Napa Valley Orchid Society
Promoting Orchid education and culture in Napa since 1955
An affiliated AOS society
P.O. Box 2152, Napa CA 94558

Home   Orchid Pictures

Orchid Care 101   Glossary

How do I take care of my orchid? Orchids have a reputation as a tropical plant. Although some are tropical, most are not. Orchids grow on every continent except Antarctica (and they come pretty close to that) and in conditions ranging from desert to snow. In our area, there are three native species of orchid on Mount Tamalpais.

We can make a few generalizations about how to grow orchids. But as you probably know from gardening experience, you can't just buy a plant at the local nursery, drop it somewhere in the yard, and expect it to grow well. What is too much water for one plant is not enough for another. In my yard, there is only a very small area that is sunny enough for tomatoes. If I plant a hibiscus, it will likely die over the winter due to frost. The same thing applies to orchids. They like a variety of conditions.

Once you know the conditions an orchid needs, it is possible to at least move toward providing those conditions. However, it is much easier to buy an orchid to suit the conditions you have available.

Here is a basic guide to orchid care. It is not meant to be comprehensive or to cover all situations, but it will get you started.


What we try to do when watering is to get the roots thoroughly wet without having a lot of water soak into the potting medium. To do this, we run a lot of water through all parts of the pot. Most of water will run right out the bottom. The coating on the roots is like a sponge, and you know that if you put a dry sponge in water, it doesn't absorb much right at first. So let the water run for 30 seconds or more. Do not dip the pot in the water and let it soak. Dipping will cause the bark to float up and disturb the roots. Soaking will get water into the medium promoting root rot.

There is no one rule that will work for all orchids, but the saying 'When if doubt, go drought' is good advice for most if you don't have specific watering instructions. The fastest way to kill an orchid is over watering. For orchids in pots, once a week is usually enough, extending to ten days in winter. Mounted orchids can be watered more often, as much as every day if you like to water.

Many beginners have difficulty deciding when to water and when NOT to water. Here are some suggestions to make this easier.

Water more when.....

There is more light
The temperature are higher
The humidity is lower
There is more air circulation
The plants have thinner leaves
The plant is mounted on a slab
The plant is growing in a basket
The plant is in a small pot
The plant is in a clay pot
The potting medium is coarser
Water less when.....

There is less light
The temperatures are lower
The humidity is higher
There is less air circulation
The plants have thicker leaves
The plant is in a plastic pot
The plant is in a large pot
The potting medium is finer


Fertilzing is best done 'weekly, weakly'. Give the plant a little feeding each time you water. Many people do this as a separate step in watering. When the root is fully able to absorb moisture, pour a small amount (about a quart) of half strength plant food. Any balanced type where the numbers are in the range of 20-20-20 will do.

Growing indoors

Getting orchids to bloom indoors can be a challenge. Yet that is the only choice if we don't have a greenhouse. Napa temperatures get far too low in winter for most orchids outside except Cymbidiums and Zygopetalums.

For growing all year round indoors, the best choices are Paphiopedilums (slipper orchids) and Phaleanopsis (moth orchids). These are both kept evenly moist, should be kept out of direct sunlight and will do fine in a north facing window. Keep them on a humidity tray since most houses are too dry, especially in winter. Make sure the plants are not in the air flow path from the heater. The Paphiopedilums orchid is a popular gift any time of the year, but especially for Easter. If the timing of your orchid blooming did not work out ideally to give it as a gift, do not sweat, you can always give the gift of flowers to your recipient and try again next year and hope that the timing or your orchid bloom is closer to that which you desire.

Another orchid that is common in the home is the Dendrobium. They are grown a little differently. Place them in a south window that has a white (not transparent) sheer curtain. Let them dry out between waterings.

Humidity tray next to an east window with a plastic panel to defuse the light.

Growing outdoors

Most orchids can be grown outdoors during the summer. Here in Napa the outdoor season is about from Mother's Day until Halloween, while temperatures are no lower than 40. At the beginning and the end of the season, watch the weather report for sudden changes in temperature.

Vandas and their relatives and Phalaenopsis go out later and come in earlier, with a temperature range above 50.

In Napa we can grow Cymbidiums outdoors all year long. Under an oak tree is ideal, getting lots of light but sheltered from the mid-day heat. Every few years we get a couple of days of hard freeze. Then a plastic tarp over the plant will keep it from cold damage.

Cymbidium Mighty Sunset

Orchids are sometimes badly damaged on the ride home. Damage most often occurs from pots tipping over. Fortunately this risk can be mitigated with a little preplanning. On the day you will be transporting, bring along a small box and a few sheets or a lightweight blanket. Then, rather than placing your potted orchid directly on the floor or in the trunk of your car, place the pot in your box and tightly pack the sheets and/or blankets around the pot. Also be certain to pay attention to the temperature in your vehicle and avoid any unnecessary stops which would result in your orchid being exposed to unfavorable temperatures.


Repotting is generally done every 2 years or as soon as a new orchid stops blooming. The primary reason for repotting is to refresh the potting medium since it breaks down over time.

Pots are not the natural environment for many of the orchids we grow. We grow them in pots for our convenience. Therefore, we need to make some intelligent choices to keep the plant happy. It is not all that complex, but a little knowlege will go a long way toward sucessful repotting. Here are some of the factors to consider.

This plant went a little too long before being repotted.


Money doesn't grow on trees, but orchids do.

If an orchid is not a terrestrial orchid, (primarily Cymbidium, Paphiopedilum or Phragmipedium) it probably grows attached to a tree or rock in nature. No matter what the conditions, most orchids will do better mounted than in a pot. For us, pots are usually more convenient, but having mounted orchids has advantages. For one thing you can water all you want.

Pests and damage

Besides snails, mealybugs, red spider mites, scale and cold damage to contend with, there's sunburn and virus and ants. Oh, my!