How do I water my Phal?

Frequently, a person’s first orchid is a phalaenopsis — shortened name of phal (pronounced ‘fail’ and  NO, this pronunciation isn’t prophetic) — and often referred to as the “moth orchid” (for reasons that  always escaped me).   Phals are commonly sold by big box stores, grocery stores, and neighborhood nurseries for a number of reasons:  their flowers are long lasting, they come in an astonishing variety of colors and color combinations ranging from  incredibly cheerful –

to multi-stemmed beauties, loaded with flowers in striking, dramatic colors –    

and, most importantly, they are (theoretically) one of the easiest types of orchids to grow.

It’s hard to not want a hundred of them.   Especially when nurseries and growers push them as “easy to grow, Easy, Easy, Easy.”

And they  are relatively easy to grow.   Just a couple of simple  hurdles to get past.

The biggest obstacle to success is watering — how much, how often.  The instructions are often a wee bit obscure:  “thoroughly moist but never soggy . . . ”  The watering question is, unfortunately, compounded by what type of material the phal is potted in:  i.e., a sphagnum moss, bark mixture, etc.

IF your phalaenopsis is potted in sphagnum moss (long, white moss fibers), it will need far less water than one potted in a bark mixture.  Simply put, sphagnum moss holds water like you wouldn’t believe.  Additionally, growers often cram an incredible amount of sphagnum moss into the pot, packing it tightly.  The biggest danger with this is that the moss holds enough water that the interior roots just rot away.  So, unless you’ve decided to repot your orchid immediately (this decision weighed in a later blog), you need to have a somwhat light hand on the watering.

In contrast, if your phalaenopsis is potted in a true bark mixture – medium size bark, may have bits of charcoal and/or sponge rok – it will take more water.  With a bark mixture, check to see how tightly or loosely packed the mixture is  by running some water through it.  The faster the water runs through, the looser the mixture.  If the mixture is very loose, I’d suggest throwing some additional bark mixture — or charcoal bits — into the pot and packing it more tightly.

In either case, you still have to figure out how to keep your phal “moist but not soggy.” TIP: Keep some bamboo cooking skewers on hand.  Insert the skewer down to the bottom of the pot and then pull straight out.  When the skewer feels wet (or damp) for about 3/4 of the pot depth, and the top 1/4 is dry — it’s time to water.  If you’re dealing with a sphagnum mixture, insert the skewer at an angle towards the center of the pot and then use the same 3/4 test.

I swear by the bamboo skewers as testers — they’re what I came up with after I killed my first couple of orchids and I passed them out by the hundreds once I started selling orchids.

More on watering and mixtures . . . Phals in sphagnum moss only need a light watering — run a cup or so of tepid water through the pot, just enough so the moss is moistened from top to bottom.  For phals in bark mixtures, I recommend setting them in a bowl of tepid water for 5-10 minutes — again, enough to thoroughly moisten the bark.

There are too many variables — temperature, humidity, season, location, potting mixture, etc. —  to flatly pronounce  a set schedule for watering phals, so when you first bring the beauty home, I’d test it with a skewer every day or so to get a feel for its watering rhythm.  Having said that, on indoor phals, I typically watered them around every 5-7 days.

One of my first three orchids was a white phalaenopsis with a yellow gold throat — it grew, and reliably bloomed for me for 15 years before it went to a new home.

It CAN be done.  Stock up on skewers and



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