Thursday, July 21, 2016

Your Plants are Hungry - Feed Them!

Summer is definitely here! And it's the active "growing season" for most orchids, which means your plants are hungry! This is a good time to review fertilizer basics because proper nutrition now will reward you with robust growth and vibrant blooms come fall and winter.

Is it Plant Food or Plant FertilizerThe real food plants use for growth is light, water, and air. If you don't get those right your choice of fertilizer won't matter.

What is proper nutrition for orchids? Getting answers to this question can be complicated (and controversial).

So here's a simple approach to fertilizer for orchids.

As always, Mother Nature is the best guide, so lets start there.

Unlike houseplants, who grow on the forest floor and enjoy a smorgasbord of nutrients, orchids grow on rocks and trees and are forced to get by on whatever organic matter comes their way. This can be anything from bird droppings to decaying tree bark.

How do you simulate this at home with your plants?

Tips on fertilizer/nutrients for orchids -

Careful! Read the back -
not the best
for your plants!

1. Choose only quality products. The minerals that orchids absorb for nutrition in nature are pure and never contain "filler" or "byproducts". Always avoid fertilizers that add fillers and byproducts (which are used to fill the package). How can you tell which ones do that? Check the price - the cheaper the fertilizer - the more filler and byproducts mixed in. And that includes some top brands like Miracle-Gro, Schultz, and others.

2. Price should never be the deciding factor when choosing fertilizer. Fertilizers are sold in concentrated form, so when you break it down, even the most expensive fertilizers cost only pennies per week. If cost is an issue, buy the good stuff - then simply use less! That's a win-win because both you and your plans will benefit.

Read the label -
This is the good stuff!

2. Read the Label - look for all 16 elements plants need for growth and avoid "Urea". Companies are required by law to list all the ingredients in the package so you can always see what's inside by reading the back panel. To save money, most fertilizers companies 1) use "urea" as their nitrogen source (the main ingredient in all fertilizers) and 2) leave out trace elements. Your plants are being robbed of essential minerals because plants can't use urea until it is broken down - which simply won't happen indoors. Additionally, without trace elements your plants growing won't get a balanced diet.

3. "Organic" fertilizers? Organic is great, but do you know what your plants actually getting? Read the labbel - organic fertilizers only contain a couple of minerals, never a "complete and balanced" diet of nutrients. If you want your plants to benefit from of a balanced diet of nutrients, you're going to have to figure out what to add  - and that gets tricky fast.

My advice?  Choose HYDROPONIC FERTILIZERS!  Fertilizers designed for hydroponics contain all the elements your plants need for healthy growth - in a form your plants can use immediately. In fact, that's what hydroponics is all about - proper nutrition without the soil getting in the way! Hydroponic fertilizers are great for "soil" plants too.

Tips on using what you choose -

1. Apply sparingly.  In nature, orchids get by on a slim diet of nutrients. That means don't over do it at home! That "extra dose" of plant food to help a sick plant is exactly the wrong thing to do! I always apply nutrients at only 1/2 strength for healthy plants - and skip fertilizer altogether on sick plants. (I've never seen an orchid die from lack of fertilizer.)

2. "Bloom" formula's do not make orchids bloom. Only light and temperature make orchids bloom. Adequate light gives plants the energy to develop flowers and cool evening temperatures tell the plant when it's time to bloom. "Bloom" fertilizers can't trigger blooming - they simply encourage more flowers that will be bigger and have better color. Orchids have internal calendars that tell them when to bloom (and your fertilzer can't change that!).

3. How I use Grow formulas and Bloom formulas. I use Dyna-Gro  Grow 7-9-5 formula (1/4 tsp per gallon) most of the year. I switch to Dyna-Gro Bloom 3-12-6 (1/4 tsp per gallon) when I see flower buds and continue using it until all the blooms are spent. Then, after a couple of weeks of no fertilizer whatsoever (orchids rest after blooming) I'll start using Grow 7-9-5 at 1/2 strength again.

There you are  ...  everything you need to know about fertilizers/nutrients. Now you can stop guessing and give your plants exactly what they're looking for! You'll see the difference!

And remember, the real food plants use for growth is - light, water, and air. Get those right first, and then buy a good quality fertilizer (like Dyna-Gro) and use it sparingly.

You're plants will feel the difference the first day!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Watering Dendrobiums in Winter

Plant care for Dendrobiums in winter.

I have (7) dendrobiums. They look something like this.

Before we left for a 2 week (business) trip to Hawaii, I watered all my plants thoroughly, including the dendrobiums.

This is how I found one of them when I returned   ....  disappointing.

This is what happens when you over water a dendrobium. It's late March and dendrobiums are still in their resting mode from winter. (Some dendrobiums even go dormant during this period and naturally shed all their leaves. This definitely isn't natural.)

I was too generous with the water before I left! I carelessly watered this plant to 1/2 on gauge, which is way too much for this time of the year. Dendrobiums are dormant and I should be watering only enough to keep the plant alive. With our hydroponic system this means watering until the little red indicator moves, then stop! That's plenty of water for the 2 weeks I was away.

