Six orchid care tips for the rainy season

The monsoon downpours have begun and your orchids will get a fresh lease of life when you make the most of the season and allow them to soak up its goodness. Rich in Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Vitamin B12, and balanced at the right pH for their optimal growth, the rain will help your orchids thrive and bloom throughout the season. But the trick here is to expose your orchids in the right way, for the right time and to check thereafter that they are growing well and not facing issues of rot.

Read on to learn more about my six orchid care tips for the rainy season to take full advantage of the rains. An added benefit would be that we can look forward to some respite from our regular watering and fertilizing schedule, and focus on other orchid related projects.

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My windowsill vanda orchids enjoying the rains

After the hot and dusty summers, your orchids will welcome the rains with gusto. The first shower will drench your orchids and invigorate them to produce new growths and roots in abundance. The spurt in growth is significantly noticeable, some shooting up by almost a centimetre in a single day. As the leaves and stems get drenched and water trickles down the stems and into the roots, you notice visible changes such as a bright green colour, turgid leaves and new growths that are almost bursting out of their sheaths. Well that’s not all. Rain water will swell up the buds on the nodes, which develop into spikes in the case of vandas, oncidiums and phaenopsis, just as you will find buds pushing themselves out of their sheaths, as in the case of cattleyas. Such is the amazing impact of the rain on your orchids.

This should come as no surprise to you, knowing that most orchids, in their natural habitat grow in the rain forests, where there are frequent downpours and a predominantly humid environment. Epiphytic orchids (orchids that grow on trees) get drenched in the rains and spread out their roots on the tree trunks. Since the roots are exposed to air, they tend to dry off quickly and therefore roots do not rot even with repeated downpours. The leaves and crown are so arranged that water that falls on them just slips away and falls down or trickles down all the way down along the stem. Also the breeze following a downpour quickly dries off the plants, preventing collection of water and microorganisms in the crown and other nooks and crevices.

I strictly avoided wetting the leaves and only watered the orchids in the root region earlier. I did face crown rot and stem rot issues. So I decided to make the orchids resistant to crown rot by spraying them down with my gardening spray pump.

I took this step as I have a west facing windows, which allow good air circulation. So if you do not have good air circulation in your grow area or do not have a fan to circulate air, then this is best avoided.

Initially, when I begun spraying water, I found water pooling in the crown even after hours after i was done with watering. So I used to tip the pots to drain out the water from the crown. But after some days, I noticed the orchids draining out water from the crown automatically. Talk about adaptation! 🙂 I have never faced crown rot issues after that, even during the rainy season when there is a continuous downpour.

Providing an environment that mimics nature

However, growing orchids in your home environment or in a greenhouse is quite another story. The growing conditions you provide in terms of potting media, light and air movement will vary based on your climatic conditions. Growing phalaenopsis orchids with their crown positioned vertically to provide an aesthetically pleasing display, may not exactly be conducive for exposing your orchids to the rain. To remove the tediousness of everyday watering, we have also modified our care routine by growing orchids in moisture retentive medium. While this can work well during the warm dry summers, it can adversely affect your orchids if they are continuously exposed to the rain during the monsoons.

I grow my orchids on my windowsill, in my tropical grow conditions using organic potting mixes of pine bark and sphagnum moss. Warm summers are followed by the rainy season. While I make some superficial changes to provide a conducive environment for growth during various seasons, additional care needs to be taken so that the orchids don’t develop issues such as fungal and bacterial rot. Taking care of these issues will help you provide the right amount of exposure to rain, which will stimulate growth and blooming in your orchid.

Let us begin with the commonly faced issues when our orchids are exposed to rain:

Leaf rot in cattleya orchid
  1. Crown Rot – This is one of the most common issues faced by orchid hobbyists when their orchids are exposed to rain. When rain water collects in the crowns of monopodial plants such as phalaenopsis or vanda orchids, the long exposure to moisture, along with the bacteria and fungi that are on the surface of the leaves, tend to create an unhealthy environment for the orchid, wherein the bacteria and fungi start multiplying due to excessively moist conditions. This leads to rotting of the tender tissue in the crown of the plant. The infection spreads to the other portions of the stem and the plant slowly begins to lose its leaves. Timely intervention can help you save the orchid, but it will set back its growth and blooming to some extent.
  2. Rotting of leaves – Rain drops often collect in the base of the axil of the leaves. These regions are snugly bound to the stem and can allow moisture to accumulate. This again leads to an environment conducive for bacterial and fungal growth. Since the leaves are arranged on either side of the stem or pseudobulb in the case of vanda, phalaenopsis, oncidium and tolumnia, dendrobium and other such orchids, the infection spreads quickly to the stem and other parts. Sometimes, soft water-filled black spots appear on the leaves. If left untreated, they quickly spread and destroy the whole leaf and subsequently the stem. Only timely intervention and appropriate remedial measures can save the plant.
  3. Root rot – Moisture retentive medium such as sphagnum moss, when added to the potting medium tends to hold copious amounts of water. This is utilised by the the plant and the medium dries off after a couple of days. But when your orchids soak up rain water, the medium remains damp for prolonged periods, then fungal and bacterial infections become rampant. The roots become soggy and begin rotting. The first sign of root rot is when the leaves become thin and dehydrated despite moisture in the pot. This is indicative of a damaged root system. If not treated on time, the infection quickly travels up the root, to the rhizome and the pseudobulbs. This further causes the leaves and stem to turn yellow and black, and decay.
  4. Rot of new growths – Just as with crown rot, rain water that remains trapped in new growths of oncidium and cattleya orchids can also lead to bacterial and fungal rot. As the water travels into the crevices, it collects bacteria and fungi on the surface of the plant and its narrow vertical structure does not allow air to enter and dry up the moisture. The prolonged dampness promotes bacterial and fungal attack on the roots, leading to rotting of the delicate tissue. Losing a new growth to rot can lead to setback for the plant as these new shoots are the ones that would mature and bloom in the coming season. Moreover, orchids put out new roots through these new growths. If the orchid does not have a healthy root system, then this could prove to be a major setback for the plant. So, these delicate new growths need to be protected from rainfall.

Advantages of rain water for your orchids

Now you must be wondering that if there is so much of risk involved, then why you should even consider placing your orchids in the rain. Well, for the simple reason that rain water has manifold benefits on your orchids. The first and foremost being that it has the right pH of around 6.5, which is suitable for healthy orchid growth and blooming.

The second compelling reason is that it contains Vitamin  B12, which is produced by the microorganisms in air and on surfaces of plants as a metabolic by-product. As the rainwater comes down, it collects these by-products, which are rich in Nitrogen and Phosphorus (If you check out the structure of Vitamin  B12, you will find several nitrogen atoms and a phosphate group in each molecule). So rainwater is the most readily absorbable form of fertilizer that you can provide for your orchids. In fact, I skip the fertilizing routine, whenever I allow my orchids to soak up in the rain. The results are simply amazing. They develop a lush green hue that is incomparably beautiful and healthy.

Another advantage of rainfall is that it can help your dehydrated orchids become hydrated and healthy once again. Since rainwater is readily absorbable, you can place your severely dehydrated orchid in rain and the leaves and pseudobulbs will plump up again. I have revived quite a few orchids that were dehydrated due to an inadequate root system. The plant basically gets a new lease of life and will begin producing new roots and growths when it gets soaked in the rain.

This cattleya sheath grew almost a centimeter  in length after a continuous downpour

Healthy plants thrive in the rain by shooting up to almost a centimetre in length of new growths, leaves and roots. Spikes and sheaths also begin to develop as a result of rain. I have known cases where a vanda orchid did not bloom for ten consecutive years, but bloomed in the eleventh year, when the hobbyist allowed the vanda to soak up the rain during monsoon. Such is the power of rain water. In fact, experienced orchid hobbyists often collect rainwater in large clean storage tanks and water their orchids with it throughout the year.

