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Top Orchid Growing Mistakes

Practically anyone can become a good orchid grower, so long as they learn from their mistakes (and the mistakes of others).  People who say they can’t grow anything simply don’t learn from their mistakes.  Growing is like cooking: anyone can learn to do it reasonably well if they put the time and energy into learning how to do it.  People who can’t cook after years of trying never really tried properly in the first place. 


I’ve learned (and continue to learn) an immense amount in my orchid growing experience.  I’ve made many mistakes, and watched others struggle.  I’ve included a few mistakes here – some obvious, some more subtle – that I hope will save you some frustration and get you to growing better plants more quickly.



All plants need water.  Everyone knows that.  What many new growers overlook is that plants also need air, especially around the roots.  Most orchid species are epiphytic, meaning they grow attached to trees.  While some Paphiopedilum species do grow on trees, many others grow on rock surfaces, or leaf detritus on the jungle floor.  When we confine these plant roots to pots, the roots don’t receive as much air as they normally would in the wild, and eventually, they die off.  


Fortunately, orchids produce roots specifically for the type of media in which they’re grown, and on many occasions, I’ve seen some of my plants put out long root systems through fir bark that decomposed into mud, while other paphs I’ve left sitting in two centimeters of water have put multiple roots directly and extensively into the water.  Of course, some portion of those roots ran through the pot above water, so they were exposed to air in the mix.  (Some paphs may adapt just fine to growing only in water, but I haven’t tried that yet.)


The problem with overwatering is not that you water too often, but that your mix stays too wet.  You could water every day if your mix dried out sufficiently throughout the day, and in fact, that kind of watering schedule can work wonders for certain plants.


Proper watering comes with experience and careful observation.  I’ve found that using clear pots helped my growing enormously, since I could see if the media needed water, and if the roots appeared healthy. 


Not knowing what's in the water

Some growers don’t bother to find out what’s in their water, then wonder what happened when expensive plants just limp along, get stressed, or simply die.  Paphiopedilums and Phragmipediums need high quality water for best results.  You may live in an area where tap water comes as pure as rainwater, but many people live in places where the water quality simply won’t let their plants grow optimally, yet they fail to find out what’s in their water.  If your local water contains too many minerals, changing mixes or fertilizers won’t solve your problem.


In nature, plants receive water from rain. That water may fall through the forest canopy or run through some dirt before running down the side of a cliff, picking up nutrients along the way.  But it certainly doesn’t contain as many salts as bad tap water does.


I learned this lesson the hard way .  Unbeknownst to me, my water kept stressing my plants, so I just kept replacing them.  I eventually got a reverse osmosis system, and everything turned around.  Fast.  Now you may not need an RO system, but if your plants have been struggling, find out what’s in your water.  You can have your water tested, or better yet, tap into local knowledge by talking to other growers in your area.


Not enough air movement 

To go along with bad water, many growers make the mistake of not providing enough air movement.    Next time you take a walk, consider the enormous volume of air moving past you in even the gentlest of breezes.  Most of us grow in small greenhouses, which may have, say, 250 cubic feet of air.  That volume of air is minuscule, and moved in mere moments when a light breeze sweeps past you.  Plants in nature, of course, receive this kind of air movement 24/7.


Plants take in carbon dioxide from the air, and produce oxygen in the photosynthetic process.  Moving air enables carbon dioxide to pass over leaf surfaces, and get absorbed into the plant for growth.  Air that doesn’t circulate leads to favorable conditions for fungal and bacterial rots to occur.  If you grow indoors, whether in your home or a greenhouse, a high-quality fan that causes gentle swaying of flowers or leaves will provide sufficient air movement for good gas exchange over leaf surfaces, and better growth.


Believing conventional wisdom

For every rule, adage, or axiom of orchid growing, I have seen an undeniable exception. 


“You shouldn’t water every day.”  .

“You need oyster shell in your mix.”

“Your water has to be pH 5.3” exactly.

“You can’t bloom those in Florida/California/Montana/on your windowsill.”


Conventional wisdom serves as an excellent starting point.  But unless your conditions reproduce exactly the source of said wisdom, you will have to make your own adjustments.  Therein lies the work – but also the satisfaction – of growing. 


Experimenting with your growing conditions, testing the conventional wisdom, and finding what works for your plants is what makes orchid growing so much fun.  If you think you can’t grow some plant under your conditions, there’s probably someone out there that has figured out a way to make that plant happy by changing those same conditions.


So buck the conventional wisdom and give your own ideas a try.  And if you really want to up the stakes, be sure to experiment first on your most expensive plants.


