Tips and technics to help your growing needs
Making your Orchids thrive!
A few issues ago we promised you a discussion on fertilization and fertilizers. Well, if you couldn't tell this has taking me a bit longer to write, and no I wasn't procrastinating... okay so maybe I was a little. However, I wanted to make sure I did this article justice by giving you enough information for your growing needs, while not completely overwhelming you with scientific details and numbers that honestly confuse us from time to time. In general though, I do think the vast majority of the time we over complicate our fertilization programs. This does not mean that developing and providing the optimal nutrition for our plants shouldn't be a priority, but rather isn't as complicated as we sometimes make it out to be. Let's get started with some basics and work our way forward. I'll try not to squirrel and dive down some rabbit holes, but for all that know me, that's a tall order to accomplish... So here we go! While some orchids have more nuanced and specialized needs, most of the orchids we are growing can be grown and supported with a balanced fertilizer. Orchids, just like humans require macro and micronutrients. And no it isn't as easy as going to In and Out Burger for a burger and fries (Jonathan's late night snack), to fill up on those nutrients. These macro and micronutrients are essential for optimal orchid health and growth. While micronutrients are very important, we most often speak of fertilization/fertilizers in terms of the macronutrient (N-P-K; Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium). Each of these Macronutrients serves an important role in the growth and health of our plants. Let's take a look at each. Nitrogen is responsible for healthy plant growth and proper chlorophyll production, which is what aids in the absorption of sunlight and turning it into energy for our plants.Okay, I can see I'm starting to squirrel already, but bear with me I'll get back on track, promise! Phosphorus is responsible for flower production and root growth. Remember healthy roots mean health plants! And lastly, Potassium is response for overall plant health and growth. These three components in the right proportions combined with micronutrients provide our plants with the most optimal nutrition. In the wrong proportions however, it can set our plants on a collision course with a slow and painful death due to weak and unhealthy growth. **Warning-another squirrel moment** For example, too much nitrogen can cause too quick of cellular division which leads to stretched, light colored and weak grows. If our potassium rate is too low this could lead to stunted growth, and if phosphorous is too low we could affect root growth, stunting our plants overall. Luckily, extensive research has already been done on the best formulated fertilizers for us. Sure, there are different proportions from different companies, which we'll discuss and give our recommendations in another issue of Orchid bytes, but for this article I want to go over some other factors we must consider first when thinking about our fertilization programs. Aside from using a correctly balanced fertilizer, we must also consider our waters type and quality (which we discussed in a previous issue), as well as the pH of our water and end fertilizer solutions. Aside from water quality, water type is very important when choosing a fertilizer. When discussing water type, we are referring to our waters alkalinity, which will lead us into a discussion on pH requirements. Most tap water (municipal water) are alkaline (7.0-7.2 pH), while R.O. (reverse osmosis), D.I. (De-ionized), and distilled water is more acidic (5.0-6.8 pH). Why is this important? It is important because most orchids absorb the most optimal nutrients when pH is 5.6-6.4. The alkalinity of our water and the existence of soluble salts, will determine which orchid formula we should use. High quality fertilizers are formulated with this in mind. Fertilizers such at MSU, Peter's, and Jack's have all researched and formulated fertilizers for your water type. Our end fertilizer pH should be in the ranger of 5.6-6.4. If you are using R.O./ distilled water your pH may be slightly lower and a pH booster may be required. Once we have determined our water quality and alkalinity, it is now time to begin thinking about how much we should be feeding our plants and when. There are 1000's of idea and programs used in the commercial production of orchids and by orchid hobbyists. However, for purposes here, I want to keep it simple and straight forward by giving you our recommendations and how we fertilize. Starting with this time of year (approaching fall), we want to begin pulling back on our fertilizing. The reason we do this, is based on the days beginning to get shorter, approaching only 12 hours or less a day. At this day length our plants begin to slow their growth naturally. If we were to continue to provide spring and summer feeding, our plants would not be able to utilize the nutrients properly or create proper structural development that supports healthy growth and plants. For the majority of the orchids we want to decrease our fertilization by half if we are continuously feeding at a rate of 100 ppm N during the spring and summer months. We generally recommend fertilizing continuously, meaning with every water, at a rate of 100 ppm N, which is the optimal feeding rate for Orchids. Keep in mind some orchids are heavier feeders and require higher rates. A few examples are Paphiopedilum, Phragmipediums and Cymbidiums. To prevent additional squirreling here, I'll discuss these individually at a later date. So getting back on track (shaking my head), what this means is you will have to decrease your feed to around 50 ppm N in the fall and winter, basically maintaining and supporting daily plant function. Generally this means cutting your fertilizer measurements in half, as most retail fertilizer manufactures formulate and recommend dosage based on 100 ppm N. After a long fall and winter "rest" around April and May we want to begin increasing our fertilization rates again. Jumping back on 100ppm N and continuously feeding will not affect our plants. A general rule of thumb is, as day length beginning to get above 12 hours you should begin to see new growth and root formation. This is the time to begin increasing your fertilizing rates and continue feeding at this rate until the fall. Again, there are several formulas you can use for your program such as 19-5-23, but because we are continuously feeding here we use a 13-2-13 and have great results. Wow, I sure hope I kept it simple enough while providing enough information to get you start. It has been a really chore trying to not to squirrel off too much. If you have additional questions on fertilization or on specific requirements for your plants, please feel free to connect me at firstname.lastname@example.org .