Now let us understand how you can effectively provide the above advantages without adversely affecting or damaging your orchids. A little care will help you keep your orchids safe while exposing them to the rain. While most of your orchids will thrive in the rain, you may face issues in some orchids based on their health. You need to watch over them with a keen eye, for any signs of susceptibility.

Six care tips for your orchids during the rainy season:

Follow these six cautious care tips to protect your orchids when you expose them to rain:

  1. Prepare your orchids for the rainy season

My tropical grow conditions are ideally suited for warm growing orchids. During summers, the climate tends to get very warm and dry, increasing my frequency of watering. To increase humidity, I superficially line up the periphery of the pot with sphagnum moss. This provides humidity and keeps the orchids cool. But come rainy season, and I remove this top layer of moss and replace it with bark chips. This prevents excessive moisture retention, which would lead to rotting of the orchid roots and stems.

Along with this, I also clean up the leaves of the orchids with a soft cloth or sponge dipped in mild dish-wash solution and allow them to dry under a fan. This removes any superficial dust and mites.

Small waterproof bags can be used to cover the new growths

When it begins to rain, I use small polythene bags to cover the new growths and protect them from holding moisture. I followed this tip from the YouTube channel, My Green Pets, and it has worked just fine for me.

  • Prevent retention of moisture for a prolonged period
Ensure water does not get retained in the crown of the orchid

Since we grow orchids upright as opposed to how they grow in the wild, water tends to pool up in the crown area of the pseudobulb, leading to rot. To prevent this from happening to your orchids, you can allow them to soak in the rain and once it is saturated, tilt the pot slightly and allow the excess water to run off along the axil of the youngest leaf. This will allow minimal moisture to remain in the crown, which can easily be dried up by air-drafts.

Tip your orchid pots at an angle to
allow excess water to drain out

If you grow your orchids outdoors in your balcony, patio or on your window-sill, the breeze will dry off the remaining moisture. But remember to tip the pots sidewards at a 45Âş angle so that excess water does not remain trapped in the pot. Alternatively, place the orchids under a fan. This will ensure that they dry off quickly. You could also draw out the moisture by rolling up absorbent paper and blotting out the moisture.

  • Check on your orchids after they get wet in the rain

One way to ensure your orchids are safe, is to check them every day for signs of infections and rot, especially after you have exposed them to rainfall. Catching infections, rot and pest infestations early on will help you save your orchid by taking appropriate preventive measures. Look out for soft, damp, dark spots on the leaves. This is an indication of leaf rot. Also yellowing and soft rot in the crown region or the stem indicates crown rot and stem rot, respectively. These require immediate remedial action.

  • Ensure a good wet-dry cycle

While it rains almost every day during the season, we cannot give our orchids the advantage of getting soaked day-after-day during the season. The reason being that we pot our orchids in moisture retentive organic medium like coconut chips, sphagnum moss and bark chips.

Good drainage and adequate ventilation holes ensure a healthy environment for root growth

Excessive retention of rainwater can lead to a soggy environment. Orchid roots do not like prolonged soaking wet conditions and quickly begin to rot. Excessive moisture over prolonged periods in the medium makes the medium very acidic. This is either caused by excessive moisture retention due to moisture absorbent media or due to poor drainage and ventilation of the pots. You need to ensure that both these issues are set right before you think of soaking up your orchids in the rain. If not detected early on, the rotting can even spread to the pseudobulbs, and destroy the plant completely.

To prevent rot from setting in, you need to limit the exposure of your potted orchids to rainfall. Let your potted orchids reach near-dry conditions before allowing them to soak up rainwater again. If they are already moist, do not expose them to rain again as excessive moisture in the medium will promote rotting of roots and new growths.

or any inorganic material that is non-absorbent, you can go ahead and allow them to soak in the rain during the entire season. Just ensure they dry up after each soak, so that no water pools up in the new growths and crowns. You can easily tip your mounts to one side to drain out any moisture that is trapped in new growths or sheaths.

Inorganic media is a safe bet during the rainy season due to good aeration of the medium
  • Take quick remedial action if you observe signs of rotting

Once you identify any rot issues in any of your orchids, you need to take quick remedial action to treat them at the earliest.

Removing the rotted portion of the leaf on time can help save your orchid

In the case of stem, crown and leaf rot, you may have to remove the rotted tissue by cutting or scraping away the affected portion. Apply cinnamon powder on the cut surfaces to prevent them from getting re-infected.

For root rot issues, you may need to cut away the affected portion of the roots and rhizome and apply 3% hydrogen peroxide to the healthy part of the rhizome and root system. In case the infection is severe, you may need to apply a suitable fungicide in below recommended proportions. This will help salvage the healthy portion of the plant.

Some hobbyists recommend a fungicidal spray (prophylactic) every fifteen days to prevent fungal and bacterial rot. Personally, I avoid spraying harmful chemicals and instead prefer much conservative and harmless methods to control rot issues. I use fungicides cautiously, only when there is a major problem with orchids. These are highly toxic and therefore should be applied with extreme caution and care, especially if you have children and pets around.

  • Additional precautions to be taken

Once you wet your orchids in the rain, do not allow the excess water from the medium to drain out onto other pots. This can lead to rotting of the crown, stem, roots, leaves and also new growths of the orchid. The rot is mainly due to spread of infection from one pot to another. This can be prevented by placing a saucer under the pot to collect water or allowing it to drain out fully before hanging it up above your other plants.

Another reason for spread of infection can be attributed to the use of unsterilized equipment for trimming your orchid leaves and roots. This can get aggravated and lead to spread of the infection due to a prolonged moist environment. So always sterilize your cutters with rubbing alcohol and flame it with necessary precaution. Ensure all safety measures are taken during this procedure.

For instance, Fusarium Wilt is a fungal disease that is commonly spread by sharing of water and using unsterilized pruners or cutters for trimming your orchids.

For more information on orchid diseases, pest infestations as well as their treatment and preventive measures, you can read my post How to save your orchids from pests and diseases.

Armed with these tips, you can confidently allow your orchids to soak up in the rain and get all its inherent advantages. This will promote their healthy growth and blooming. And you get some respite from watering your orchids. Just watching them soak in the rain will make you very happy. After all, growing orchids is also about keeping ourselves peppy and happy.

Please leave a comment below if you have some more useful tips so that I can include the same in the post (and credit you for the same).

Till my next, happy growing!

Project#4: Tidying up your orchid’s root system

Orchids need a regular maintenance routine. Tidying up your orchids gives them a healthy environment, which prevents attack from pests and diseases. This ensures the orchid remains robust and is ready to put out beautiful blooms during the season.

In this project, I demonstrate how to clean up the root system of a lithophytic orchid (mounted on a rock).

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Every year, your orchid grows new roots. As the number of new roots increase, peering through the transparent pot, you will notice several roots that are brown and mushy. This decay is a natural ageing process to shed off old roots.

A mix of old and new roots

The root system is now dominated by the roots from the newer growths. In order to create a healthy environment for these new roots, it is a good idea to clean up the root system and remove the old, dead roots.

While the general school of thought is to not disturb the orchid, I am a compulsive picker of old dried sheaths and roots that are visible, so that the orchids looks neat. This does not mean that I frequently unpot my orchids and go on a cleaning spree, every time I spot a dead and mushy root or two.

Instead, I assess whether the orchid medium remains wet due to lot of mushy dead roots. I also ensure the orchid is done with blooming, and check for the development of new growths and roots. This will indeed provide an opportune moment for repotting as the orchid will not suffer from dehydration due to lack of good roots. The new roots will quickly take over and minimise the shock of disturbing its root system.

