How can I get started growing orchids

Victoria Azuolas
Frederick County Master Gardener Program

The hobby of orchid growing, which can provide a lifetime of interest and satisfaction, begins with the first step of acquiring an orchid plant. If you have received a plant as a gift, then the choice of what to grow has been made for you. Your next step is to find out as much as you can about the plant, in order to care for it as required. If, however, you are buying a plant for yourself, then you can choose one based on your own preferences and available growing conditions. Most orchids are now purchased from the garden centers of mass-market retailers such as Home Depot, Lowes, or Costco. The plants they carry are limited to a very few types.

Orchids are in fact the largest and most varied family of flowering plants and number to the tens of thousands of species, both natural and man-made. But it is only recently that some of them have started to be grown commercially on a large scale, for what is known as the "pot plant" market. These are orchid plants that can be quickly grown to a saleable blooming-size while remaining compact, and are also the easiest for novice growers.

Probably the best plant for anyone just starting out with orchids is the Phalaenopsis

(pronounced "FAIL-en-OP-siss"). Sometimes it is called the "Moth Orchid" due to the resemblance of its flat round flowers arranged along an arching spike to a group of moths in flight. Its native origins are in warm Southeast Asia, India, and the Phillipines, and it does well in normal indoor conditions such as those favored by African violets. Light should be bright but diffused - no direct sun. It can also be grown under fluorescent lights. The most important thing is to be consistent in watering, avoiding extremes of wet or dry. Good air movement is also necessary, with sufficient humidity. If the buds on a newly purchased plant turn yellow and fall off, the change to a much drier environment is often the cause.

Other readily available and easily grown orchids are Dendrobiums, Oncidiums and their various hybrids, and Paphiopedilums. The first two require more light in order to bloom than do Phalaenopsis, while paphs get by with less. If you can provide a cool but bright location and have enough space, then you can grow Cymbidium orchids, with their long arching grass-like leaves and tall spikes of large and very long-lasting beautiful flowers.

As an orchid beginner, you should always buy a mature plant already in bloom, or "in spike" and soon to open its buds. All of these orchids mentioned are very long-blooming, and in fact a Phalaenopsis will often produce a secondary flowering if the spent bloom is cut off just above the second node (joint) up the spike. Once your plant has finished blooming, continue to give it the same care indoors until late spring when outdoor temperatures are warm and settled (i.e., tomato weather). Then your plants would very much enjoy spending the summer outdoors in protected and partly shady conditions. Be especially careful to acclimate them gradually to the stronger outdoor light, as orchid leaves can sunburn very readily. Continue to water and care for them outdoors until cooler weather returns (but well before danger of frost). Then they can come back to their indoor location, and hopefully provide another season of bloom. (Cymbidiums should remain outdoors for a longer period in the fall, as they actually require a spell of colder temperatures in order to "set" buds.)

As you progress in growing and blooming your orchids, the desire to learn more about this most fascinating family of plants will also grow. There are numerous books written on that subject, many available at the Frederick County and other libraries, and there are organizations specifically devoted to orchids. The premier organization is the American Orchid Society (AOS), founded in 1921, and based in Florida. Membership is open to anyone with an interest in orchids, and will bring a subscription to their glossy lavishly illustrated monthly magazine "Orchids", as well as discounts on books and supplies, and often specials on orchid plants from advertising growers.

The AOS website at is an excellent source of information on anything to do with orchids. There also you will find a list of smaller local orchid groups affiliated with the AOS, who meet regularly and sponsor various orchid-related activites. Joining such a society is the best way to meet with others who share an interest in orchid-growing, ranging from beginners with one plant to long-time growers of hundreds of orchids. In this area we are fortunate to have three such groups : the Maryland Orchid Society, which meets in Baltimore; the National Capital Orchid Society, meeting in Washington, DC; and the Frederick County-based group, the Catoctin Orchid Society. All of these societies actively seek and welcome new members, and for many orchid growers provide the most enjoyable way to share and expand their hobby.

(For information on the Maryland Orchid Society, see:

National Capital Orchid Society at

Catoctin Orchid Society, call president Bernard Gerrard (tel. 301-662-7697), or e-mail to: for information.)

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