How Important is water quality?:
Great question! - In nature Orchids receive nothing but the best and the freshest, purest source of water... Rain water! Some of you may have the luck of living in an area that has great water to give your orchids, either by capturing rainfall directly or when your tap water is naturally pure. For those whom have the luck to have this source, your orchids should be thriving when good quality water is provided. Sure some will do okay on lesser quality water, but, the vast majority of orchids do best when water quality is good. What is good quality water, you ask? Most people's water sources are from surface sources such as lakes and rivers or wells. The soils and rocks water flows through determine the quality of water by picking up minerals, salts and many organics. Some of these elements are beneficial to overall plant health while others can be rather toxic, especially in higher concentrations. Generally orchids from lower elevations can be more tolerant of minerals than those of higher elevations as rainfall does pick up various forms of nutrients while passing through the atmosphere. Closer to the oceans, minerals are picked up by the winds affecting water quality. The Bad Guys in most tap water are sodium chloride and calcium carbonate along with others... when you wash a glass and you see spots after they dry, your water is not so good, mostly that is Calcium Carbonate. Your orchid roots wetting, then drying over and over again these minerals build up over time and kill roots and stunt or even kill your plants. Again, some orchids are more tolerant than others, and some will survive, but, I would like to see your plants thrive. Rain water is good water with the Parts per Million (PPM) of Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) between 10 to 20 PPM. Some of you Lucky Bastards who live in such places as Portland, Oregon have water as good as 30 PPM, Atlanta - 60 PPM, New York City - 50 PPM, San Francisco - 50 PPM. Even Downtown Los Angeles - 120 PPM which is still okay but not the greatest. You can contact your local water company and find out what is your TDS. Our delicious tap water here at Andy's Orchids is currently at about 550 PPM of TDS; during bad drought years like the one we are entering, it can go as high as 850 PPM with about 125 PPM being Sodium Chloride (table salt) - Most of our water here comes from the once mighty Colorado River which by the time it get to So Cal, you folks who have real rivers might call this just a creek, a creek chuck full of Minerals. It's good for people but bad for plants, but, despite this bad water, there are some orchids that do tolerate it and will do okay. Many members of the following genera Phalaenopsis, Cymbidium, Bletilla, Paphiopedilum, and some Dendrobium's and Epidendrum's can live for years on crappy water if you practice Good Watering Habits, which I will leave for another Orchid Bytes News Letter. Try Most Masdevallia, Pleurothallis and many High elevation plants and you can kiss their skinny little stems goodbye using water above 200 to 300 PPM and above. Iron is another mineral which especially for some of you with well water does not kill plants per say, but, it is rather annoying having everything turn orange. Hey we all survived the orange guy... Right... whether you liked him or not. Our plants need iron, need calcium, but not in the form that is prevalent in some of our tap water which plants cannot absorb. You have good water... no need to read further unless for shitz and giggles. But those of you with sub-par, terrible or even beyond terrible water you have options. I see some of my best customers buy from me year after year at shows or here at the nursery, the same plants which up and die after slowly becoming petrified, turning to stone. I'm not trying to shoot myself in the foot here, but think of all that money you would save in replacing plants by instead spending a bit on a Reverse Osmosis System (R.O.) to purify your water and remove those nasties and having a better tasting cup of coffee too. These RO units will clean your water down to about 10 to 25 PPM and make your plants happy, bloom better, live longer, make you smile and make your significant other, whether man or beast, Happier too!! For a simple explanation for you tech folks, Reverse Osmosis is a water purification method that uses a partially permeable membrane to separate ions, unwanted molecules, and larger particles from the water. We refer to them as soluble salts, most commonly calcium carbonate and sodium. During the process, soluble salts in the water go from hundreds of PPM (parts per million) down to 10's of PPM as the water under pressure is pushed through the membrane. There are many small Reverse Osmosis systems you can install in your home or greenhouse at a reasonable cost and from many online sources. Deionized tanks and water systems work well but sometimes too well with the ultra pure water so starved for nutrients if used alone will actually rob nutrients from your plants and eat metals for lunch. For those of you with smaller collections of plants and want to stay toned, fit and get a good workout, good water can be bought by the bottle from 1 to 5 gallons which can be either RO, Deionized, distilled, or spring fed, but read the label carefully as some bottle water may be mineralized or alkaline for Human consumption, also, do not use Soft Water as most soft water conditioners use Sodium Chloride to replace Calcium Carbonate which equates to painful plant death. Imagine salt crystals on a slug extended over several weeks, long enough to kill your plants - that is what most water softeners do. For those of you who have filtered water filters, read about what they remove - most are Carbon (Charcoal) and string filters; most only remove chlorine (which is harmless to orchids and most plants), other organics and does nothing for the nasty's mentioned above. Another option is collecting your own rain water to water your orchids. Collect from the cleanest source possible, keep it covered and dark to keep mosquitoes and algae from growing and then treat it with a small amount of bleach or a small chlorine tab, but allow both to dissipate before using on your plants. This will ensure your water is free of any bacterial or fungus pathogens that might infect your orchids. Rain water is the best - the tears of God. There is something special about rain that man has not quite figured out yet to exactly replicate. I learned in its value early in life by placing gray 35 gallon trash cans at all the convergences of rain gutters around my dad's beautiful house and garden. Rain in our parts is scarce for 3/4 of the year and when it fell it was saved and used very conservatively to make it last through the late fall when the next rains would come again. I did this when I was 8 to 13 years old and had some 300 orchid plants and watered mostly by dunking them in 5 gallon buckets. This all ended the summer of 77 when I came back from Mexico with around 1,100 orchid plants and like hell I was going to water all these by dunking them by hand. I promptly built my first RO system that made 10 gallons per day and rigged a 40 gallon storage tank with a submersible fountain pump and used a hose to water my plants. In comparison, our nursery's RO system today makes approximately 8,000 gallons a day.