Another reason why I like to tidy up the root system of my orchids is that dead mushy roots hold copious amounts of water. Prolonged dampness in the congested and closed environment within the confines of a pot encourages fungal and bacterial rot issues, which are commonly seen in orchids that grow in an excessively damp environment.

Dead, mushy roots encourage rot

The damp environment also acidifies the medium, leading to its early breakdown. Disintegrating medium further aggravates the dampness, leading to rot. Therefore, tidying up their root system will provide a healthy environment and prevent the root system from decaying, thereby encouraging the healthy growth of the plant, which in turn will lead to a healthy bloom cycle.

Aesthetically too, your orchid will look neat and well-groomed if the scruffy dried roots are taken off.

Green roots look healthy,  nurture the plant and provide good support

Now that you have understood the importance of cleaning up your orchid’s root system, you need to also recognise that the root system is the most important part of the plant, and is prone to set back. Therefore, you need to follow the below listed precautionary measures while cleaning up the root system:

  1. Always choose a good time for cleaning up your orchid’s root system. Preferably, time yourself when the new growths start showing up, and before the new shoot develops roots. This is of special significance as there is a high risk of damaging the new roots by bruising or breaking off the tip of the new roots. This in turn can affect its further development, as well as its capacity for nutrient and water absorption.
  2. Set aside some dedicated time to execute this project as you cannot complete it in a jiffy.
  3. Ensure that you have all the requirements like 3% bleach, rubbing alcohol, 3% hydrogen peroxide, foreceps, tweezers, fresh medium, if required, and a bigger pot ready for repotting the orchid.
  4. Sterilize equipment such as cutters, tweezers and forceps by rubbing with alcohol and flaming them. Take extreme precaution while doing so, so that there are no mishaps. Children need to carry out this step under adult supervision.
  5. Handle the plant carefully so that you do not damage any of the delicate parts of the plant such as roots, leaves and new growths.

Project

Tidying up the root system of my orchid

Cleaning up the orchid’s scruffy root system will make for one very happy plant

I mounted this Cattleya Walkeriana in June 2020.  The orchid liked its new environment during the rainy season and produced new roots. A few months later, once the rains stopped, I found the orchid suffering from lack of humidity. Frequent wet and dry cycle took its toll on the roots and they began dying.

Things got worse when I had to suddenly leave town for four weeks and my orchids remained untended. When I returned, I found a severely dehydrated orchid with its roots shrivelled up and dried. Watering it regularly only made these roots mushy and unhealthy.

Fortunately, the orchid recovered from the setback and put forth a new growth and roots. I did not want the orchid to develop rot issues and so decided to cut off the mushy roots, without disturbing the new roots. Hopefully, the plant will thrive in its new healthy environment.

To execute this project, I carried out the following steps for the best results:

  1. Cleaned the work area by rubbing with a swab dipped in 10% bleach solution.
  2. Prepared the plant by watering it before hand to ensure the plant doesn’t get dehydrated since I do not water the plant for 24 hours after cutting the roots or stem. This is done to effectively seal the open wounds caused by cutting the roots or stem.
  3. Untied the wires and raffia tape that were used to secure the plant on the rock.
  4. Removed the moss surrounding the roots and looked for the mushy roots. I began separating them with a pair of electrical tweezers. The tweezers are especially useful to reach into nooks and crevices and remove dried sheaths, tease out roots and separate them from the plant before cutting them off. This easy accessibility also prevents us from accidentally cutting off good roots or sheaths.
  5. Once the roots were cut off, I spritzed the root system with 3% hydrogen peroxide to reduce the risk of bacterial and fungal rot, and allowed them to sit for 10 minutes.
  6. I then covered the new roots loosely with a little moss, ensuring the moss is not too close to the base of the pseudobulbs. This will ensure the dampness from the moss does not encourage rot around the stem.
  7. I secured the moss and plant firmly in place with wire or raffia tape. Doing this will make the plant feels safe and will encourage further root production.
  8. Lastly, I placed it back in its tray and have been watering it every day by spraying a little water on the rock. The LECA bead humidity tray does the rest, by providing a humid environment throughout the day.

I stepped back to assess the plant and was pleased to see it all tidied up. I am confident the plant is much happier and will thrive in this low risk, environment. I will keep you posted about its progress.

There is a lot you can do to make your plants comfortable and provide a healthy environment for their growth. This dramatically reduces stem rot and root rot issues as well as the risk of developing diseases such as Fusarium Wilt.

To know more about orchid diseases and pest infections and their treatment, read my post, How to save your orchids from pests and diseases.

Orchids are resilient, and you will find them responding very well to seemingly small, yet important initiatives on your part, such as cleaning up of leaves, removing dried sheaths and cutting away dead roots, dividing the plants if they have outgrown their pots, and also cutting away old canes or pseudobulbs that are done with blooming.

All of these will give them a new lease of life and encourage them to focus their energy in putting on their best show during their bloom cycle. To know more about care tips for your orchids, read my post, 5 Basic care tips for your orchids.

Healthy growth conditions lead to a good bloom cycle

So make such projects a part of your orchid care regimen to provide them with healthy conditions for their growth.

Until my next, happy growing!

Project#2: Mounting your Tolumnia orchid on wood

One of the most fascinating aspects of growing an orchid is that you can get as creative as you like and mount them on various substrates such as wood, bark, coconut coir shells, rocks and any other textured surfaces such as ceramic mounts. Your orchids will take to this arrangement like a duck to water, and there is very little that can go wrong in this near-natural environment that you would be providing.

In their natural habitat, orchids grow as epiphytes on tree branches and trunks, as lithophytes on rocks and in between chinks in the rocks. You also find ground or terrestrial orchids that grow in soil. It is this diversity in their growth habitat that gives rise to a host of exciting possibilities. You just need imagination to experiment with new ways and learn about what suits your orchids well.

Mounting Tolumnia orchids

Growing orchids by mounting them on a suitable substrate can be creatively satisfying. They serve as excellent display pieces even when your orchids are not blooming. Lush, healthy well-fed leaves and pseudobulbs on a backdrop of textured cork or a wood mount of any kind, creates a unique, natural display. I personally believe this to be a very thrilling aspect of growing orchids, making it a highly creative experience and taking the feel-good factor of this delightful hobby, a notch higher.

Let us begin by understanding what a mount is. A mount is any textured surface on which an orchid can attach itself to and grow. It may be in the form of a rugged wood mount, a rock with an interesting shape and texture or even a coconut coir shell. You may hang it vertically, or you can place it in a shallow bowl or tray, and even in a vase with driftwood to make the most amazing displays.

Now, depending on the type of orchid, you can select the option most suitable for its growth. Always try to mimic its natural habitat. For example, thick rooted orchids like phalaenopsis are relatively more resistant to root burn and dessication than thin rooted orchids like oncidiums and dendrobiums. So they can adapt pretty well to growing them on coconut coir and shells. On the other hand, oncidiums and tolumnia or equitant orchids grow well on wood mounts. Cattleya, especially the nobilior and walkeriana varieties, grow reasonably well on both wood mounts and rocks as these are commonly found growing on trees as well as lime plateaus and moss-covered rocks in Brazil.

