalaenopsis will look like colored golf balls on a stem.


When growing phalaenopsis in the greenhouse in winter, the problem usually is too much humidity. The cure for this is to not use any more water than necessary.


Too much humidity and temperatures below about 55 F are open invitations to a fungal disease.



Phalaenopsis orchids like constant feeding. Use about one-fourth the amount recommended on the fertilizer container with every watering when plants are in active growth. Fertilize every other time the plant is watered in winter. Flush the pot thoroughly with plain water about every three weeks. Use 30-10-10 fertilizer if the phalaenopsis is potted in orchid bark. Use 20-20-20 if potted in an inert medium.


When overfertilized, leaf tips and root tips of phalaenopsis orchids turn black.



Phalaenopsis orchids may be potted in almost any well-draining media such as bark, tree fern fiber, sphagnum moss, scoria or small stones. When buying bark, make sure it says “orchid bark” on the package you buy. The bark used as mulch under your azaleas will not work. Orchid bark has been steamed to remove resins harmful to orchids.

Phalaenopsis orchids potted in organic media should be repotted before the media rots. I like to repot my phalaenopsis every other year even if the media has not totally decomposed. Why risk rotting the roots on a 30-dollar plant to save a few pennies on potting media? Most growers repot phalaenopsis in late spring after the plant has finished flowering.



The above instructions are the classic way to grow phalaenopsis orchids. However, in the last few years a couple of local growers have developed a method that tremendously improves the number of flowers and the length of time the plant stays in bloom. In fact, one grower has phalaenopsis orchids in his greenhouse that have been in constant flower for over four years! Yes, you read right. Over four years. And I do not mean eight or ten flowers per plant. I have counted over a hundred flowers on plants utilizing this method.


How is it done? Read on.

The most popular orchid today is the phalaenopsis or moth orchid, which lasts three months in bloom. (Photo by Linda Baldwin, The Baldwin Image)

Adjust light, water, temperature and humidity to absolute optimal as outlined above. Do not remove the old flower spikes after the flowers fall off. The plant has dormant buds under the scales on the flower spike, which this growing method induces to flower.


The potting media used for this procedure is Fafard 3B, but I think any good Cornell (or soilless) mix would probably work. Make sure to put a label with the date potted in the pot. Repot every year on the same date as this stuff usually turns to mush in well under two years. The fertilizer to use is Peters Excel 21-5-20 adjusted to feed the plants 100 parts per million nitrogen. Instructions for doing that are on the bag.


There you have it. Try it. Please keep in mind it may take you a couple years to get good at utilizing this method. The results are worth the effort. Your mileage may vary.


You can force your phalaenopsis to flower whenever you want. To accomplish this, you must shock the plant with a different fertilizer regimen. Water the phalaenopsis with one tablespoon of Epsom salts per gallon of water instead of the regular fertilizer for a month. The plant will almost always initiate a flower spike as a result of this treatment. Make sure the plant is very healthy before doing this because it takes a lot of energy for a phalaenopsis to flower. A weak plant will usually flower and then die.


Growing phalaenopsis orchids is really easy. The above are ideal conditions to strive for. If you come anywhere close, your phalaenopsis will reward you with many beautiful flowers.





To learn more about national and local orchid societies, visit the American Orchid Society on the web at www.aos.org. You can also request information by calling 561.404.2000 or writing to:


16700 AOS Lane
Delray Beach, FL 33446-4351


The American Orchid Society’s online store offers an informative, inexpensive guide for new orchid growers called Growing Orchids Under Lights.


<< (Photo by John Tullock)




Phalaenopsis ‘Summer Venus’ flowers once a year, usually in spring. (Photo by Patricia K. Ammon)

Phalaenopsis equestris is highly recommended for the beginner. It usually flowers two or three times a year. With proper care, it will be in almost constant flower. (Photo by Patricia K. Ammon)


(Photo by Dave Holder)


Story From Alabama Gardener, Volume 3, Number 5



Posted: 01/19/11   RSS | Print


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Christopher (Louisiana - Zone 8a) - 01/21/2011

These are all quite beautiful.  I may try growing Phalaenopsis equestris.

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