Two weeks later   .... as you could guess, things didn't improve.

Yellow leaves never go back to green. The only thing to do s remove all the yellow leaves.

This is what's left.

Will this plant recover? The test is whether the stems are still strong and supple. If they are, the plant will recover. If they're hollow or mushy, the plant doesn't have much of a future.

Fortunately this plant has strong, healthy stems and I predict a full recovery.

The lesson here: Unlike houseplants, orchids have a definite rhythm to their growing pattern. Your plant care should take this into account by simulating the changing growing conditions these plants find in nature. Dendrobiums endure a dry winter season with very little rain. Your watering should be the same.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Finding the Perfect Growing Area for Orchids

Programming Note: I know .....   It's the middle of April and I haven't posted since the beginning of March! Shame on me.

That doesn't mean I haven't been busy though. Because I have - including a business trip to Hawaii to meet with growers (of tropical plants) for our corporate business - and visiting a few orchid farms in between. It's hard work, but someone's got to do it!

More on that later.

Finding the Perfect Growing Area for My Orchids -

Back to the business at hand. I haven't been comfortable with my orchid "growing area" all winter.

It just isn't cool enough at night for some of the plants. As you may have seen in a previous post, my growing area is a second floor loft and the hot, dry air from the furnace drifts up and just hangs over the plants. I try circulate the air with a ceiling fan but that doesn't seem to help much.

Orchids hate hot, dry air form the furnace so I'm making a change.

We have a (seldom used) guest bedroom ....

where I'll be able to control the temperatures much better.

First I'll close all the heat vents.

Then I'll crack open the window a bit.

After closing the door, I'll measure the temperature range over  a couple of days with my handy Hi/Lo Thermometer. Remember, many orchids such as cattleya, dendrobiums, and oncidiums, need at least a 15-20 degree difference between day and night temperatures. (Yes, we're going to be growing all of them!)

After 3 days I checked the highest and lowest temperatures recorded in the room. Nights where in the 50 degree range with days going up into the 80's. That's a 25-30 degree difference - exactly what I'm looking for. This is going to be perfect!!

There's one problem however. The new growing area is low on light and the orchids I want to grow in this area are all high light plants. The only window in the room faces north and there's a house next door that blocks light even more.

Simply not enough light.

I really like this spot for a (second) growing area however. So I'm going to install a light system that will make this room ideal for growing all kinds of orchids. There are lots of light systems on the market and finding the right one can be a challenge. Plus, they're expensive. So it's important to get it right the first time.

More on that next  .....  can't wait!

Note: This new growing area is going to be excellent in the summer too. Closing the vents blocks the cold, dry air from the air-conditioner (which orchids hate!) and keeping the windows open will bathe the plants with the gentle breezes of humid air all summer. And all orchids love that!

I'll just keep the door closed and my plants will have their own little private growing area. Perfect!

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Plants - Dendrobium Orchids

Dendrobiums are a large and diverse group of plants. I currently have (7) plants in this category.

Four are growing in hydro planters:

And three are growing in culture pots and plastic saucers:

Successfully growing dendrobiums means learning about the "rhythms" of orchid growing. They're not difficult to grow - if you know what to do.

In nature, dendrobiums grow where the summers are hot and rainy, followed by several months of cool, dry, "winter" weather. These plants have a definite growing pattern that follows these seasons. They come alive with active growth (and blooms) during the summer and take a rest in winter. Some even go dormant and shed their leaves.

I've always had more success growing dendrobiums outside during the summer. That's their active growing season and they love the hot, humid days and cool, damp nights. Most times I'm rewarded with lush, new growth and lots of blooms. Some plants even double in size! Then, as the weather turns cooler, I bring them back indoors and let them rest through the winter.  It's almost like they just coast through the winter, waiting patiently for the move outdoors where they can come alive again.

Dendrobiums want very little water during their winter resting period. That also means holding back on the nutrients. I apply nutrients at 1/2 strength only once every 2-3 waterings. 

You may have noticed that I'm using a slightly different setup for (hydroponic) growing with three of these plants - growing in a culture pot with a plastic saucer. No decorative outer pot or water gauge needed.

This setup works well for dendrobiums. It has two advantages; 1) better control with watering and 2) saves money.

1. Better control with watering. Most beginner growers have a tendency to over water. This can be fatal if your plant is dormant. With clear plastic saucers (acting as the reservoir) you can see exactly what's going on. Simply water to about 1/4" in the saucer. Then wait until saucer is completely dry before watering again. Growing with LECA pebbles is also a big help during this period because the spaces between the pebbles promote excellent air flow to the roots.

2. Saves money. A hydroponic planter for a 4" plant costs $8.00 ($7.00 if you buy 2 or more). The culture pot/plastic saucer setup costs only $1.80 (culture pot 1.25 + plastic saucer .55) - plus the cost of LECA pebbles of course. Likewise, a  5" hydro planter costs $13.00 vs $2.60 for the culture pot/plastic saucer (culture pot 1.75 + saucer .85) - plus the cost of the LECA pebbles.

I use the culture pot/plastic saucer setup for many plants if aesthetics are not important.