Pros and cons of mounting your orchids

ProsCons
1.Wood mounts provide a near natural environment for growing your orchids.Requires good quality cork or durable wood mounts that do not rot or disintegrate due to daily wetting/soaking. Cork mounts are best suited for mounting, but can be expensive. You can look for inexpensive substitutes for cork from within your locality.
2.Roots attach firmly to the mount and make the orchid feel secure, promoting healthy growth.Firmly attached roots pose a problem if you need to change the mount when the orchid outgrows its mounts. The roots get destroyed on unmounting. So it would be better to choose mount size based on the rate of growth of your orchid and the surface area it requires to spread out.
3.Chances of disease and rot significantly reduce due to quick drying out between waterings.Requires frequent or everyday watering, which can be tedious. So if you enjoy watering and have the time for it, then this is a great way to grow your orchids.
4.Occupy less space and can be accommodated on walls and vertical structures.Frequent handling for daily watering can increase the risk of mechanical damage to plants. The risk of infection spreading through open wounds and bruises makes them susceptible to rot, leading to their deterioration.
5.Aesthetically pleasing and makes for beautiful displays with or without blooms.You will love your wood mounts, but the daily watering schedule can take a toll on you if you have a large number of wood mounts in your collection. You will need to dedicate time every day for watering them. It’s always good to keep the numbers smaller by choosing hardy ones for mounting. You can also increase the amount of moss for mounting your orchids so that they provide a humid environment over a longer period. This will also allow you to wet the mount quickly and put it back. You need not soak the mounts. This can reduce your watering time to a great extent.

Project#2: Mounting your tolumnia orchid on a locally sourced wood mount

Mounted Tolumnia

From time to time, I take up mounting projects for select orchids, but usually plan them just before the beginning of the rainy season. The reason being that rain water brings out the best in orchids and they respond very well by putting out new growths and roots in abundance throughout the rainy season.

Therefore, the process of adapting to the new surroundings happens much more smoothly, without increasing your anxiety over delayed rooting and attachment. Once the roots get firmly attached, the orchid begins growing new pseudobulbs and leaves, and begins preparing for a healthy bloom cycle from its mature pseudobulbs.

For demonstration purposes, I have chosen a Tolumnia orchid, which is one of my favourite orchid groups, due to their compact size, beautiful, lush green fans and to top it all, the most amazing and vibrant coloured flowers that continue to sequentially bloom from the same spike.

Besides, Tolumnia orchids prefer to grow on surfaces such as mounts as opposed to growing within a pot with medium. While they grow equally well within pots, they need to be carefully watered so that they don’t remain in a soggy environment for long, which creates a conducive environment for bacterial  and fungal rot.

Tolumnia orchids prefer moisture, but also like to dry out between waterings. The fans are susceptible to rotting when grown upright. Growing them on vertical mounts ensures that water does not remain trapped in between the leaves and fans, thereby minimising the chances of rotting.

Along with these factors, there are other considerations such as the structure, size, growth habit, rate of growth and multi-directional growth or unidirectional growth, etc., which needs to be taken into account for selecting the most suitable type of mount for your orchid.

If you do not wish to wait for the rains before mounting, you can go ahead and mount it right away. Orchids develop new growths as the cold winter days recede. Check when your orchid develops new growths. This is the best time for making the transition to the mount as the new growths will very soon produce new roots that will attach the orchid firmly to the wood mount. This will also help the orchid adapt faster to the new grow environment and will ensure the bloom cycle does not get majorly affected due to a setback.

Choosing your mount and preparing it for mounting

Requirements for mounting your orchid

Once you have decided on your orchid, now you need to find a suitable mount. Fortunately, Tolumnia orchids are small in size and therefore require small sized mounts. I however, like to mount different coloured Tolumnia orchids on a large size mount (community planting). This will create amazing bloom displays, something akin to the flower shikara or boat on the Dal Lake in Srinagar, Kashmir, India!

So I chose a long cylindrical piece of dried wood, which I could either stick into a vase or lay it down like a wood log, on which the orchids would grow. I boiled it for a few minutes, which killed all germs and insects growing in the bark.

Select an area on the mount that will provide an aesthetically pleasing background for your mount and will allow it to feel at home and comfortably grow. Since Tolumnia orchids develop multiple growths or fans in all directions, you need to place the orchid on the centre of the mount. Gradually, its new growths will help it grow into a bushy clump and spread in all directions.

If you wish to vertically hang the mount, then drill a hole and make a hook with a metal wire of 10 gauge thickness. I prefer to make it a horizontal display or stick it vertically into a vase, so I gave this step a skip.

Apart from these major items, you will also need a cutter, tweezers,  sewing thread, moss, metal wire for making a hook, plant label, 3% hydrogen peroxide, rubbing alcohol and flamer as well as 10% bleach.

The tweezers,ers are very handy for cleaning up orchids or separating out dead roots and cutting the. You can gain access to narrow crevices between the gtowths. I bought this set of four tweezers from Amazon. You can check out the same here.

How to mount the Tolumnia orchid – a step by step guide

Unpot your tolumnia
Teasing the medium out of the orchid roots with a pair of tweezers
Wind the thread diagonally to secure the orchid upright
All done up and ready
Get creative for a fabulous display
  1. Sterilize the work area by rubbing it with 10% bleach swab. Allow to dry.
  2. Wet the orchid and unpot it gently, without damaging its delicate hairy roots. Remove all pieces of media stuck to its roots. Wash the roots to remove traces of old media and check for any dead roots that are papery, flat, blackened or mushy.
  3. Sterilize the cutter by wiping it with rubbing alcohol and flaming it to kill any harmful germs that could get transferred to this orchid. Cool the cutter and cut the dead roots off, leaving behind only the good, healthy roots.
  4. Spray 3% hydrogen peroxide on the roots and keep the orchid aside for ten minutes.
  5. Take the wood mount that has been sterilised to kill any insects and microbes, and place it on the work area.
  6. Make a tiny bed for the orchid at the desired place by placing a little bit of moss and placing the tolumnia on it. Spread out the roots in all directions. Cover the roots with more strands of sphagnum moss and secure with your fingers, holding the plant and moss in the desired position.
  7. Use a long twine or raffia tape or sewing thread in a neutral colour to secure the orchid in place by repeatedly winding it around the moss. To secure a plant upright in the desired position, wind the thread diagonally to make the figure 8. This will hold the plant firmly in place. Tie up multiple knots to ensure the binding doesn’t open up. Cut off the loose ends to give it a neat finish and also prevent it from getting entangled with other plants and objects.
  8. Water the mount and hang it up in a suitable place.
  9. Water the mount daily by wetting it under a tap. Ensure that only the mount/roots get wet and not the fans of the Tolumnia. Fertilize it once a week by spraying a mild solution of orchid fertilizer (110 PPM).
  10. Very soon, your orchid will start growing roots and will eventually produce blooms from the mature fans.

Community planting

7 Tolumnia on one mount

Since Tolumnia orchids are small in size and grow as bushy clumps, they are good options for community planting projects. Instead of planting a single Tolumnia, you could plant five or more varieties with vibrant coloured blooms to create a beautiful display. I tried this project by planting seven different Tolumnia orchids on a single mount and had two of them blooming at the same time. I am eagerly awaiting the time when all seven of them will bloom at the same time. It would indeed be mind-blowing, I am sure.

Getting a slice of the woods into your living room

Nature in your living room

I have realised, over the years, that growing orchids is just the beginning of a wonderful journey of creativity. You could elevate this hobby to greater heights by displaying your mounted orchid in a beautiful arrangement that will teleport you instantly to the woods, where these orchids grow in wild abundance.

Mounting your orchids and creating these displays will provide you with immense satisfaction, which will contribute to your overall well-being. To know more about this equation, read my post on 7 Reasons why orchids can help you beat stress.

On this note, I urge you to get creative and wish you a happy mounting!


How to SAVE YOUR ORCHID from pests and diseases

A complete care guide on treating the most commonly seen pest infestations and diseases in orchids

You have purchased orchids and are tending to their needs regularly, looking forward to a good blooming season, but suddenly one morning, you notice your sprightly orchid not so buoyant anymore. And your first instinct is to check:

What’s wrong with my orchid? How did it happen?