Lazy with Labels

When you have a handful of plants, remembering their species/hybrid names and clonal varieties doesn’t pose too much of a challenge.  But after 50 or so plants, you may start having a harder time remembering.  If you get into growing from flask, your problem will multiply even more.  Fortunately, solving this problem is simple, cheap, and easy: get plenty of blank labels, and have plenty of permanent markers around.  Anytime you need to make a label, you’ll have something within reach.


A good practice I’ve seen for larger collections is to make two labels for each plant, and to bury one of them right in the mix.  That way, if the usual label in the pot falls out, or you confuse it with another label during re-potting, you’ll still have the buried label as your definitive guide.  This kind of insurance can prove very valuable when you deal with lots of clonal varieties of a species or hybrid.



Penny-wise, size-foolish 

When I first started growing, I got hooked on the more rare paph species.  Stuff like P. sanderianum, supardii, volonteanum, even some sangii.  I found some of these plants at great prices from growers who were downsizing their collections.  Little did I know in those days how down the size was – these small plants would take many years before they bloomed!  Of course I knew in my head that some of these species would take five to ten years to bloom.  But I was willing to wait…


Well, about six months and a fistful of dead seedlings later, I decided I needed to change my strategy.  Much of the money I had sunk into those small seedlings had gone to pay for some expensive lessons!  Small plants run a much higher risk than large plants.  The risk of plant death is inversely proportional to the experience of the grower, and as an inexperienced grower, I ate a lot of risk.  And many times, I lost my bet. 


That’s when I learned that it was cheaper to buy a bigger, proven plant: by reaching a bigger size, it has proven its ability to survive.  Small seedlings have not proven that yet, and unbeknownst to the buyer, their genetic configuration may very well stack the survival deck against them.  While you may save money on the front end in buying a smaller plant, you pay on the back end in the form of genetic risk, cultural risk, and potential frustration.


Buying four seedlings instead of one near-blooming size or mature plant will cost you more in terms of time, effort, and risk.  I encounter many new people, especially online, who continue to make this mistake.  They may very well possess the patience to grow these plants, but they’d rather roll the dice with more small plants rather than going with the safer bet of a bigger plant. 


The way to save money is to buy the largest plant you can.  Sure, you may spend more, but you will payless.


That being said, you simply need to match your experience with the funds you have, and find out what works for you.  But for new growers, save money by buying a bigger plant!


No sudden movements

The worst feeling in orchid growing is probably finding one of your prized plants with a terminal case of crown rot.  The runner-up for worst feeling has to be breaking the flower spike of a plant you’ve waited ages to bloom.  In one particularly bitter incident, I was moving a small plant near a very valuable Phrag. besseae flavum.  As I lifted the pot, I felt a little resistance, and thought the edge of the pot had caught something.  I pulled a little harder, and before I knew it, a large besseae flavum flower bud popped off. 


Every grower has dismal stories to tell of plants that met with horrible accidents.  Almost all of them are preventable, if you take care to slow down around your plants, and avoid sudden movements!  Here’s a handy tip: put up a yellow “SLOW” traffic sign on the door of your greenhouse (or someplace in your growing area).  You might save a few of your plants that way.


Hanging on to weak plants 

In every litter of puppies, every gaggle of geese, every herd of sheep, some individuals will show more vigor, and some will show less.  The random processes governing the distribution of genes ensures that some individuals end up with better gene combinations than others, and it’s as true for orchids as it is for kittens.  The problem, though, is that plants don’t always announce their vigor (or their lack thereof) at the time you buy them.  All plants look great at the orchid show, but then some end up limping along when you get them home.  And sometimes, the ones that looked weak early on turn into real winners. 


Unfortunately, I know of no sure way of telling the difference up front.  (But size and number of growths does serve as a good indicator.  If those plants cost more, it’s usually worth it)


The thing to keep in mind when buying plants is that every plant you buy is a lottery ticket.  You may end up winning, or losing.  The better your cultural skill, the better your odds.  In general, the odds favor you (or else orchid growing would not be as popular as it is).


When plants do end up being slow growers, or more prone to stress, how should we deal with it?  I’ve recovered my fair share of struggling plants, and I’ve also lost my fair share.  I know how painful it is to see a favorite plant take a turn for the worse.  I like to give my plant recovery efforts a fair try, but at some point, it’s simply best to say goodbye to a struggling plant, and to move on to another.


Even the best growers experience problem plants.  In my talking to top growers, they all seem to do the same thing when faced with weak plants: they throw ‘em out.  I once heard an old adage:  “The bigger the compost heap, the better the grower.”  That old nurseryman’s saying contains a lot of wisdom…  Focus your time and efforts on your best plants.

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Orchid Culture & Growth
Best thing I ever did for my orchids
Top orchid growing mistakes
Nine ways to improve your growth
Nature's view of watering