This (see photo) will never be me: 10 years of orchid FAIL


It’s not that I’m actually killing them. I can keep the plants alive, no problem. Indeed, I am very proud of my houseplant success in general; I have a huge 13-year-old gardenia that bursts into bloom every summer and a jasmine almost that old that provides lovely fragrance from May through July. My Saintpaulias (African violet) and Schlumbergeras (Christmas cactus) have been blooming almost unceasingly for years, not to mention the 30-some other indoor plants I have in various spots. And this is certainly not to mention the hundreds of bulbs I force indoors every year (see some below).  It’s almost like I’m running a hyacinth farm—though I give most away.

Orchids, though? Not so much. I’ve had as many as 10-12 of them at any one time, but with little success. They don’t die, but they hardly ever rebloom, which is the measure of orchid accomplishment. Orchid foliage is barely acceptable compared to the gorgeous flowers—which you get if you know what you’re doing AND you have the right conditions.

At the local botanical garden’s February orchid show, I overheard a local grower giving a three-point culture summary to a potential buyer. “Water once a week, fertilize once a month, and repot every two years,” he said. These are the kind of things that growers have to tell people; they have to keep it simple. And it is simple, as long as you have plenty of light and a decent amount of humidity. It’s even better if you have a greenhouse.  Light and humidity are not easily had in a zone 5 brick Victorian, however, and I’ve no space for a greenhouse.  Someday, I’ll figure it out, but that time is not now. I’ll get to orchids—eventually.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. Bought a haggard used-up orchid at a nursery sale.

    It bloomed a year later, a delectable chocolate color.

    Its beauty scared me it was so perfect. Gave it, in the same week it began to bloom, to a friend with zillions of great orchids.

    Only plant I have ever been afraid to own!

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  2. It’s probably just the gardening god(s) way of keeping you humble.

    “This one’s getting too big for her britches”.
    “Let’s make her orchids just get by, but not thrive or rebloom. That should take her green thumb down a peg or two”.
    – sinister chuckles ensue.

    It’s maybe not the most plausible explanation…

  3. Orchids sold in stores are usually planted in peat moss which really suffocates poor things!
    I re-plant them in bark after they finish blooming. Orchids have to have a lot of air movement around the roots: that’s my secret to growing them.

  4. I had a friend who brought me a different orchid every 3 or 4 months for years. And I did well with them until I accidentally messed up the thermostat over a Christmas vacation and found the house exactly 32 degrees on our return. The orchids all bit the dust, but the Christmas Cactus made it.

  5. I “won” the centerpiece phal orchid at a wedding, first and only that I’ve owned. It was in a glass cube filled with smooth stones. It stayed in that container for 2 years, faithfully reblooming each winter, on the east-facing kitchen windowsill. I just watered it (zero drainage!), with an occasional hit of fertilizer. Finally I repotted it into bark, removing any deteriorating roots. It still reblooms every single year. I water it weekly, fertilize it now and again. It has a mad jumble of aerial roots and three leaves, one of which yellows and is replaced each year. I don’t know about other orchids, but phals seem not to be difficult.

  6. Elizabeth, you are right that orchids need the right situation–moreover in my experience they don’t like to be moved around much. I have a Dendrobium kingianum ‘Roy’ (one of about 10 orchids in my collection), which bloomed its little fragrant head off (clear purple and lavender blooms, a lovely lightly sweet and not obnoxious fragrance) in my last residence, and now that it is in a nice sunny window (not too different on the surface from the last residence) it has not bloomed in four years (while nearly all my other orchids have). I still hold out hope, but when you know how gorgeous they are in bloom it can be a bit discouraging. But, how do you have success with the gardenia if you have low humidity? Don’t gardenias adore high humidity? What is your gardenia secret?

    • Liz, my humidity situation is not all that bad. We keep our heat pretty low and I keep the gardenia in the same room with a bunch of other plants that will move outside in the summer. So really, with the gardenia, jasmine, hibiscus, and others I have, it is really just a issue of keeping them alive through the winter. I don’t use them for decor. They are summer-blooming outdoor plants the way I use them, though they look decent enough all bunched together in their sunny room.

  7. My daughter gave me a moth orchid several years ago. It blooms every year without fail. I am not a house plant person, much preferring to garden outdoors. I believe the secret of my success with this orchid is that it lives in my sunroom which faces south and has windows on 3 sides AND (I think this might be the crucial thing), it is really cold in there in the winter (I live in Michigan). We turn the heat down to 55 at night and that room must get colder than that and it is very cool during the day although the sun warms it some. I also have an azalea in there that also blooms like crazy in the winter. I have done nothing to that orchid except feed it very occasionally and water it sparingly.

    My failure is that I have never successfully kept over an amaryllis bulb although I have tried several times diligently following instructions.