How can I resolve this issue and save my orchid?

Your first orchid casualty will have you brooding over your loss. I remember being distraught during my first year as an orchid hobbyist and frantically trying to put things right, especially as my Miltoniopsis fell prey to rot issues, Phalaenopsis suffered crown and stem rot,  my Nelly Islers couldn’t grow in my warm climate, and my Cattleya were time and again attacked by scale. Not to forget the slug and spider mite infestations that had me on edge until I ensured that all my plants were free of these pests. Whew! That was indeed a lot of hard work.

As alarming as it can get, do not get unduly hassled. A lot of problems can be resolved easily and let’s not forget that orchids in the wild live on for 100 years and more and propagate without any special care.

With a proper care routine and timely remedial treatment, your orchids will not only remain healthy, but will reward you with beautiful blooms year after year.

Before we get on to the specifics of these maladies, I would like to stress on the fact that the more time an orchid spends distressed and diseased, the longer it will take for it to bounce back. These conditions also lead to a setback for the orchid, leading to complications such as bud blast and in some cases, the orchid skips the bloom cycle altogether, which can be disappointing after the hard work that you have put in all year round.

 It is best to react with immediate effect and apply remedial treatment so that its chances of survival improve significantly.

Regularly scrutinize your orchids and check for signs of stress and pest infestation or other types of microbial infections while you are watering your orchids, fertilizing them, repotting them and grooming them.

At the outset, let us understand what are the common issues seen in orchids and what caused them.

Common diseases in orchids and their causes

SymptomsType of Malady
Wrinkled, dull, limp and leathery leavesRoot system damage  
Patchy chlorosis on leaves, with undersides of leaf turning black or brownSpider mite infestation
Crown and stem rot (soft rot)Bacterial and fungal infections
Dehydrated leaves and lack of signs of growth; purple ring visible on cross-section of rhizomeFusarium wilt
Scaly spots and patchesBiosduval scale
Powdery white patchesMealy bugs
Leaf spotsBacterial and viral infestations
Black spots on flowersBotrytis – bacterial infestation of leaves and flowers
Strips and ring like patches on leavesViral infections

Below is a brief overview of issues commonly faced by orchid hobbyists, with their remedial treatment and cure:

ROOT SYSTEM DAMAGE

Limp and leathery leaves indicate root system damage

Symptoms: Limp and Leathery leaves with no signs of growth. This is a clear sign of a stressed out orchid.

Causes: Below are the most common causes of root system damage:

  • Root system decay – Often the bane of overzealous watering by orchid hobbyists, this issue occurs due to excessive moisture and fertilizer application, especially if there is inadequate aeration and improper drainage. These conditions encourage the growth of bacteria and fungi, which attack the plant’s roots and decay them, thus affecting the uptake of moisture and nutrients from the plant.
  • Inadequate moisture – Occurs if the orchid is subjected to prolonged periods of dryness between watering. This could also be caused by exposure to bright direct sunlight and air drafts coupled with inadequate watering.
  • Snail infestation – You need to be wary about this right from the time you get home your newly purchased orchid. Watch out for signs of dehydration coupled with chewed up roots and tender new growths at the base of the plant.                                    
  • Physical damage during repotting – During repotting, sometimes the root system remains stuck to the original pot and potting media, especially when terracotta pots and wood mounts are used for growing your orchids. You need to gently pry open the roots in such cases. This leads to bruised and broken roots, which become vulnerable to bacterial and fungal rot, when repotted in fresh media. If the orchid does not have a healthy root system, then it does not absorb adequate moisture, thereby leading to dehydration. Since the moisture is not taken up by the plant, the medium remains excessively moist for long time, leading to decay of the remaining healthy roots.

Remedy:

  • Avoid excessive watering of orchids. Provide a good wet-dry cycle as per the requirements of the orchids. Also ensure that the root system receives adequate aeration by using a coarse medium and perforated pots. To learn more about these aspects, read my post Everything you wanted to know about ORGANIC MEDIA
  • Orchids require adequate moisture and humidity for their healthy growth. So frequent prolonged dry spells between watering that lead to severe dehydration should be avoided. Ensure your orchid responds well to the care routine you are providing and optimise it to get better results.
  • Chewed up new roots due to snail or slug damage can be a big setback for your plant. Unpot the orchid and disinfect the root system with hydrogen peroxide and then repot your orchid in fresh medium at the earliest.
  • Roots invariably end up getting damaged during repotting. To reduce this damage, you can moisten the roots and pry them gently using a thin, blunt knife. To prevent a setback for the plant due to repotting, the plant needs to put out fresh roots at the earliest. So, unless the plant is unhealthy and needs immediate repotting, it is always a good idea to repot when the plant gives out new shoots and roots. This will allow the plant to recuperate fast despite the setback.

Pest infestation

SPIDER MITE INFESTATION

Spider mite damage

Symptoms: Spider mites live and feed on the undersides of orchid leaves, scarring the leaves. They can easily be detected by looking out for a white sheen on the underside of leaves caused due to chlorosis (destruction of chlorophyll), which turns rough and brownish-black later.

Caused by spider mite infestation during dry, dusty and warm weather conditions, spider mites are extremely tiny insects that are red or brown in colour. Look out for webs and scan for mites, which can be seen under a magnifying glass or you could zoom in with your phone camera and you will spot them moving about. Alternatively, wipe the area with a damp cotton ball and if you spot tiny red dots, then this is a confirmation of spider mite infestation.

Treatment: As a conservative treatment, you can spray a solution of 2 drops of paraffin oil with 1 drop of dishwash liquid in 500ml of water. Spray the plants to cover all possible surfaces. Ensure that the plants are placed under a fan to ensure that the excess liquid dries off quickly and does not pool in crevices, leading to further complications of stem and crown rot.

Another more aggressive approach would be to spray a suitable miticide such as neem oil, pyrethrins, azadirachtin and horticultural oil (pick one from your local horticultural shop or search for it online), paying particular attention to manufacturer’s instructions (use below recommended dilution) and taking adequate safety precautions. Repeat application after two weeks until the mites disappear totally.

Prevention: As a preventive measure, do not allow your orchids to remain in dry and dusty conditions. Provide them with adequate humidity and air flow.

SNAILS AND SLUGS

Young leaf chewed off by snails and slugs

Symptoms: Snails and slugs live in the crevices of leaves and sheaths and in the root system and come out at night. They chew on tender shoots and growths, leaving stubs, and holes in their place. Also watch out for a shiny trail left behind when they move around.

Treatment: Immediately repot your orchid in fresh medium and discard the old medium.

Before repotting, rinse the orchid roots thoroughly and treat them with 3% hydrogen peroxide. This will kill any snails and also destroy their eggs if any.

Prevention: Isolate the plant when you buy it. Look out for signs of pest infestations. Unpot the orchid at the earliest and repot in fresh media.

APHIDS

Symptoms: Look out for tiny insects that suck the sap by attacking buds flowers and leaves, and leave behind a sticky gel mass. Bud blast and deformed flowers can be attributed to aphid infestation.

Treatment: Try to conservatively remove aphids by spraying water mixed with a few drops of dish wash liquid. For a major infestation, spray Orthene or Safer insecticidal soap using below recommended proportions.

THRIPS

Thrip damage

Symptoms: Thrips are very tiny insects that are not visible to us. They feed on flowers, leaves and buds, and very soon spread from one plant to the other.

Unopened buds drying and falling off, stunted growth and deformities in buds and flowers with damp spots are common signs of thrip infestation. Leaves have a pitted, stipled, silvery or bleached appearance.

