Orchids have a reputation for dying easily and being difficult to care for. But is that true, or are orchids secretly low-maintenance houseplants?
Are orchids high maintenance? They aren’t. All they need is a windowsill with plenty of indirect sunlight, water once per week, and orchid food—a kind of fertilizer—in the growing season (spring and summer). They can also require occasional repotting, but this is not much more difficult than repotting other plants. Orchids don’t die easily if they’re well cared for. The idea that orchids die easily or are difficult to care for is a myth, and even novices can find joy in keeping them.
We’ll also address questions like how to care for orchids, how long orchids are supposed to last and what is the easiest orchid to care for. We’ll also detail the four key things that orchids need, why they need them, and how much time they’ll take to provide. At the end you’ll wonder, like we do, why people think orchids are hard to care for!
Are Orchids Easy to Care For (Even for Dummies)?
Orchids are easy to care for, despite what you might have heard. They have a few needs that you need to meet, just like any other house plant. You need to:
- Find a good window sill for your orchid. This will provide it with the light it needs to photosynthesize. South- or east-facing windows are best, as west-facing windows are too hot, and north-facing windows are too dark.
- Water your orchid. Orchids need water to maintain blooms, and hold the shape of their leaves. If you don’t water your orchid, it will shrivel up and die.
- Feed your orchid. Feeding means providing your orchid with small amounts of fertilizer. This fertilizer is liquid and is mixed up with your orchid’s water. The minerals in this fertilizer are essential to your orchid’s health.
- Check your orchid for damage occasionally. Orchids can experience damage from being too hot or too cold, like other plants. They can also be attacked by parasites. Checking for these problems means you can then correct them.
If you do just these four things, your orchid will survive for years. You can take extra steps like repotting your orchid with new potting mix, which will help it survive even longer. But these four things alone will guarantee that your orchid provides you with several blooms over several years.
Why Do People Think Orchids Are Difficult to Care For?
There are some good reasons why people think orchids are difficult to care for, but they’re not as valid as you might think.
One is that most orchid species are tropical. They live in rainforests, which are environments that plants have to become specialized to live in. They have to accustom themselves to high humidity, high temperature, periods of sparse rainfall followed by storms, and conditions ranging from low light to bright light. If you take something from a rainforest, be it a plant or an animal, you normally have to provide it with conditions that mirror those found in the wild. So, for example, with animals from the rainforest you typically need to keep them in glass tanks with humidifiers. Orchids thrive if the air around them is kept humid, but will remain healthy unless the air around them gets very dry.
Aside from that, though, the main reason people think orchids are difficult to care for is their reputation. People think indoor orchid care is difficult, or that indoor orchids die easily, and that reputation gets passed on to anybody who buys an orchid for the first time.
Do Orchids Die Easily?
It goes without saying that if a plant has lots of strict care needs, it will die if these needs aren’t met. As such, people think that orchids die easily as well as being difficult to care for. But this isn’t true either.
That’s not to say that orchids will survive anything you throw at them. Orchids will die if they get too hot, too cold, develop infections or get parasites. But these are issues that affect any house plant, not just orchids.
Take temperature issues, for example. Orchids thrive in room temperature conditions (just like you do, and other plants do!) If you leave the window open on a frosty night, then your orchid’s leaves might get damaged, but that applies to lots of different house plants. The same applies to humidity: orchids like slightly more humidity than you’ll find in the average house, but will still thrive in most regions without a humidifier or dehumidifier… But if you live in a desert and leave your orchids outside, they’ll get too dry. Again, this applies to pretty much any house plant you care to name.
There are a couple of issues that affect orchids, which aren’t so commonly seen in other house plants. One is crown rot, which is where water gets stuck in the orchid’s ‘crown’ (the spot between its two topmost leaves). This can cause a bacterial infection that kills the plant. But this takes a long time to develop and is very easily avoided with proper watering technique. Just like with other plants, it’s not recommended to water orchids from above with the water splashing everywhere, but in a more controlled manner.
Why Do People Think Orchids Die Easily?
Again, orchids’ reputation comes before them. But the idea that orchids die easily is only further entrenched because, for many people, they do!
Most people buy orchids just for their blooms, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Let’s say you buy an orchid from a store, with its flowers having already bloomed. Well, you can care for that orchid incorrectly but still enjoy its flowers for a long time. It takes ages for an orchid to die from problems like low humidity, overwatering or underwatering. As such, problems can go undetected. Plus, if you can just buy another orchid, why bother caring for it properly?
This gave rise to the idea that orchids die even with regular care. The truth is that orchids have slightly different needs to other houseplants, so caring for them in the way you care for other plants won’t work. But with just basic knowledge of orchid care for beginners, you can keep an orchid alive for years.
How Do You Take Care of Potted Orchids?
