My aunt recently gave me a few orchids that she was afraid of killing. This isn’t the first time I’ve received orchids from people who enjoyed them while they bore flowers and then handed them over like hot potatoes when their petals dropped and stalks began to shrivel. Twice I’ve happily accepted a trash-bag full of (past-their-prime) phalaenopsis, dendrobium, cattelya and paphiopedilums, from friends hoping I could rehabilitate the orchids.
With Christmas just around the corner and my purse strings tighter than ever, I’m exploring handmade and budget-wise gifts this year. Free, and hand-me-down orchids can often make an incredible comeback with new potting mix, a little fertilizer and a pretty pot. Tie a bow on the pot and voilà! An orchid that can re-bloom for years to come with just a little attention paid to the proper care needed.
I know that a lot of people are intimidated by growing orchids. I used to be. I’ve been growing orchids for over ten years now, and in my experience, growing an orchid like the ones mentioned above, to the point of a re-bloom requires only a few basics: Great lighting (bright, indirect sunlight), a moderate temperature (something you would be comfortable sitting in without a sweater), pure water (like distilled, rain water or reverse osmosis), and a good potting mix (stand by for the recipe).
When an orchid starts to look crummy, there are several things that could be happening. It could have tiny bugs like aphids or scale, it could have experienced sunburn or become mushy from frost, it may be root-bound, or it could also be rotting. Re-potting an orchid is a great way to determine what is ailing it, and will often be the fastest way to cure it.
When I repot orchids, I grab the plant near the base of it’s leaves and gently pull it out of the container. I scrutinize the leaves. If there are bugs, I wash them off with water and a weak soap solution. Then I’ll inspect the base of the plant. Is there any new growth? More bugs? While aphids like to attack new flowers, and scale appears on leaves like little freckles on my arm, fuzzy white mealy bugs like to hide deep in the cracks of the orchids where new growth begins. If I find mealy bugs, I take a Q-Tip dipped in rubbing alcohol and swab them off, killing them in the process, until they are gone. Now I move to the roots, shaking off all of the remaining potting mixture. Often times there will be rotting sphagnum moss stuck between roots, and since orchid roots like to dry out between watering, I don’t like a WHOLE lot of the long-fibered stuff keeping my roots soggy. I don’t cut off the roots unless they feel limp- like wet bread. Ideally, the orchid’s roots would have a white exterior that turns green when wet.
Once I have removed all of the old potting mix from the roots and washed off the plant, I’ll set it aside and put together my orchid mix. You can find orchid bark at most nurseries, and online. I also like to add perlite, and a little spaghnum moss to the mix. I typically use 3 cups orchid bark to 1- cup perlite and 1-cup spahnum moss, but re-potting old and soggy roots with JUST orchid bark would be a great start if that is all you can find. It’s not uncommon to find packing peanuts in the bottom of a store-bought orchid, and you can add these to your mix if you don’t have access to perlite or spahnum moss. I would rip them up a little so that they don’t look like packing peanuts, but that’s just my aesthetic.
If you are re-using an old pot for your orchid, be sure to scrub it with bleach or a strong soapy solution. Fungus and insect eggs may be hiding in old, dirty pots so take the time to clean them out before adding your orchid mix. Then take a handful of the bark mixture and place it in the bottom of the pot. With one hand, place your orchid in the pot and pack more of the bark mixture around the roots, and up to the base of the leaves. If the plant is a bit wobbly, compress the mix so that the plant is stable. You can also insert a thin wooden stick into the pot and tie the flower stalk to the stick for added support. Dust off any bark or moss from the leaves, and use leaf shine for a glossy finish.
If you are feeling awkward about giving someone a recycled orchid as a gift, you might consider clipping a flower barrette or pin to the wilted flower stalk to dress up the plant a bit more while it settles into its new pot, bark mixture, and home. I sometime will add a little Spanish moss to the top of the orchid bark to polish off the presentation.
There are lots of ways to re-pot an orchid. This is just the way I do it and so far, it’s worked well for me. If you pay attention to the plant, it will begin to tell you what it needs. For example, shriveled leaves need more water. Sticky leaves might mean insect infestation. I use this fertilizer on my orchids every three months to encourage re-blooming.
Good luck with your own re-potting projects and keep me posting in how they turn out!