 Treatment: On discovery, spray the affected plants and flowers once a week with Orthene, Malathion or Safer soap with concentrations below the recommended dose, and repeat for 3 consecutive weeks. This will help keep these insects at bay.

Prevention: Keep the plants, clean and free of dust and away from trees that are commonly infested with thrips such as trees that produce fruits and flowers.

BIOSDUVAL SCALE

Creamish round crusty spots indicate scale infestation

Symptoms: Like spidermites, scale are sap sucking insects that live on the underside of leaves. They are often seen in the axils of leaves, on pseudobulbs and on the rhizome of the infected plant. Old leaves and pseudobulbs that are in dry and dusty environment, are especially susceptible to scale.

The female reproduces by laying about 200 eggs, which take 5-6 days to hatch.These are creamish spots that are circular and crusty. A good way to confirm this is to scrape the spot with your finger nail. If it comes off, then it is definitely scale.

Another characteristic symptom is the chlorosis or yellowish halo surrounding these patches. In due course the area darkens and the leaves drop away, causing severe damage to the plant.

 Treatment: If the infection is mild, then use a cotton bud or Q-tip dipped in 1:1 solution of isopropyl alcohol and water. In case the infection is more severe, then spray with below recommended strength solution of Orthene or Malathion. Safer soap solution can also be used in a similar way to get rid of scale. It is important to apply these treatment remedies at a stage when the insects begin crawling as they are at their most vulnerable stage then. For best results, repeat the treatment after two weeks. Ensure that you cover all nooks and crevices, under the leaves and axil area.

Prevention: Treating them conservatively with isopropyl alcohol early on will reduce significant damage and spread to other plants.

Keep plants well-groomed by removing dried leaves and sheaths, and checking all crevices and underside of leaves for scale infestation.

MEALY BUGS

Mealy bugs on underside of leaf

Symptoms: Mealy bugs get their name from the powdery white cottony substance that covers these insects. They attack all parts of the orchid from roots to rhizome to the leaves. They especially make nests in crevices and hard to reach places like leaf axils, inside sheaths and tender new growths and suck the sap in these areas. The surrounding areas show prominent chlorosis, followed by darkening, and subesquently leading to yellowing of the leaf, causing it to drop prematurely.

Treatment: Similar to treating scale, mealy bugs can be cleaned with cotton buds or Q-tips dipped in isopropyl alcohol (spot cleaning is recommended as opposed to wiping entire leaves). For severe infections, spray all plant surfaces such as below the leaves and in the axils with below recommended dilution of Malathion or Orthene or Safer insecticide soap. Repeat application after two weeks.

Prevention: Remove old leaves and sheaths to check vulnerable places like leaf axils and underside of leaves. Ensure new additions to your orchid collections do not have mealy bugs. Isolate for two weeks, before placing them with your other plants.

Bacterial and fungal infections

BACTERIAL SOFT AND BROWN ROT (ERWINIA)

Symptoms: First visible signs include moisture filled soft spots with a yellow halo surrounding them. As the infection progresses, the rot progresses rapidly and leaves fall off. The infection can spread to the roots very quickly, finally spreading, albeit much slowly, to the rhizome and pseudobulbs. There is a characteristic foul odor of decaying tissue and a water soaked appearance. Bacteria mostly spread through open wounds.

Phalaenopsis, paphiopedlum and vanda orchids decline rapidly with such infections due to the attack on leaves or crown and stem causing rot issues. They are especially vulnerable since they are monopodial as compared to cattleya, oncidiums and dendrobiums, which have multiple pseudobulbs on a rhizome. So the chances of saving these orchids is greater than those of saving monopodial ones.

Treatment: Unpot your orchid and discard the medium. Remove infected tissue using a sterile cutter and dispose of the infected portions. Wash the healthy portion of the plant. Pat dry with tissue and spray with 3% hydrogen peroxide. Let stand for 10 minutes on a sterile surface area. Seal the cut portion or exposed tissue with cinnamon powder, which dries up and seals the wounds.

Prevention:  Crown, stem and leaf rot are commonly seen in cases where water and fertilizer get into the crevices and axils of leaves. Avoid splashing water on leaves and pseudobulbs as well as the crown of the plant while watering the orchid. The disease is spread by accumulation of water and bacteria that are present on the plant, which are encouraged by hot and moist conditions. Periodic spraying with a copper bactericide and ensuring there is no water dripping on to the plants will ensure that the orchids remain healthy and free of rot issues.

Bactericides like Physan or a copper fungicide can also be used in below the  recommended proportions. Do not repot the orchid immediately. Allow it to remain bare-root for 48 hours. After that, you can repot orchid in fresh medium. Clean up work surface with 10% bleach to remove any traces of infected material.

BOTRYTIS

Symptoms: Leaves and flowers are commonly affected.There will be a prominent browning and drying up of leaf tips, which progresses towards the base of the leaf.

Flowers develop black or brown spots, which are filled with moisture on the petals and sepals that merge and grow, marring the beauty of the flowers.

Treatment:  Spray a systemic fungicide such as thiophanate methyl or a protectant fungicide such as Mancozeb, with below recommended dose dilutions to clear up the infection.

Prevention: Good air movement, general cleanliness, higher light and lower temperatures discourage such infections. Remove dried up and wilted flowers as these get easily infected and spread it to other parts of the plant.

Avoid spraying water on leaves and flowers. In case you do, ensure that the excess moisture dries off quickly by placing it under a fan or where it receives air drafts.

FUSARIUM WILT

Symptoms:

If you spot leaves that are yellowish, thin, shrivelled, wrinkled or wilted, you should supect a fusarium infection. This is caused by the blockage of movement of sap through the vascular system of the plant.

When you cut open the rhizome of an infected section of the rhizome, you will find a prominent pinkish purple ring surrounding the rhizome. This is the confirmation of the dreaded fusarium infection. Mildly infected plants can survive up to a year, whereas a severely infected plant may decline rapidly over a period of 3-9 weeks.

Treatment: The first thing you need to do without any delay is to cut away the infected rhizome and discard it. Repot the portion showing healthy tissue without any purple band surrounding it. Clean the healthy portion of the plant and soak in thiophanate methyl as per the manufacturer’s instructions. Sterilize all tools and work area to prevent spread of the disease to other healthy plants.

Prevention:

Fusarium Wilt spreads from one plant to the other through improper sanitation and handling practices. Therefore make it a practice to sterilize your tools and work surface before you repot your orchid.

More importantly, sharing of water is seen as the culprit that can rapidly spread the disease and reduce your collection drastically. When you water your plants, ensure that the water from the drainage holes does not drip over the plants placed at a lower level. This can also spread fusarium.

Viral infections

Symptoms: These infections are often characterised by chlorotic and necrotic lesions, indicating destruction of chlorophyll and rotting of tissue. There may be a characteristic appearance of streaks and rings on leaves. The virus attacks all parts of the plant.

Treatment: Viral infections are devoid of any treatment methods due to the difficulty in diagnosis as well as their tendency to mutate. On seeing these symptoms, the best course of action would be to destroy it completely so that it does not spread any further.

Prevention:  Transmission of viral dieasases is inadvertently done when tools such as cutters come in contact with the sap. Therefore sterilization by rubbing with isopropyl alcohol and flaming it properly for 15-20 seconds is an absolutely necessity to protect your other plants. Another alternative would be to use single edge razor blades and discard them after use.

Prevention is better than cure

As a general rule, introduce best practices in the care routine of your plants to prevent the spread of diseases to your entire collection.