This is a topic we’ve covered in depth elsewhere on our site, so this section is just a quick rundown of what orchids need. There are four key needs you have to meet for an orchid, and they’re all simple enough to provide and understand: sunlight, water, food (fertilizer) and repotting every year or other year, depending on the potting medium the orchid is kept in.
While it’s important to provide the right amount of sunlight and the right amount of water, once you understand what your orchid needs, it will be very easy to care for.
Orchids are plants, and plants need to photosynthesize. Photosynthesis is a chemical reaction where the energy of light is captured in the leaf (and other green parts of the plant), and converts water and carbon dioxide into carbohydrates (sugars). These sugars help the plant thrive and grow new tissue.
But orchids don’t like bright direct sunlight. Remember, they’re from the rainforest, so they’re used to thick green canopies hanging overhead. They get lots of light, but little of it direct, and any direct light they do get will only last a little while. They aren’t like something like a lemon tree which needs intense sunlight for several hours a day.
This means you have to pick the right windowsill for your orchids. You need a windowsill that gets light, but not a ton of direct light. South-facing or east-facing windows (or, obviously, south-east facing windows) are best. North-facing windows are too dark while west-facing windows are often too hot.
Orchids need to be watered. As stated above, plants need water to photosynthesize. They also gradually lose water through respiration, which reduces the mass of leaves, flowers and flower spikes and makes them shrivel up. Water is therefore essential to any plant, although different plants need different amounts of water (like how cacti need lots—orchids need more).
It’s easy to either under-water or over-water an orchid. Both can happen because of how you water it. If the orchid is allowed to sit in water, i.e. in a pot that doesn’t have drainage, this can cause overwatering and rot. But if you use a medium that doesn’t hold water at all, water infrequently, and leave the plant somewhere that any water in the pot can evaporate quickly, it will be underwatered. To water an orchid:
- Keep it in two pots: an inner plastic pot that can drain, and an outer ceramic pot that can’t
- Take the orchid and fill its pots with water all the way to the top
- Allow it to sit for fifteen minutes
- Take the inner pot from the outer pot and put it somewhere it can drain for five minutes
- Throw the water in the outer pot away, and put the inner pot back inside
You should then water the orchid again when a) there is little condensation on the inner pot, and b) when the top of its potting mix is dry to the touch. This takes about a week for my orchids, but that depends on where you live.
As a novice you might equate feeding with watering, but that’s not the case. Feeding, rather, refers to giving your orchid the mix of minerals it needs to thrive. You can do this with a liquid fertilizer, which is typically sold as ‘orchid food’.
Orchid food is subtly different to other kinds of fertilizer. It has different amounts of each mineral, because orchids prefer different amounts to other plants. When you look at the back of a bottle of fertilizer, it will have an NPK rating/listing. This may also be listed under the term ‘composition’. This refers to how much nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) it contains. Baby Bio Orchid Food, for example, has an NPK of 5.3-2.2-0.85. Their generic Houseplant Food, by contrast, has an NPK of 10.6-4.4-1.7. That means that their orchid food is roughly half as strong. Their Citrus Food has an NPK of 6.6-4.7-8.6, which is a completely different ratio (far more potassium).
Feeding your orchid is very, very easy. All you do is mix in some of the orchid food into your orchid’s regular water. The bottle you buy will have directions on how often it’s best to do this. Yours may say once a week or once every two weeks, and most recommend feeding throughout the growing season (spring and summer).
Last but not least, you should occasionally repot your orchid. That means taking it from its pot, getting rid of all of its old potting mix, putting the orchid back in its pot, and replacing the old mix with fresh. There are many reasons why you should do this.
- Repotting your orchid allows you to get a good look at it. You can check over its leaves, its crown, its stem and particularly its roots. This will allow you to find any rot or pests, and give you the chance to correct them.
- Orchid potting mix will disintegrate and decompose over time. It may then hold too much water, and the bacteria breaking down the mix could also rot your orchid’s roots.
- Orchid potting mix loses its nutritional value over time. Barks and coconut chips contain nutrients that your orchid can draw on. Over time, even with adequate feeding, these minerals will drain away. This prevents your orchid from thriving as much as it might.
- Repotting your orchid gives you the opportunity to put it in a bigger pot. This gives the orchid more room to grow, and with more roots and leaves, there is less chance of it dying.
This fourth step is optional. If you don’t feel like repotting your orchids, you don’t have to. They will still survive and produce blooms for years. But eventually a problem like rot will catch up with them, and you’ll have to replace them.
Overall, these steps won’t tax your time too much. Watering your orchids takes a few minutes of your time. If you have more than a dozen, then it might take ten to fifteen minutes to water and feed them, and ten minutes or so to drain their pots, once per week. And finding the right window for your orchid is something you only have to do once. As for repotting, this can take an hour or so of your time per orchid, but you only have to do it once every year or two—if at all, because you’re entirely free to just buy more orchids at that point.
If that makes orchids sound hard to care for, then plants aren’t for you! But if you’d like to know more, read one of our many orchid care guides for more information.