  8. Funny, I’m giving a talk on basic orchid growing indoors to a local plant society tomorrow! It’s also interesting how there are orchid people and houseplant people, but I’d say more orchid people grow houseplants as well than the other way around. My 3 cents on orchid growing:

    1. It’s not that you have the wrong conditions for orchids, you just haven’t matched the orchid to your growing conditions! There are so many different orchid species and hybrids out there, and they’re not all the same: some are high light, some are low light, some need constant moisture, some need to be drenched and then dry out, some can take temps down to freezing and some choke and die under 60 degrees. Ask a good grower for a recommendation based on your available light, humidity, temps, and watering habits.

    2. It’s all about the roots: many orchids are epiphytes, they grow on top of things rather than in the ground, and their roots are adapted to their native habitats. Phals, cattleyas, oncidiums, and many other common orchids need a thorough soaking, so their roots get fully wet and have time to draw in moisture, but then they need to dry out somewhat before being watered again. This is different from how we water most houseplants, and takes some getting used to.

    3. Like Lucy said, orchids need fresh mix that allows air to circulate around the roots, just like those constant tropical breezes do in nature. The mix that most big box store orchids are sold in is already breaking down, and most “orchid mix” sold in regular stores has been sitting around so long that it’s broken down into something like potting mix that will drown your orchid! Buy fresh spaghnum moss or good bark mix from an orchid grower or online source, and repot about once every other year (slipper orchids need yearly repotting)

    We’ll make an orchid nut out of you yet!

    • Thanks, Jim! I actually do have a big bag of that mix and have used it. With me, I think it’s just that my other houseplants are taking up all the prime situations. I agree that if I really put my mind to it, I could grow these. It’s just not time for me, yet.

  9. My in-laws live in Florida and I am always incredibly jealous of her beautiful orchid collection. She has a large window with a lot of light where they all sit, looking far more alive than they ever would in my Western New York home.

  10. I live in FL and worked at a high end grocery store where the orchids would be thrown in the dumpster each week to make room for the new batch. I begged and grovelled to be allowed to buy these orchids for 50 cents each. After my orchids came home, they seemed to not do well until I took a class and the speaker said the best thing you could do is to pay as little attention as possible to orchids and make sure that they get really good drainage. I have mine hanging underneath a ligustrum tree. They get watered once a week if we haven’t gotten rain and I repot them once a year, using moss and orchid bark and that’s pretty much it. On the rare night that the temp drops below 50 degrees, I load them into a wheelbarrow and bring them into the garage. They’re starting to rebloom now that the weather has warmed and we are past our last “frost” date.

  11. I have one orchid, and it’s never done well for me. I think my problem in general is that I’m an outdoor plant nerd, not an indoor one. Houseplants just are too fussy for me. And believe me, I’ve given this orchid benign neglect! Any attempt at repotting over the years has invariably resulted in the orchid’s demise (hope always triumphs over experience, and I keep replacing it). Same thing with African violets. The only plant that is guaranteed cast-iron for me is geraniums.

  12. I have one orchid that was a gift from my mother-in-law. I thought I had overwatered and killed it, but a few years later it’s gone from the one sad leaf to three or four. I just keep it in the bathroom and rinse it every once in a while. I “should” repot it and baby it and all that, but I don’t. If I ever really want to get into orchids, I’ll go to the orchid nursery one town over from my house, it’s supposed to be the best one in France.

  13. My MIL has been trying to foist orchids on me for years, expounding on how easy they are, how lovely they look, how fun it is to grow them. I’ve killed ’em all. Some limped along for a year or two before succumbing. Others saw their bleak future in my hands & in despair, went quickly. They take more than I can give. Or maybe it’s ‘different’ than I can give. I don’t do well with high maintenance anything – people, plants, furnishings, clothing – especially if the reward for that maintenance is of little use or substance. Orchids are pretty, sure, but they don’t do much to attract pollinators to my veggies and fruits, I can’t turn them into preserves, they provide no shade. What good are they? To me?

    Of course I have my frivolous items in the garden – callas that do little more than beckon Spring, irises that signal summer, a massive shrub rose to hide the garbage can. Succulents galore. And lots of Christmas cacti, which I can prod into bloom, and at the appropriate time, no less. A feat my orchid-growing MIL has not been able to do.

  14. You’re not the only one, Elizabeth. Luckily for us orchid oafs, they are sometimes inexpensive, giving us the opportunity to enjoy them for a month, pretend to try to make it rebloom, and then throw it out in the spring, when we have other fish to fry (or flowers to try). I’m hoping to go to the orchid show at Chicago Botanic Garden this weekend — like going to a bakery and not buying anything.

  15. My son gave me a lovely orchid one year and it was coming along splendidly until it was exposed to a lot of smoke from a smoke bomb. Don’t ask – it involved bats and a wood furnace. Anyway, the poor thing expired. To make amends my son bought me another orchid the following year. I didn’t hold out much hope for a rebloom but I found that if I put it in an east-facing window in early spring, darned if I didn’t get beautiful flowers that kept on blooming from early summer to almost December! I’m waiting with baited breath to see if I succeed again this year.

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