  1. Routinely inspect your orchids with a keen eye. Observe for signs of root damage, dehydration and pest infestation.
  2. Isolate the diseased orchid and treat it at the earliest so that the infection remained confined to a single orchid and does not spread to other plants.
  3. Avoid sharing of water between your orchids. Devise ways to water your orchids individually or at least minimise spread by restricting sharing within a small group of orchids. This way, your entire collection will not get infected.
  4. Use sterilized tools such as cutters and pruners for removing diseased portions and tidying up your plants. Always sterilize your work area with 10% bleach before placing your orchid on it.
  5. Repot your diseased orchid using fresh media and sterilized pots after treating it. Throw away the old media. Also sterilize stakes, supports, clips, etc. that are used for supporting the orchid.
  6. Keep your orchids well-hydrated and fertilize them regularly for a robust growth as their chances of survival dramatically increase if treated in the early stages of onset of disease..
  7. Have the necessary treatment remedies such as hydrogen peroxide, rubbing alcohol, cinnamon powder, potassium permanganate, any systemic bactericide and fungicide,  neem oil etc. handy so that your orchid can be treated at the earliest.
  8. Stock up on supplies like potting media, pots, stakes and other material to treat and repot your orchid without delay to minimise stress to an already stressed orchid.
  9. If there is a risk that your infected orchid can wipe out your entire collection, then it is better to let go of the plant rather than risk downsizing your collection due to rampant spread of the infection/ pest infestation.

You can’t save them all; instead you learn and grow

You win some and lose some

Every orchid grower faces a few or most of these conditions at some or the other time during their journey as an orchid hobbyist. You will feel bad every time a plant suffers a setback or you lose it, as you have been caring for it like a doting parent for months or even years. Second, these plants are expensive and a replacement is going to cost again. Third, sometimes, these problems reduce your collection significantly, and this can be very disheartening.

But then, you need to take these losses in your stride.

Believe me when I say, for the very best of reasons, what can’t be saved, needs to be let go.

At the end of the day, it is well worth understanding that orchids can be easily sourced and replaced through your local garden centre or nursery or even through online purchases.

With every such setback, you learn and grow, and become adept at problem-solving through exploration, experimentation and DIY hacks. This is what makes this hobby so exciting.

Due to the large number of issues and diseases seen in orchids, I will be extending this discussion  in a subsequent post.

Till then, happy growing!


Everything you wanted to know about ORGANIC MEDIA FOR GROWING ORCHIDS

An increasing number of orchid hobbyists opt for organic media for growing orchids due to the close-to-native environment they provide. A variety of options available make this a fertile ground for experimentation to mix snd match to suit the orchid’s growth requirement. Aesthetically too, orchids get a fitting base  or backdrop to make the display attractive in a more natural way.

Orchids grow extremely well in organic media such as bark chips, sphagnum moss, charcoal, coconut chips and on wood mounts. This is because it mimics their natural habitat.

Orchids are epiphytes and in their natural habitat, are generally found growing attached to trees, on substrates  such as rocks  (lithophytes) and in soil (terrestrial). This allows the roots to be exposed to air, from which they absorb moisture.

Unlike plants, which require soil for their growth, orchids require a well-aerated coarse medium that mimics their natural habitat. Fortunately for orchid hobbyists, orchids can be grown in a range of media, both organic and inorganic.  

Both organic and inorganic orchid media allow the roots to:

  • Absorb adequate moisture, without becoming soggy
  • Breathe through the air pockets in the medium
  • Find their way through the medium
  • Anchor the plant firmly to the medium

While both types of media are used by orchid hobbyists, they have their pros and cons, and so a whole lot of exploration and experimentation make this hobby intriguing and interesting, with culture methods constantly evolving with time.

In this post, we will focus on the organic media generally used by hobbyists for growing orchids. I have also linked my preferred brands on Amazon, so that you can choose the same, if you have a requirement.

At the outset let us understand what exactly an organic medium is. This can be defined as any medium that is obtained from plant sources such as bark chips, coconut coir, sphagnum moss, fern blocks, charcoal, cork mounts etc.  

Before I begin discussing about organic media, I would like to spell out the pros and cons of using this type of media so that you get a fair idea of their advantages and drawbacks.

S. No.ProsCons
1Organic media mimic the natural habitat of orchids, which they quickly adapt to and thrive.They get eroded and broken down and need to be replaced every two to three years.
2They provide a conducive ecosystem for beneficial microflora such as bacteria and fungi that promote the growth of orchids.They can harbour pests such as insects and snails, which can be detrimental for orchids.
3Fresh media retain adequate moisture and air, and provide good drainage, which help the healthy growth of orchids.When the medium starts breaking down, it becomes soggy and acidic, promoting the growth of harmful fungi and bacteria, which in turn leading to rotting of roots and pseudobulbs.

However, even though an organic medium has a limited lifespan and gets eroded or broken down over time, say 2-3 years or may be even less, depending on the conditions it is subjected to, it remains the popular choice of hobbyists all over the world. This is because they would like to grow orchids as they would in nature.

Second, over the years, potting mixes that eliminate the inherent drawbacks of organic media are ensuring that once again organic media are gaining preference over inorganic media.

Even orchid nurseries and public gardens the world over, use organic media for growing orchids.

Types of organic media

The following types of organic orchid media are preferred by orchid hobbyists:

Bark chips

Pine bark is recommended to provide natural conditions for growing orchids. This also lasts longer and disintegrates more slowly compared to other media like coco chips and sphagnum moss.

Commercially available in various grades to cater for the growth of various types of orchids, it can be classified into fine grade, medium grade and coarse grade, depending on the size of the bark chips.

Fine grade retains more moisture and less air pockets, which is suitable for terrestrial orchid and seedlings. Medium grade bark is most popularly used by orchid hobbyists and caters to the needs of many types of orchids. Coarse grade bark, on the other hand is used for larger plants and those that require a well-draining medium. It provides adequate anchorage, and dries quickly even in a large pot or container.

I grow my orchids mostly in a mixture of bark chips and sphagnum moss. I prefer using premium imported medium sized pine bark that is clean, with smooth edges and provides my orchids the right environment for their growth. Moreover, this medium lasts for 3-5 years, so it works long term and saves me the hassle of repotting frequently.

Coconut Husk Chips

Coconut husk chips are commonly used for growing orchids as they provide the right combination of moisture retention and aeration, and decompose slowly. However, they don’t drain too well like bark does, for which it is commonly mixed with charcoal to provide adequate drainage.

Since this medium grows abundantly in the countries in South-East Asia, it is inexpensive compared to pine bark chips and sphagnum moss, and is widely used for growing orchids in this region.

It is worthwhile to remember that coco chips are made from mature brown coconuts due to their fibrous nature. They are rich in tannins and resin as well as salts such as sodium and potassium, which can cause root burn and decay. Therefore this medium needs to be pre-soaked for three days, changing the water after each day to remove the tannins, resin and salts.

There is however a disadvantage if this medium is used  for growing orchids since it has a strong affinity to bind with magnesium and calcium, which are provided as nutrient fertilizers for orchids.  This can lead to deficiency diseases in your orchids. To overcome this, the coconut chips can be buffered by soaking them in a solution of calcium nitrate and magnesium sulphate. This treatment will ensure that your orchids can absorb the supplied magnesium and calcium salts optimally and grow well.

Immature husk chips, on the other hand, are not suitable for growing orchids since they are tough and impermeable to water. Moreover, they retain excessive moisture and are prone to mold and algae attack. This can destroy your orchid’s roots, harming the plant majorly.

I use this medium for orchids that need a moisture retentive medium. I soak it repeatedly in fresh water and pre-treat it with calcium nitrate and magnesium sulphate solution. This ensures that it is safe to use.

Sphagnum moss

Sphagnum moss was the preferred medium of growth for phalaenopsis orchids for very long and is still used commercially by orchid growers since it helps provide adequate moisture and air to the orchids.

