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Watering Orchids: Find Out What Works

Learn how to water correctly and you'll avoid the #1 cause of orchid death

START HERE to Learn More About Caring for Orchids

Find Out What I Wish I Knew When I First Started Caring for Orchids

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how to water orchids

Knowing when and how to water is the most important key to being a successful orchid grower. This article unlocks effective watering techniques. 

I have experimented with lots of different ways of watering orchids. Learning how to properly water my orchids took a lot of experimentation and fine-tuning. Don’t be surprised if it takes a while to get it right, but don’t give up. Orchids are forgiving plants and will be patient. You can totally get this!

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Ice Cubes: Didn’t Work

One way to avoid overwatering is to follow the instructions on your orchid’s tag and water with ice cubes.  In fact, when I first started growing orchids I dutifully placed two or three ice cubes at the orchid base once a week.  Despite following the instructions, my orchids were failing. They were not getting enough water, causing a drought situation.  Besides,  ice cubes are too cold for orchid roots.  Additionally, if the ice cubes are placed at the orchid’s base, or crown, the orchid can suffer from crown rot, which will kill the orchid.

Personally,  I think the ice cube instructions are an effort by orchid distributors to keep us buying more orchids. The ice cubes keep the plants alive long enough for the flowers to bloom, but sooner than later, the orchid will die, and we’ll buy another.

The image below shows a photo of an orchid given to me by a friend. She diligently placed ice cubes on the orchid’s crown which resulted in crown rot-a death sentence for orchids.

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Watering From Below: Didn’t Work

Another watering method I tried was to set the orchid in a water-filled pot or saucer. My theory was the the orchid roots could soak up the needed moisture while keeping the crown, with is prone to rot, dry. The problem was that when I watered from a saucer the orchid soil never got wet enough and the orchids kept drying out.

When I set the orchid in a pot of water I could decided that this practice was just not very sanitary. If my orchids ever got a disease, sharing the same pot or saucer with other orchids would certainly infect my other orchids.

Meanwhile, my problems persisted.  The orchid’s leaves continue to shrivel. The problem was going by a calendar instead of by the plant.  My orchids didn’t get enough water if I watered from a saucer and they got too much if I soaked them using the unsanitary pot method.

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A Nice Shower: Closer, But Not Quite

My next idea was to give my orchids a shower in the sink. This worked pretty well. The soil became completely soaked. If you try this method be sure to use a drain catch for any escaping wood chips. Also, it was kind of hard to avoid soaking the orchid’s water sensitive crown. But, most importantly, I was still learning to water when my orchid’s needed it, not the calendar said so.

Thorough Watering from Above, on the Orchid’s Schedule, Not Mine: Success!

I still water from above, but instead of watering with from the faucet, I use a narrow spouted watering can, to avoid the water-sensitive crown. You are probably a lot smarter than me and have already figured out the imperative to wait until the potting media is just slightly damp-and I mean slightly. When I water, I water thoroughly and completely, copiously, then I wait. I may wait 1 week, or I may wait 2 weeks, it depends on what’s going on inside the pot.  This has worked remarkably well. This way the potting media has a chance to really soak up the moisture. And, it’s sanitary. No more sharing saucers or soaking pots. Additionally by watering from above using a water pitcher, it is easy to add fertilizer when needed.  It’s also a good idea to skip the fertilizer at least once a month to flush out fertilizer salts, helping to keep your orchid healthy.

Are You Fertilizing Your Orchids?

Fertilize with a light hand and see big results.

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That Begs the Question: How Do I Tell When My Orchid Needs Water?  

The answer is actually quite simple.  The secret is understanding orchids, and their native habitat.

Most orchids are epiphytes, also known as air plants.  This means that they grow harmlessly on trees, not in soil, in humid climates.  They get moisture through the air and rain.  Water your orchids when the potting media is just slightly damp. This might sound confusing, so let me explain. You don’t want the potting media to dry out completely, by the same token, you don’t want the roots to sit in water either. I’m confident that with practice, you will find a good balance. When in doubt, err on the side of too dry, rather than too wet. 

A Few Tricks to Determine When to Water (and When to Hold Off)

Finger Test

To duplicate this environment, begin by checking the moisture content in the pot.  To tell if the orchid has sufficiently dried out, stick your finger in the growing medium, if it feels almost dry, it is time to water.  If you don’t want to stick your finger in the growing medium, stick a toothpick or chopstick in the medium and leave it there for five minutes.  Then take it out and see if it is wet.  

Drainage Hole

Look at the drainage hole and check to see of the planting media is dry. If your plant sits in a clear plastic pot that is set inside another pot, gently lift the plastic pot out of the secondary pot and look through the plastic to inspect the planting media.  If there is a hole in the bottom poke your finger through and feel for any dampness.  

Heft the Pot

As you become more experienced, you will be able to tell if the plant needs water simply by lifting it.  If it feels light, water it.  

Condensation

If your orchid is in a clear plastic pot, it is easy to check for condensation on the sides of the plastic.  If you see any moisture, wait to water.

Pseudobulbs

Certain orchid varieties have water storage in the form of pseudobulbs, such as Cattleyas and Dendrobiums, and want to dry out between watering.

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The Bottom Line

More orchids are killed by over watering than under watering.  When in doubt, wait a day or two. Another consideration that greatly influences watering and overall plant health is the growing medium for orchids.

Top Tools for RePotting Orchids

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8 Comments
  1. Bess P Falls says:

    If the air roots are shriveled, I’m guessing that I’m not watering enough. Should I cut off the shriveled air roots

    1. Anna says:

      That is a very good question. Leave the hard, shriveled aerial roots alone and let them do their thing. It’s the roots that are down in the potting medium that will tell you if your orchids need more water. Don’t take watering cues from aerial roots. If they are too unsightly you can cover them with some preserved moss.

  2. Chantile says:

    I ALWAYS tried the ice cube trick, and it never worked. I thought it was just me! Phew! I’ll try your tip from now on, thanks!!!

    1. Anna says:

      Chantile,
      That’s how I started out caring for orchids as well, following the instructions on the care tag. You’re right, ice cubes just don’t work. There are much better ways to water orchids!
      Anna

  3. barbara rowe says:

    Why do my leafs wilt??

    1. Anna says:

      Barbara,
      In most cases limp leaves indicate a watering problem. Look at your orchid’s roots to determine if you are more prone to over or under watering. Then adjust your watering schedule accordingly. Most of us tend to over water our orchids. Over watered roots are limp and brown. Under watered roots are dry and brittle. Another possibility may be that the orchids are too hot. Check out these two posts: Limp Leaves and Temperature and Air Circulation.
      Best of Luck!
      Let me know how it goes.
      Anna

  4. Sherrie Doherty says:

    What do I do about black spots on some leaves?

    1. Anna says:

      Hi Sherrie,
      Follow this link: GETTING RID OF SPOTS ON ORCHID LEAVES
      for more information.
      Let me know if you have anymore questions. I’m always glad to help.
      Anna

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START HERE to Learn More About Caring for Orchids

Find Out What I Wish I Knew When I First Started Caring for Orchids

YES! THANK YOU!