I often get calls from residents where I’m asked to provide a list of “easy” plants.
The truth is, any plant is technically “easy” to grow once you understand its needs.
However, after attending a seminar by one of my master gardeners, I was reminded of the beauty and simplicity of growing orchids.
I would highly recommend orchids as an “easy” plant.
Orchids are relatively pest free, and make beautiful indoor and outdoor additions to any home. There are thousands of orchid species and more hybrids than one could count. Some orchids are terrestrial species, which means they are ground dwellers. There are others that don’t require soil and grow on trees, and those type of plants are known as epiphytes.
Epiphytes are not parasites, as they only use the tree as a structural support.
There are three categories of epiphytes that I find most interesting and “easy.” The Vanda orchids produce bloom spikes capable of lasting three weeks or more. The flower colors vary from browns and greens to pink, blue, purple, white and even black or gold. You would most readily recognize these orchid flowers in the welcoming leis of Hawaii among other orchid species.
The Cattleyas are probably the most widely grown, and are very popular due to their showy flowers and long life. Flower colors range through the basic colors, except for blue, and can be found in striking bold hues to almost pastel shades. There are single and double blooms, and some even have a light, airy fragrance that won’t overwhelm the senses. There are Cattleyas that produce up to 20 flowers that are 3-inches wide, while others put on a dramatic show with 7-inch flowers clustered into groups of four or five.
Cattleyas usually only flower once a year — in the spring or fall — and their flowers generally last up to six weeks depending on the species and cultivar.
The third type of epiphytic orchid that I consider “easy” would be the Phaleanopsis, or “moth” orchids. These are great for beginners as they can endure even the brownest thumb. These orchids produce a long arching “spray” of 10 flowers to 20 flowers anywhere from 3-inches to 4-inches in diameter. Beautiful pinks, yellows, oranges, whites and those with pops of intermingled colors are common.
When in full bloom, these resemble moths fluttering en masse and can be quite stunning. These orchids normally bloom for up to one month in winter or early spring, but with optimal pruning and growing conditions, they can be induced to flower continuously.
Caring for orchids is quite easy. Key tenets of orchid care involve: temperature, light, nutrition, moisture and air movement.
A simple fertilizer for orchids, like 18-18-18 or 20-20-20, and fish emulsion applied to the roots will be plenty in terms of nutrition. Simply dilute the fertilizer into the water system you use to maintain moisture.
The amount of moisture varies slightly for each type of orchid, based on where it’s located. An orchid that gets more light than another might require more water, or when the temperatures decrease, moisture requirements might drop.
Keep an eye on the roots. Orchid roots should be slightly green – a light green and plump. When orchids need water, the roots tend to become gray and dull, and even wither slightly. That’s a sure sign they need moisture. A spray bottle will do nicely, as will a gentle drink from a hose. Direct the water right onto the roots (to avoid leaf spots) and soak Vanda roots daily in summer and every other day in winter. Water your orchids early in the day to allow the extra moisture to evaporate and discourage fungal growth.
Cattleyas are a bit more tolerant of drier conditions and can be watered two to three times per week – just keep an eye on the roots for stress to know when supplemental moisture might be needed.
For the Phaleanopsis orchid species, water them weekly – maybe twice per week. These orchids like to be moist, but not wet.
When it comes to light, most of the orchid types mentioned in this article like 50 percent to 70 percent shade, so screened porches work nicely.
For the Vandas, a bit more light is best, so that they receive 40 percent to 50 percent shade.
As for temperature, never let your Vanda orchids get below 60 degrees Fahrenheit, as it might be fatal. For the Cattleyas and Phaleanopis varieties, temperatures down to 40 degrees Fahrenheit or 50 degrees Fahrenheit for short periods will not be harmful.
A freeze warning might prompt some protection for exposed orchids, but otherwise these are quite hardy.
Another key to growing orchids is to promote air movement around the roots. Even orchids living in pots need course textured growth media, like pine bark (orchid potting mix) to allow for plenty of oxygen to reach the roots.
Hanging orchid baskets are a beautiful way to display orchids while allowing the roots to be exposed to the air.
As long as orchids have course textured growing media (bark, not potting soil), most will thrive.
Once the mix has broken down into fine particles, it’s time to repot the orchid into a courser mix. There’s really no right or wrong pot for an orchid — as long as the roots have air, moisture and nutrients, and the leaves have the right amount of light.
The only precaution I might offer about growing orchids is to be sure you’ve got plenty of space.
Orchids are enchanting and addictive, not to mention “easy” to grow.
For more information about orchids, or other horticultural needs, call the University of Florida/IFAS Extension Pasco County Office at (352) 518-0156. For upcoming seminar announcements and registration, go to Pasco.ifas.ufl.edu.
By Whitney C. Elmore
Dr. Whitney Elmore is the UF/IFAS Pasco County Extension Director and an Urban Horticulture Agent III.
Published April 20, 2016