This is a brief summary of orchid culture with the beginner in mind:
We identify the country or region of origin for each plant. This gives some local flavor as well as a guide to the plant's temperature needs. If your orchid originates from equatorial areas it experiences relatively constant temperatures; whether they live in colder mountains or in tropical jungles, there is little variability in temperature year-round. The closer you get to the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn the broader the seasonal temperature fluctuations in its natural habitat. As a grower we recommend that you choose plants that easily grow in the environment your are able to create and are willing to maintain. If you are a beginner or don't have a controlled environment and grow indoors/outdoors according to the season, pick plants with a broader temperature range. Floridians and other Gulf residents should lean towards tropical warmer growers and only consider cool growers for an air-conditioned environment. Residents of the North do well with intermediate growers and can manage warm growing plants if they help them through the winter with supplemental warmth and light. It is important to increase watering when you bring your plants indoors.
The terms "Shaded", "Bright", and "Full-Sun", are self-explanatory. You may have to experiment a bit with a plant's location to get the right light and temperature combination. Most bright growing plants can handle early morning or late afternoon direct sunlight. The cooler your growing area, the more intense light your plants can handle without damage. Keep in mind those shady-growers still require a well-lit environment. A healthy-looking plant that refuses to bloom is generally getting too little light (assuming water and temperature are adequate). When growing under full sun remember that orchids like air movement and breezes, which keep their leaves cool. Indoors, don't hesitate to supplement with growing lights, as your plants will undoubtedly reward you for them. Just remember the lights can reduce the humidity levels in your growing area.
I cannot say too much about water. Water quality, frequency and duration are all vitally important in raising healthy robust orchids.
Orchids, especially those from high-elevations, are easily damaged by mineral salts (which are almost non-existent in their natural habitat). Always use good quality, clean water: rainwater is best followed by "good" tap water (i.e., water that is low in dissolved minerals and salts). Other options include water purified by reverse osmosis, de-ionization, or distillation. If you must use "hard water" (water high in dissolved minerals), drench the plant thoroughly to break down mineral buildups. Every time you water or mist with hard water, a residue of dissolved salts is left behind which will become a white, chalky deposit on the pot, mount, or surface of the mix; in time, this can kill growing root tips and burn leaves.Never ever use softened water to water orchids; it is high in sodium and will kill plants.
It is almost impossible to over-water a mounted orchid, but easy to over-water one in a pot. Pay close attention to the texture and shape of the roots, leaves, and pseudobulbs to gauge how often your plants need water. In between watering you can spray them occasionally to provide dew or even better get a misting system, but remember to only use good water when misting. Also be careful not to use water that is too chilly, it could shock your plants. If you grow anywhere indoors: under lights, in an air-conditioned office or on your kitchen windowsill, your watering frequency must increase to compensate for lower indoor humidity. Grouping plants together, placing your potted orchids on trays filled with gravel and water improves humidity, and grouped mounted plants in particular add to this effect.
Give your plant's roots a chance to absorb the water you give them. A quick splash on a warm summer day will evaporate before the roots can soak up what they need. Remember when it rains in the tropics, it rains in bucketfulls, so treat your plants to a good rainstorm. Water in the late afternoon or evenings during warm months and in the winter switch to a morning schedule. When you water, soak the plant completely (keep flowers dry to make them last longer). The root-ball in both potted and mounted plants needs to get thoroughly wet, and don't forget to fertilize at 1/4 strength at least once a month. Some plants require a rest period (usually in the winter) during which watering is reduced or even suspended completely. Our plant tags identify each plant with such a requirement.
All plants grow better with a slight breeze. This helps them cool-off and the movement itself strengthens the plant and builds heartier flower spikes. While wintering plants indoors, place a small fan nearby.