How to Water Orchids the Right Way

orchids growing in containers

By Erin Marissa Russell

More orchids die from improper watering than from any other reason, although once you understand how to water your orchid, it isn’t that difficult. Unless our instructions specify a certain orchid type, they apply to tropical epiphytic orchids (those that grow hanging from trees and stones) in general. Because orchids are such a vast plant group, you may wish to identify your specific orchid variety and look up instructions that apply to that breed in particular to make sure your plants get the best possible care.

How to Water Orchids

Orchids prefer getting slightly too little water to receiving too much water. While they’re tropical plants, they normally live in trees, so they dry off quickly after rainfall. Orchids should not be permitted to sit in oversaturated soil or with their roots wet. Overwatering will lead to rot and cause the orchid’s health in general to decline. The roots of orchid plants are responsible for absorbing oxygen for the plant, and when they’re stuck in saturated soil, they can’t get the air they need.  Most plants prefer to dry out completely in between watering sessions.

However, when you do give your orchid water, it’s best to water deeply. You can use sprinklers, aimed where they’ll reach your orchids and allowed to run for eight minutes or longer. Some gardeners take another approach, soaking their orchids in buckets of water or in the kitchen sink. You’ll know you’ve watered thoroughly enough when drops of water are clinging to the roots when you’re done. Make sure to water your orchids in the morning. Watering early in the day ensures that your plants will be dry by the evening, avoiding problems with fungal and bacterial diseases.

It may take a bit of experimentation to find out which mixes work best for your plants. As a general rule, plants kept outdoors in a climate with plenty of rainfall should use a coarse mix that drains well. Indoor environments will naturally have lower humidity, so plants kept indoors may prefer a mix that contains organic material and will retain more water.

Tips for Watering Orchids

  • One way to gauge whether your orchids need water is by the velamen surrounding their roots. When it’s dry, velamen may be silver or white, while recently watered velamen is either mottled or green (depending on which orchid variety you have). 
  • Some sources of tap water have been treated with salts or calcium and can leave deposits on your plants or the pots they’re growing in. If you notice deposits forming on your plants’ foliage or on the containers they grow in, change your source of water. You can always water your plants with distilled water from the store or with rainwater you’ve collected.
  • When in doubt, wait instead of watering your orchid when you’re not sure the plant needs it. Most orchid varieties prefer getting too little water to getting too much. However, this rule doesn’t apply to the species paphiopedilum or phragmipedium, which are seriously lacking water by the time they start to show it. 
  • As we mentioned already, the different species of orchids can have drastically different watering needs. If you’re having trouble caring for a few of the plants in your collection, it’s best to do a bit of research to determine which species they are, then find out how to water and care for that species in particular.
  • Certain varieties need more water than others. Paphiopedilums, phalaenopsis, and orchids that have thin leaves, like the Miltoniopsis variety, can’t store water reserves like some other types can. Varieties that store water in canes, pseudobulbs, and fleshy leaves have more of a stockpile of water they can access when dry times come. Water the types that need more moisture right before the top inch of their growing medium feels dry, while varieties that need less water can be watered right after the surface of their growing medium goes dry. 
  • Watering needs vary at different times of year and due to many other factors. When the temperature climbs, the need for water will increase as well. If the humidity where your orchids are growing increases, their watering needs will go down. Airflow is a requirement for healthy orchids, but as airflow increases, so does the need for water.
  • Different potting mediums have different levels of ability to retain water. If you have more than one orchid of a particular species, you should make sure to keep orchids that are the same variety growing in the same potting medium to make caring for them easier. You may choose to use different potting mediums for different orchid varieties, however. Coarser mixes made of large pieces will have more air circulation but will retain less water than finer mixes. What the mix is made of also makes a difference. Those made with coconut coir, fir bark, or sphagnum moss are water-retentive mixes, so plants growing in them will need to be watered less frequently than orchids you grow in other types of mix.
  • Mounted orchids get more air circulation than orchids that are not mounted, so they can thrive in wetter conditions or with mixes that retain more water. You will need to water mounted orchids more frequently than unmounted plants, especially during their growth period.
  • Containers with slotted sides are often used for orchids to increase the air circulation. Orchids grown in clay pots will dry out faster than those grown in plastic pots. If you use baskets instead of pots, you can use them with or without mix. Either way, orchids grown in baskets will dry out faster than those grown in pots. 
  • Orchids that are in their growth period require more water than when they are dormant, so you may need to water your plants two or three times more often when they are actively growing.
  • Some orchids need a period of reduced watering to imitate a “dry season” so they will bloom. A bit of research will tell you if your orchid is one of these. If so, reduce water for six to eight weeks after the growth period has ended. 
  • While some growers have success watering their orchids with ice cubes, experts tend to agree that liquid water is closer to what nature provides and should be used instead.

While you still may need a bit of trial and error to determine exactly what works best for your orchids when it comes to container type, growing medium, and watering frequency, you should be well prepared with the information in this guide. Orchids have a reputation for being fussy, but the truth is they aren’t necessarily more complicated to care for than other plants—they just have different needs. After reading this article, you have the understanding of their preferences that’s needed to care for your orchids well and ensure they get an amount and frequency of water that’s not too little and not too much but instead is just right.

What About Watering Orchids with 3 Ice Cubes?

Watering your orchids with three ice cubes is a recurring myth that you’ll see all over the Internet. But here’s the thing. Orchids grow in warm climates. They don’t like cold water. Why it is probably effective for some people is that it helps prevent them from overwatering, which is the real root of the problem.

Here it is directly from the author of the Garden Myths web site, who has extensive orchid growing experience!

“In nature, phalaenopsis grow in warm jungles. Why would anyone think they want to be covered with ice water?? That is the dumbest advice I have ever seen.”

https://www.gardenmyths.com/watering-orchids-with-ice-cubes/
purple orchid in pot with text overlay how to water orchids the right way

Learn More About Correctly Watering Orchids

https://www.aos.org/orchids/orchid-care.aspx

https://www.better-gro.com/feeding–watering-your-orchid.html

https://blog-yard-garden-news.extension.umn.edu/2019/01/be-smarter-gardener-in-2019-ice-cubes.html

https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/growing_orchids_for_beginners#:~:text=Otherwise%2C%20plan%20on%20faithfully%20watering,cause%20your%20orchid%20to%20rot.

https://ccefm.com/readarticle.asp?ID=12234&progID=8

https://lancaster.unl.edu/hort/articles/2002/orchidsdoc.shtml

https://pss.uvm.edu/ppp/articles/orchids101.html

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