More Tips for Growing Orchids Indoors

Following Wednesday’s post about growing orchids I learned additional tips from some fellow Durham County Extension master gardeners.

Temperature change aids flowering

“I took the “how to re-pot your orchid” class at Duke Gardens a year ago, reports Jayne Boyer, EMGV. “The president of the Triangle Orchid Society taught it. One gem that he told us was that in order to bloom, Phalenopsis needs a 10-degree change in temperature from day to night. I have two small Phalenopsis plants at work that I have repotted according to his directions and water with lab deionized water twice weekly (they are in clay pots). They are by large windows facing east and since the thermostat is on an outer wall, the temperature does change a lot in the lab. They seem to love this spot and have bloomed every January for three years.”   

Jayne’s mini Phalenopsis. Photo by J. Boyer.


Personally, I am not a big fan of fertilizing plants – they make their own food, afterall! So, fertilization got overlooked in my original post.

According to the American Orchid Society, a balanced water soluble fertilizer in the range 20-20-20 is safe and beneficial. Feed weekly at half strength or full strength monthly. This is generally good advice for feeding any houseplant. It helps avoid over-feeding.  

The New York Botanical Garden recommends a compost tea as an organic alternative to chemical fertilizers. “Soak a couple of handfuls of compost wrapped and tied in cheese cloth. Steep for a few hours and use the liquid when watering. Do not store compost tea for more than a day.”1

EMGV Catherine Urich swears by an actual tea solution. “I had a couple of drowned orchids and I found that removing all the moss, cutting out the bad roots and potting in new moss and bark nuggets and watering once a week with a weak tea solution has regenerated growth. Tea contains nitrogen and in this case can be used as a fertilizer.”  Her recipe: Using a quart pitcher, add two used tea bags to warm water and let sit for 15 minutes. The water will appear almost clear. Water once a week as normal. “Both orchid plants have grown new leaves and now, four months later, look healthy. It’s so exciting to have a hand in bringing a beautiful plant back to life.”  

Photo by C. Urich

A big drink of water

As I reported earlier, orchids can take more water than would seem prudent so long as they are given ample time to drain, too.  EMGV Beverly Davis has proved that point with her orchid care.

“I picked up my orchids from the clearance rack at a big box store about five years ago,” she explained in an email. “They are in bloom now for the first time! I water once a week for about three hours by submerging them each in a pitcher of water. I never cut the stem. They receive filtered afternoon sun. I never thought they would bloom and then one day, voila!

Beverly’s orchids. Photo by B. Davis.


1. Compost tea

Additional resources

–A. Laine, editor

Learning Orchid Care

by Andrea Laine, EMGV

“Oh no, not another orchid,” I thought with dread as my July dinner guest handed the plant to me with a smile. Little did she know how much this species of plant has challenged me. Sadly, I’ve killed many over the last 30 years, despite the fact that I’m known for my green thumb, especially with houseplants. At least it was a moth orchid (Phalenopsis), the most common orchid in the marketplace.1

I muddled along for a couple of months. By October,  the plant had dropped all its delicate pink flowers (which I had neglected to photograph) and I had cut the stems down to an inch. (It’s questionable whether I should have done that but what is done is done.) Six broad waxy leaves remained. Then, determined not to fail yet another orchid, I headed over to the Triangle Orchid Society’s show and sale at Sarah P. Duke Gardens in early November armed with photos of my plant and specific questions.

Dallas Ingram, an exhibitor from South Carolina who makes pottery containers for orchids (and is also an orchid grower), was happy to field my questions. Later, I also consulted the American Orchid Society website among other resources.

What kind of container does my orchid need?

I was surprised to learn that the holey ceramic pot I had purchased years ago specifically for an orchid, was not recommended. Dallas explained that pots with lots of openings on every side are designed for orchids that grow in very humid home environments, like Florida. The pottery he makes to contain orchids have two narrow vertical openings which he says are just enough. He didn’t try to sell me one of his pots, or even make the suggestion; He said there was no need to change the pot my orchid was already growing in – as long as I watered correctly. 

Let’s talk about watering

My orchid came with watering instructions: do weekly with warm water. A plastic three-ounce shot glass was provided for the task. I know overwatering a plant can be a detriment, but this way didn’t seem to make sense either. Even with a careful attempt to sprinkle a shot of water over all the bark, the water streamed quickly through the container and collected in the bottom of the cachepot, still missing some roots. Dallas gave me permission to use more water so long as I gave the orchid time to drain outside of the cachepot. The American Orchid Society says to avoid salt-softened or distilled water. So, nowadays I share my room-temperature bottled water with the orchid.  

