Walk into Longwood Gardens’ conservatory, and a colorful orchid oasis awaits. More than 300 species climb the walls, hang from the ceilings, and fill the floor with blooms of every shade for the horticultural center’s annual Orchid Extravaganza (through March 22). Nearby, a permanent collection displays nearly 6,000 orchids from 2,500 species, offering year-round inspiration for indoor plant enthusiasts.

It’s a beautiful sight and makes it easy to want to bring the orchids home. Fortunately, cultivating your own collection doesn’t have to be intimidating, says Longwood’s resident orchid grower Greg Griffis. The idea that orchids are particularly tricky, he asserts, is a long-standing myth.

“Orchids get a bad rap because they’re misunderstood,” says Griffis. “You just need to learn a few key facts, one of them being that they only flower once a year.”

Griffis suggests starting with either a phalaenopsis (moth orchid) or an oncidium group orchid, two of the easiest types to manage. Follow the five tips below, and he assures you’ll grow an orchid that thrives.

Get the light right

Orchids like bright light, but not when it’s shining down directly in the middle of the afternoon. “The sun can actually heat up the leaves to the point where the water inside them will start to boil and damage the cells around it, almost like a human sunburn,” says Griffis.

Best bet: An east-facing window.

“An east window brings a couple hours of direct morning sun, which provides orchids the energy they need to produce a flower without burning them."

But you can make most locations work:

  • North-facing windows are the most challenging and often require a small grow light to guarantee flower production.
  • Orchids in west-facing windows do best on a stand slightly away from the windowsill, or protected by a sheer curtain, especially during late summer months.
  • Hanging a sheer curtain on south-facing windows is advised year-round for orchids.

Thermostat check: Griffis notes that orchids generally prefer the same temperatures that humans do. Keep your house between 55 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit, and most will do fine.

Longwood Gardens horticulturist and orchid grower Greg Griffis waters in a greenhouse during the Orchid Extravaganza at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, on display through March 22.
MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer
Longwood Gardens horticulturist and orchid grower Greg Griffis waters in a greenhouse during the Orchid Extravaganza at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, on display through March 22.

Never leave an orchid sitting in a bath of water

“Their greatest enemy is rot,” says Griffis. “When you water, soak the media thoroughly, but let it drain all the way before you place it back into a decorative pot.”

Most orchids should be watered just as they begin to dry out, or about once a week, says Griffis. Some varieties, like cattleyas, should be allowed to dry completely between waterings. Do some research or ask your supplier about each type upon buying.

Orchids love humidity. “If you have a nice window, it could be the perfect place to grow it,” says Griffis. “But they’ll grow fine without the extra humidity, too.”

Feed ‘weekly and weakly’

If you want flowers, it’s important to fertilize.

“Orchids don’t like a lot of fertilizer but they do like it regularly,” says Griffis. “We go by the rule ‘weakly weekly’ — a little bit three weeks in a row, and the fourth week, just use plain water.”

Griffis advises using a standard fertilizer, such as Miracle Grow, when you water. Halve the amount of fertilizer that the packaging recommends when mixing it.

Longwood Gardens horticulturist and orchid grower Greg Griffis removes the old media from the root ball as he repots an Oncidium orchid at Longwood Gardens. As the media degrades, it turns into soil and can suffocate the roots.
MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer
Longwood Gardens horticulturist and orchid grower Greg Griffis removes the old media from the root ball as he repots an Oncidium orchid at Longwood Gardens. As the media degrades, it turns into soil and can suffocate the roots.

Repot every other year

“In nature, the roots are used to growing on the side of a tree. They need to breathe in order to work well,” explains Griffis. “So in a pot, you want to keep the media from breaking down overtime and suffocating the roots.”

To repot, remove the orchid and discard the surrounding media and any dead roots, using scissors if needed. Place the orchid back in the pot and add a fresh batch of potting mix. You many need a bigger pot if there’s been a lot of growth.

“For plants that grow upwards, like phalaenopsis, you need the pot to be just big enough to fit the roots in,” says Griffis. “For plants that grow horizontally, like cattleya and oncidium, you need a pot that leaves enough room for the next year’s growth.”

Use an orchid-specific potting mix

Potting media that’s designed for orchids is commonly made up of tree bark, charcoal, and perlite. These ingredients allow for drainage, air circulation, and the right amount of water retention.

“A traditional soil is too dense and will suffocate the roots,” says Griffis.

At ILLExotics in East Passyunk, find an array of orchids, including more unusual species like the paphiopedilum (Lady Slipper) pictured here.
Courtesy ILLExotics
At ILLExotics in East Passyunk, find an array of orchids, including more unusual species like the paphiopedilum (Lady Slipper) pictured here.

Where to buy an orchid in Philadelphia

An array of local plant shops sell the popular phalaenopsis:

  • Most garden centers at Lowe’s and the Home Depot (locations vary)
  • Orchid Flower Shop (1633 Chancellor St., 215-545-2155)
  • City Planter (814 N. 4th St., 215-627-6169)
  • The best time of year to look for orchids here: January and February. The store may not have plants outside of those months.
  • Petit Jardin en Ville (134 N. 3rd St., 215-923-1600)
  • Vault and Vine (3507 Midvale Ave., 267-331-6292) Often have phalaenopsis or dendrobium; call for special requests
  • Terrain at Styers (914 Baltimore Pike #3335, Glen Mills, 610-459-6030)
  • Terrain at Devon (138 Lancaster Ave., Devon, 610-590-4675)

For a wider variety, check out:

  • Longwood Gardens GardenShop (1001 Longwood Rd., Kennett Square, 610-388-1000) Often available: phalaenopsis, dendrobiums, cattleyas, and oncidiums. During Orchid Extravaganza, you can buy orchids at discounted prices, while supplies last, on Feb. 20-21 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and March 25-27 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • ILLExotics (1724 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-239-9738) Often available: 30-50 plants from around 10 varieties, including psychopsis and bulbophyllum
  • Primex Garden Center (435 W. Glenside Ave., Glenside, 215-887-7500) Often available: 5+ varieties, including dendrobium and cattleya

If you’re up for an orchid road trip:

Both shops, below, offer hundres of species and thousands of plants, along with all the needed supplies to care for each type. On-site experts will help you choose the right ones for your home.
  • Waldor Orchids (10 E. Poplar Ave., Linwood, N.J., 609-927-4126)
  • Little Brook Orchids (25 Rider Ave., Lancaster, Pa. 717-394-1000)