Note on my growing area - to simulate their natural environment I would prefer much cooler temperatures at night for my dendrobiums. My growing area is on a 2nd floor loft and the hot, dry air from the furnace drifts up there and hangs over the plants.  I have some ideas to improve this - will share them in a future post.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Plants - Phalaenopsis Orchids

Over the next couple of days I'll be describing the orchids I'm currently working with.

Or course all plants are growing hydroponically! Compared to traditional methods, hydroponics is cleaner, easier, and you'll get better results. If you're new to hydroponics see more at Why Hydroponics?

There are 17 plants total. These plants were initially growing in bark or moss and I transferred them to hydroponics. You can see how to do that on the website at Transplanting to Hydroponics.

1 - cattleya
7 - dendrobium
3 - oncidium
6 - phalaenopsis

Today it's phalaenopsis. I have six plants in this group. These plants came from displays on our corporate accounts and unfortunately they no longer have name tags so I don't really know what they are.

January-March is the blooming season for most phalaenopsis and I have two that are about to bloom:

I'll post progress reports as flowers develop.

The other phals are just sitting there. They're doing well, with healthy roots and all, but they're just sitting there.


I'll just continue to water them and see what happens. Maybe a cold snap would trigger blooms but unfortunately I can't do that in my growing area. I suppose I could move them to a cooler window but I don't like moving plants around like gypsies.

Two of the phals are miniatures.

For reference here's a comparison of a mini phal in a 3" planter and a regular size phal in a 5" planter.

I like mini-phals. They don't take up a lot of space and they don't get any larger as they mature. Flowers will also be compact. Mini-phals are an excellent choice if you don't have a lot of room. Speaking of miniatures, there are several other easy-to-grow orchids that fall into the same category; mini-cattleya, tolumina (oncidiums), and several dendrobiums. Miniature orchids are interesting  ...  maybe I'll add them to our collection someday?

Tomorrow we'll look at the dendrobiums.   

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Just as I suspected.

Humidity (moisture in the air) in my new growing area is dropping into " an uncomfortable range" for orchids. My handy dandy Hi/Lo Thermometer is telling me that the humidity level is 11%!

Not Good! Orchids need at least 20-30% humidity. This needs to be improved!

There are several ways to increase humidity. (see 5 Ways to Increase Humidity for Your Plants). My choice is installing humidity trays.

I have a problem however. I can't find decent humidity trays in white. All the humidity trays I'm finding only come in black or brown and I'm growing with white outer pots. White pots sitting on a black or brown tray isn't what I'm looking for.

The only thing I can find in white is a thin "humidity grid" that lays on the bottom of the grower tray.

This tray setup will only hold about 1 quart of water before touching the bottom of the grow pot. Not enough to be practical if you ask me.

Changing all my outer pots to black to match a black humidity tray isn't an option either because I don't want to buy new outer pots. I don't like the look of all black in my growing area either.

We put our heads together here at and have come up with a new line of white humidity trays! These white humidity trays are made from:
  • a white heavy duty grower tray 22"x 11"x 2" deep 
  • a white humidity grid with (4) 1 1/2" legs attached.

Now there's room for more water under the plants. Raising the grid 1 1/2" creates a much larger reservoir under the grid (where the plants sit). Each tray holds over a gallon of water which will last a week or more. Now that's more practical.

They look good too!

My growing area outfitted with new white humidity trays. Total cost $78.40 (18.95 ea.). Looks pretty good to me!

How many orchids will a 22" x 11" tray hold? Here's a tray with (6) phalaenopsis - (3) 5" planters, (1) 4" planter, and (2) 3" planters. (Grouping plants together also raises the humidity.)

The good news is humidity levels increased to 34%. Acceptable levels - for this time of year. 

Problem solved.

Next - we'll take a closer look at how my plants are setup for growing with our hydroponic system.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Hi/Lo Thermometers

One of my favorite tools for growing orchids is the Hi/Lo Thermometer.

With this little guy I can be a junior weatherman and measure the temperature range and humidity levels all over the house (my wife thinks I'm a little crazy with this!).

Why is this important? 

To be successful at growing orchids, you need to create an growing environment that's similar to what your plants would experience in nature. That means proper light, temperature, and humidity. (Of course different types of orchids require different growing conditions - more on that later.) More on setting up a growing area here.

How do you know if you got what it takes to set up the right growing area for your plants? Relax, it might be easier than you think!

It all has to do with "micro-climates".

You can easily tell whether a room is hot or cold by simply standing in it. Understanding temperatures from a plant's perspective can be quite different however.

Temperatures in a typical room can vary a lot. This is especially true near windows where plants grow. These small spaces are called "micro-climates". Conditions in micro-climates can be very different from the rest of the room.

For example, when the weather outside drops below freezing in the winter, the evening temperature next to a window could be in the 40's. On a hot summer day, the temperature in that same spot can soar to over 100 degrees! 

To find the best micro-climate for your plants you need to measure the temperature range and humidity levels at your windows. The best way to do that is with a Hi/Lo Thermometer. They're available at and they're really easy to use.

"You'll be more successful when you "stop guessing and start measuring!"