Best care for orchids: Quick how-to from Santa Barbara show pro

Best care for orchids: Quick how-to from Santa Barbara show pro
Brian Petraska will be on hand to provide orchid care advice at the 68th Santa Barbara International Orchid Show this weekend.

An orchid isn't exactly a puppy, but it is one of those gifts that requires regular care. If you're given one — or if you pick one up this weekend at the Santa Barbara International Orchid Show — you should know the basics. Brian Petraska, the Orchid Guy expert who will be offering demonstrations at the show, took the time to answer some fundamental orchid questions for this edited Q&A. You'll also find details on this weekend's event at the bottom of the post.

We've all heard about misting orchids with a spray bottle, but what's really the best way to water orchids?


Before you can grow an orchid, you need to know what an orchid is. They are epiphytes, which means they grow on trees in jungles. Remember that. They don't need soil and [in the wild] they get their water through moisture in the air. Misting at home is good for short-term humidity, but you should water your plants generously, letting the water run through the pot, about once a week in the morning. The roots need air, so you want to plant your orchid in loose orchid bark. Don't use potting soil, which is dense and doesn't give the roots room to breathe. If your roots sit in water and stay wet, they'll rot and your plant could die.

Do orchids need fertilizer?

Any food is better than no food, and once a year is better than never at all. Don't let the care of orchids overwhelm you. Make it easy. I dilute a quarter of a teaspoon of balanced liquid fertilizer in a gallon of water (I use a milk container) and water my plants with that weak solution. So I'm feeding my plants when I'm watering them.

What should we do when the blooms all fall off?

Some people will tell you to let the spike keep growing, but if you do that, all the plant's energy is used to get the food to the tip of the plant. Cut the spike all the way back to the base of the plant. Then water it regularly and fertilize it every week or so. Keep it in a spot with mottled sun, and you should have flowers again in a year.

Why would an orchid have bright green, healthy looking leaves but no flowers? What could be wrong?

Again, you have to understand where orchids come from and the natural conditions they thrive in. They live under the canopy of trees in bright but dappled light. If something isn't working — you don't have flowers or the leaves are yellow — the answer probably lies in how much light the plants are getting or not getting. I grow my orchids in greenhouses, some are living in the trees in my backyard and others are on windowsills.

Do I need to repot my orchid?

It's a good idea to repot your orchid about once a year, when the orchid bark has broken down and starts looking and acting like potting soil. If the plant is flowering and happy, don't touch it. Wait until there are no more flowers before you repot.


What: Santa Barbara International Orchid Show, a juried exhibition and marketplace for orchids and related supplies and art, including the photography of David Leaser.

When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; Leaser will give lessons on photographing orchids at 10 a.m. Sunday.

Admission: $12 adults, $10 seniors and students, free for children 12 and younger.

Where: Earl Warren Showgrounds, 3400 Calle Real, Santa Barbara (Las Positas Road exit off U.S. 101)


Information: (805) 403-1533,

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