How much light is best?

Dallas was precise in his reply: bright, indirect light equal to 8,000 to 10,000 lumens. He has found the light from East and even West facing windows to be sufficient. The Orchid Society concurs that an East-facing window is best and South and West are sufficient if covered by a sheer curtain.

What’s happening to these roots?

Some roots protruding above and dangling out the bottom of the container looked dead to me – I showed them to Dallas and learned that what I thought was a root was really a root covering (the velamen); it protects the real root which is a narrow string inside this covering. Orchids metabolize slowly and the root covering stores excess food and water for later usage. I had come close to snipping off those “dead” roots, so I was really glad I asked this question.  

“Velamen is a silver-white in color, but becomes transparent when wet, so that when the root is wet it turns green as you are able to see through to the inner structures of the root that contain chlorophyll .” (2) Photo by A. Laine

A surprising piece of information

It is often a challenge to get a flowering houseplant to reflower again and again. I’m inclined, as I think many people are, to treat them as a temporary attraction and then relegate the plant to a back corner or even toss it. But given the price of an orchid plant, tossing it has never felt like a viable option! As it turns out, coaxing a Phalenopsis orchid to rebloom is not a given. The success rate is 50 percent. Given my history of limited success growing orchids (and having none reflower), I find this news comforting.

I was also delighted to find information at the American Orchid Society’s website that was written expressly for people like me; a Novice Phalenopsis Culture Sheet. I’m not a novice at trying to grow orchids, but I am absolutely a novice at succeeding in growing orchids. However, with new, expert advice in hand, lower expectations about reflowering, and, the joyous sight of a new leaf on my orchid, I am enjoying this addition to my houseplant garden.

The joyous sight of a new leaf on my orchid!   

Of Note: The Triangle Orchid Society holds monthly meetings on second Mondays in the Doris Duke Center at Sarah P. Duke Gardens. Meetings feature a speaker and begin at 7:30 p.m. Learn more at

Footnotes & Additional Resources

1, 2, Identifying orchids is important to understanding what growing conditions they prefer

Tip sheet for novices

Where to cut the stem:

An Upcycle Garden Idea: Build a Living Wall

By Wendy Diaz, EMGV

The first time I remember seeing a living wall (or vertical garden) was along ‘Museum Mile’ in Madrid, Spain on April 2010 (see photo 1). The green wall was designed by Patrick Blanc, a French botanist famous for creating vertical gardens in Europe1. I was intrigued and took several photographs because I just couldn’t believe the scale of this immense beautiful patterned wall covered in very healthy and vibrant plants. It did not seem possible that so many plants could be so healthy on a very narrow vertical surface and it did not even cross my mind at the time to attempt a vertical garden at home. 

Photo 1 Living Wall designed by Patrick Blanc along Museum Mile in Madrid, Spain. Photo by Wendy Diaz April, 2010

Then, I attended a Durham Garden Forum Talk at Duke Gardens on February 20, 2018 by Leslie Herndon of Greenscapes, Inc.2 and she inspired me to think about attempting a scaled down version of vertical gardening using, among other things, nothing simpler than a wooden pallet. All any home gardener needed was a little inspiration, and in my case, my husband to help me lift and assemble the required materials. I decided it was something I wanted to try doing and I had just the spot. The idea for the location presented itself last fall when I cut down the wisteria in my backyard (see photo 2), on the east side and backyard of our property, as part of my ongoing plan to remove all invasive species from my yard. It left a bare hole (see photo 3 and 4) between two remaining support posts of an old children’s fort my husband built many years ago.  We decided to hang the pallet from the cross board between the posts to provide a screen in the backyard until my newly planted cross vine spread. 

Photo 2 Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) before removal in my back yard. Photo taken November 5, 2018 by Wendy Diaz
Photo 3 Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) stems after cut-back. Photo taken November 11, 2018 by Wendy Diaz
Photo 4 Hole in landscape between two support posts after Chinese wisteria removed. Two birds enjoy the new space created. Photograph taken November 12, 2018 by Wendy Diaz

Oak pallet
Staple gun and staples
Three coffee bean bags burlap, no holes
Potting soil (about 1 cubic feet)
Scissors or knife to cut burlap

Sedum (spreading variety)
Coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides)
Spider plants (Chlorophytum comosum)

I didn’t want to spend a lot of money so I split some of my houseplants, propagated some basil, used some extra caladium bulbs I saved from last year’s frost and uprooted some ground-cover sedum from my yard. I did purchase the coleus and salvia. I already had a small wood pallet left over from a recent bathroom renovation.