But a word of caution here, you need to check that it is not compacted, but is loosely packed, so that it provides adequate aeration to the roots. It is also highly absorbent, so you need to control the watering. This ensures that the medium does not become soggy and compacted, thereby choking the roots and leading to their decay.

If the medium starts getting compacted, then it is time to be replaced by fresh sphagnum moss, which is springier to the touch.

Sphagnum moss is commonly used in potting medium along with bark chips to increase moisture retention and increase the duration of the wet-dry cycle. I prepare my potting mixes using the highest quality of pure sphagnum moss as it is free of dirt and other contaminants. The quality is consistently good and it lasts for a long time.

Fern blocks

Fern block for mounting orchids

Fern blocks are tightly enmeshed fern stems that are closely packed and provide a good combination of moisture retention and adequate drainage. This is suitable for mounting orchids such as dendrobiums and other species orchids. It lasts for a very long time and decomposes slowly. But it requires daily watering as other bark mounts and so makes the hobby more tedious. Fern blocks are expensive and are sourced from the wild. They are mostly sold in eastern India, where ferns grow in abundance.

However, they grow very slowly, and therefore, sourcing them for growing orchids can adversely affect the ecosystem.

Charcoal

Charcoal provides excellent drainage and is commonly used with coconut husk chips to provide good drainage and prevent the medium from getting soggy. It is recyclable and inexpensive, thereby saving on the recurring cost of changing the medium for growing orchids. It is also suitable as a coarse well-draining component of mixes for your vanda and other bare-root orchids.

Cork and driftwood mounts

Cork bark makes for very good mounts for orchids as it does not absorb moisture and is thick and hard, making it resistant to swelling up and disintegrating when soaked. When the plant outgrows the mount, it can be transferred to another mount and the old one can be reused after boiling and sterilizing it. They look attractive and provide a natural backdrop for your orchids.

Driftwood or dry pices of wood are cleaned up and are used as decorative mounts to give your orchids a natural environment. Orchid plants are harnessed with sphagnum moss and nylon wire to the wood to make attractive displays.

Cork mounts beautifully offset your lush green orchids and make for great displays due to their textured surface. Also, a lot of my locally sourced wood mounts disintegrated after two years, forcing me to consider cork bark as a more long term solution. The price is a little more, but works out well in the long run. The best part is that you can reuse these bark pieces even after years of use. You can buy cork mounts and chips here.

To learn about how to mount your orchids and look after them, you can check out my post, Project#6: Mounting your orchid on cork bark

Oncidium potted in bark chips and sphagnum moss

A lot of ready-to-use organic potting mixes are commercially available for growing your orchids. Based on the moisture requirement and your local climatic conditions, you can choose one that is most suitable for your orchids.

They offer the convenience of saving on time and effort, and prevent the messiness of pre-soaking your media and mixing it. The mixes are also pre-treated to keep them free of pests and fungus.

Bulk purchases also make ready mixes more affordable. So if you have a small collection and don’t want to spend a lot on potting mixes and have them lying around for a  long period, unused, you can get your friends to club their orders along with yours, and the economics of bulk purchases will result in significant savings.

Ready-to-use organic potting mixes can especially be used by people who are new to the hobby of growing orchids. As you gain an understanding of the function of each component of the mixes, you can formulate your own mixes, which you can test on your orchids and optimise them further to produce the best results.

I make my own potting mixes by sourcing the ingredients separately.

Choosing an organic potting mix for your orchids

You need to choose your organic potting mixes with care. The basic requirement is that the medium should be well-draining and provides the right balance of moisture and air to the orchid roots. This will provide a good wet-dry cycle, which is significant for the healthy growth of orchids.

While there is a general thumb rule of the kind of orchid mixes that are suitable for phalaenopsis, cattleya, paphiopedlums, oncidiums, based on their morphology and moisture requirements, you need to also consider the climatic conditions of your locality, the fluctuations in temperature and humidity, and your grow area conditions, the type, size and porosity of pots, before you prepare your potting mix.

The American Orchid Society has put forth the following guidelines for selecting media for different types of orchids:

Orchid typePot typeWet-dry cycle (Gap between watering)Potting mix
Phalaenopsis, paphiopedlum, miltoniopsis, miltonia, cymbidium and other terrestrial orchids (moisture-loving orchids)Clay or plastic; Large or medium  Up to 7 daysMedium to fine grade; High moisture retentive; Well-draining
Cattleya, oncidium/odontoglossum alliances (sympodials with well-defined pseudobulbs)Medium to large; Clay or plastic4-7 daysCoarse to medium grade; Moisture-retentive, yet well-draining
Dendrobiums, vandaceous types, terrate, pendent type oncidium types and other generaClay pots with holes;  Slatted baskets/pots2-3 daysCoarse grade; Well-draining
Tolumnia (Equitant oncidiums)Small Clay or slatted plastic pot1 dayCoarse grade; Well-draining

Apart from this, seedling plants prefer a moisture-retentive medium as they require higher level of moisture compared to mature plants, which can use up stored moisture in the pseudobulbs for their survival. However, seedling plants or mericlones also need a drying period of one week between waterings.

Creating your own potting mix

Fir bark potting mix with sphagnum moss

As you get more experienced, you are better able to gauge the type of medium that is most suitable for your orchids. You can mix and match and come up with the best recipe that will help your orchids grow and bloom well in your grow conditions.

Watch how your orchid responds, and pick a medium that is close to the specifications given by the seller. Gradually, increase or decrease the moisture level of the medium by adding the requisite amount of moss or coconut coir to the medium.

If your orchid gets adequate moisture and does not dry out too fast, nor remains soaking wet for days on end, then your orchid is getting the right wet dry cycle for its optimal growth.

Some of the mixes that have gained popularity are:

  1. Texas A&M University botanists recommend 80% bark and 20% sphagnum peat for growing phalaenopsis orchids.
  2. University of Tennessee horticulturists recommend a mix made of 3 parts fir bark, 1 part chopped sphagnum moss and 1 part perlite.
  3. For a finer grade mix for orchids with fine roots, which is more moisture-retentive, mix fine-grade fir bark or coco husk chips with fine charcoal pieces and perlite in a 4:1:1 proportion, respectively. Instead of coco chips, you can use sphagnum moss or even vermiculite. The perlite and vermiculite need to be pre-soaked for easier handling. While vermiculite is moisture retentive, it however, drains out since it is fine in texture. But orchids do respond well to the addition of perlite for aeration and vermiculite for moisture retention.
  4. For a medium grade mix, use bark or coco husk chips with medium charcoal and perlite in the ratio of 4:1:1, respectively.
Coconut husk chips with charcoal

The intent here is to provide the right balance of moisture and air for your orchids so that they thrive in your home conditions. While this may be difficult to gauge if you are new to the hobby, you could discuss it with your seller or connect with other experienced orchid enthusiasts on social media platforms and forums, and ask for their suggestions, by mentioning your climatic conditions.

Conserving your medium by treating it right

Now that you have understood about potting mixes and the characteristics of each component, it is very much necessary to treat your medium right, by not soaking it for prolonged periods or allowing salt to build up in the medium. Prolonged wetness with no drying up in between makes the medium acidic, leading to breakdown of medium. This results in the choking up of roots, decaying and making them susceptible to fungal attack.

Even though you source a high quality mix, always ensure that the medium dries off between watering. This will keep it in good condition over a longer period of time, leading to better economics compared to the recurring cost of repotting your orchids frequently in a mix that has the tendency to break down faster.

You can also check out my post, Project#1: Why, when and how to repot your orchids, which will provide you with a step-by-step guideline to repotting your orchids in a suitable medium.

Happy growing!