I went to the Scrap Exchange and purchased used coffee bags for $2 each and borrowed my husband’s staple gun. I cut the coffee bags along their seams for a single layer and cut out a space in the bag for the center post of the pallet and wrapped the bags around each wooden plat to make a pouch for the potting soil and stapled it to the boards (see photo 5 and 6).

Photo 5 Bottom right hand corner of Hanging Garden with burlap wrapping to make plant pouches. The rabbit is curious. Photo taken April 13, 2019 by Wendy Diaz
Photo 6 Side view of burlap coffee bag wrappings. Hanging Garden also provides a perch for birds. Photograph taken May 6, 2019 by Wendy Diaz

Initially, we used two stainless steel screw eyes to hang the pallet but it almost touched the ground (see photo 7) so my husband raised it to the first notch on the side panels and screwed it to the cross beam between the support posts (see photo 8). My husband had to secure the posts with concrete due to the weight of the oak wood pallet and wet soil. It took just over a month to for the plants to fill in (see photo 9).

Photo 7 Initially the Hanging Garden was suspended by two screw eyes but it was too close to the ground and my sedum would not be able to trail over the edge of the bottom pouch. Photograph taken on April 13, 2019 by Wendy Diaz

Photo 8 Hanging Garden secured to cross beam between two support posts about 1 foot above the ground surface. Plants were placed in three layers on April 13, 2019. Photo taken April 24, 2019 by Wendy Diaz
Photo 9 Plants are thriving in Hanging Garden and most of the pallet is covered with plants. Photo taken July 25, 2019 by Wendy Diaz

Leslie Herndon recommended an Internet search on the words “DIY Living Wall” to get some ideas and see other projects. She also recommended fabric stapled to the back of the pallet to protect the wall but because we were suspending it from old support posts, I decided to try to achieve the reversible affect and hope the plants would grow in front and back (see photo 10). After a few months, plants grew out of the back, though not as fully due to shade and the burlap covering. I now call my living wall the Hanging Garden and it achieved my purpose of providing a screen and filling in the hole left by the wisteria vine. In the end, my Hanging Garden became the most thriving part of my backyard during our heat wave in July and a focal point looking out our picture window. I am well pleased with our efforts.  

Photo 10 View of shaded back of Hanging Garden in the morning. Photo taken July 30, 2019 by Wendy Diaz

In Hindsight
One of things that I will do differently next time is to install an automatic watering system because we had to hand water the shallow soil pockets twice a day to prevent wilting in July. We would also put more concrete in the hole of the north support post because it is now leaning with all the weight of the established plants. Next time, I will not plant salvia (not enough sun at this location) and I would place basil in the top pouch of the pallet and try some coral bells. Maybe next spring I will arrange plants to make a geometric design with common plant textures and more colors and even add a nonliving accessory as recommended by Ms. Herndon2.

I am not a professional and my first attempt wasn’t a work of art nor to the scale of a Patrick Blanc creation, but it surpassed my expectations so I am going to replant it next year!

Photo 11 Photograph taken July 30, 2019 by Wendy Diaz



More reading:


August: To Do in the Garden

by Gary Crispell, EMGV

Alrighty then! We survived July, just barely. Thank you, Mother Nature, for the break at the end of the month. So, how does your garden look?  And the water bill? (Ouch!) Well, July is behind us now and August is upon us with her bounty of veggies and plethora of blooming plants. Let us hope the rain gods will be less capricious and the heat stays somewhere else. Whether or not those things come about there are things to do in the garden and don’t forget to be hurricane prepared. (You know, the ones that come in off the ocean – not the ones that reside at PNC Arena.)

Lawn Care

Check the lawn for grubs. If you find some, treat with an appropriate insecticide. If you do find any, be grateful and put the sprayer away.

Late in the month prepare any areas that need to be seeded with cool season grass (tall fescue, bluegrass).


Give your strawberries a shot of nitrogen fertilizer.

DO NOT fertilize trees or shrubbery until December.


Sow pansy seeds this month in flats to transplant to the landscape in September.

Perennials, hollyhock, delphinium and Stokes’ aster can be sown now for healthy plants in the spring.

Repot more house plants.

Plant a fall garden with beets, Chinese cabbage, cucumbers, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, mustard, radish, rutabaga, squash and turnips.


Nada. Nope. Don’t! No pruning of trees or shrubs until November.

In case of hurricane damage, disregard the above admonition.


Same stuff as last month. Look for spider mites on coniferous evergreens (juniper, arborvitae, etc.) and lace bugs on azaleas and pyracantha.

Continue rose spray program and weekly spraying of fruit trees and bunch grapes.

Watch for worms on cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower) and borers on squash.  Spray only if necessary. Follow the label instructions.


You may still take cuttings of shrubs.

More fun things to do if you just can’t get enough of the August heat

Make sure your LANDSCAPE PLAN is up to date especially if you plan to modify the landscape this fall.

Keep running up the water bill when the August thunderstorms skip your house.

Build a compost bin.

Dig Irish potatoes.

Stay cool and hydrated. September and October will soon be at hand.

Sometimes, Plant Adoption is the Best Option

By Jane Malec, EMGV

Long before my master gardener journey began, I loved bringing plants into my home. Quite a few years ago while passing by an apartment building at Michigan State University, I saw a dwarf leaf schefflera (Brassia actinophyllia) sitting on the front stoop.  There was a note attached reading “please give me a good home!” So, what was I to do? I officially adopted my first houseplant out of which grew a long habit of picking up plants and bringing them home. Some were gifts, others found like the first one and some were purchased with lunch money during lean years!

To this day, I always have plants in my home. I believe they make rooms more interesting by bringing in life and color. Foliage is the primary draw for most indoor plants I purchase. Unusual texture, shape or color starts my imagination working. Hmm … where could I put this little beauty? So, it stands to reason that while shopping at a favorite garden center a few years ago, a little Philodendron bipinnatifidum, or tree philodendron, caught my eye. It was no more than two feet tall and the foliage was very interesting.  I knew I had the perfect place for this tropical beauty.



Tropical landscape plants

Philodenron bipinnatifidum is in the Aracea family and is native to Brazil. It grows naturally in hardiness zones 10-12 especially along the edges of rivers in the tropical rain forests and in other areas such as Paraguay. It can also be found in the landscape of more tropical areas of the United States particularly in Florida were many landscape architects feature it in their designs. They are also popular indoor plants both in homes and commercial buildings.

The tree philodendron has a single and unbranched four-inch diameter trunk which and can grow up to 10 feet tall when planted in the ground. A plant grown in a container will  achieve a height usually less than six feet, directly correlated to the container size.  The foliage is unusual with its dark green and shiny leaves.  They can get really enormous growing up to 30 inches or more.  The dark green shiny leaves are enormous — growing to 30 inches or more. Each half of the leaf has eight to ten lobes each of which each can be 20 or more inches in length.  The leaves grow at the ends of the plant’s slowly elongating trunks and are held up on long petioles.  This feature also seems to be fascinating to golden retrievers!

Leaf supporting petioles

Another interesting characteristic of this plant is the long dangling roots that grow up and out of the soil. They become more noticeable as the plant matures and may not even be present when you purchase a young plant. In fact, I didn’t notice them in my plant until I had it several years and it had grown at least a foot. Growing up to eight feet, these aerial roots anchor to the bark of tree philodendrons growing outside and will provide some light anchorage for the plant. There will still be roots in a container habitat but they will wind through the stems creating a spaghetti look which is really eye catching.


This philodendron will flower growing in a container but the plant needs to be 15 to 20 years old before it comes into heat. It is a beautiful petal-less flower which only lasts about two hours. Although it seems like a short life span, it would be amazing to see this unique flower.

Philodendron selloum; Scott Zona, CC BY-NC – 4.0

Most pests and diseases tend to be caused by an overcrowded environment and/or over-watering. It prefers bright light but will tolerate lower light during winter periods. Also, as a container plant, it thrives outside during our Durham summers and it isn’t particularly fussy about humidity. I had my plant in quite a number of locations over the last few years. It wasn’t until recently that I situated it in a very sunny room of our home. Wow! It took off! The leaves started growing so fast that I could have sworn it was noticeable over night. I had to move all the other plants out of the area to give it room and, of course, it kept growing.

A New Home

About this time, I noticed that my church had a tree philodendron growing in nearly the exact conditions as mine and it was much larger! This wasn’t a good sign for what was ahead for my little kitchen corner. What to do?

For the answer I circled back to the beginning of my journey as a gardener of houseplants. I needed to find this plant a new home. Another bright yet empty corner in the church revealed itself. So, I convinced the church’s plant crew to adopt my tree philodendron and now I can visit whenever I want.  I love happy endings!


Sources & Further Reading

from North Carolina State University Extension:

from University of Arkansas Extension:

from Pennsylvania State University Extension:

Tropical landscape plants:

Unless otherwise noted, all photos were taken by Jane Malec.