Taking care of your orchid doesn't stop at watering orchids. You have to feed it, too.
For some reason, when I think about feeding orchids, I think of a child being spoonfed with baby food. For orchids, baby food equates to fertilizers. Unlike human food though that can sate a sick person, fertilizers are no good for sick plants especially those with roots that have gone bad. This is because the plant will no longer be able to feed optimally.
So just remember, fertilizers aren't a magic pill for sick orchids. They're for healthy orchids so that they can become the best-looking specimen they can possibly. Like orchids on steroids.
Now there is a lot of varying (and sometimes) conflicting information out there on the proper way to feed orchids. We've made it simple for you by listing these concise tips that will teach you the basics of what you need to know to feed your new pet plant properly.
When To Fertilize Orchids
Feed weekly, weakly
As a general rule, orchids can be fertilized once a month. However, expert growers tend to feed weekly, weakly. What does this mean? This means they fertilize orchids on a weekly basis but use only a weak concentration of nutrients. Feeding more often at a more dilute rate is better for orchid growth and health compared to fertilizing less but at a higher concentration.
Feed during growing season
Orchids go into a dormant state in the winter. Just like bears hibernating, so do orchids go dormant and slow down in growing. Instead of fertilizing them while they're "asleep", get ready to feed them again come spring. You can even use a higher percent of nitrogen during growing time.
Do NOT feed sick or overfed orchids
When your orchids are sick and weak, do not strain them by feeding.
In the same way, when orchids are overfed, you have to put the brakes on the fertilizing. You can tell that an orchid is overfed when it has very dark green or floppy leaves.
In its natural environment, an orchid doesn't get fed with commercial fertilizers. Suddenly, the term "orchids on steroids" becomes very apt. Going crazy on the fertilizer will force your plant to grow too fast and harm it. It will become weak and susceptible to orchid diseases. Even if they bloom flowers, they won't be looking their best.
10 Tips for Feeding Orchids
1. Orchids need less fertilizer than most plants
Similar to orchid rules in watering plants, less is better. Orchids won't die if you don't feed them with added fertilizers but they can be harmed by too much. The right amount at the right time is the key to more beautiful blooms and stronger plants.
2. Look for N-P-K in the labels
This stands for nitrogen, phosporus, and potassium. This is what's referenced when you see 20-20-20 or 20-10-10.
3. Use a standard 20-20-20 at quarter strength or lower
A safe bet is to use 20-20-20 at quarter strength or 10-10-10 at half the strength. In a past article, we recommended Jack's 20-20-20 as it's what is most often used by orchid growers.
4. Never go beyond 20 percent nitrogen
High amounts of nitrogen are not needed for growing orchids. Your plant will not be able to consume it and in the end, it will just become a pollutant and harm your plant. This is true regardless of the potting media you are using.
5. Choose a fertilizer that has little or no urea
In the past, it was thought that urea was beneficial to orchids. However, we now know that it is actually not true. Nitrogen compounds take up to a year before they break down and become available to your orchid as plant food. When your fertilizer is sans urea, all of the nitrogen in your mix becomes available as food at once.
In addition, soil-borne bacteria is needed to metabolize urea-based fertilizer to make it available as plant food for your orchid. This puts non-terrestrial orchids at a disadvantage.
6. Look for ammoniacal nitrogen or nitrate nitrogen in labels
Unlike urea, these are the compounds that recent research show to be better for orchids.
7. Fertilizer with supplementary calcium and magnesium is a plus
Calcium and magnesium are micronutrients that your orchid needs. Orchids use calcium to build cell walls and other structures while magnesium is used to produce chlorophyll for metabolic processes.
For orchids, up to 15% supplementary calcium and up to 8% magnesium is ideal.
8. Check your fertilizer for trace elements too
Look for trace elements such as copper, boron, iron, sodium, zinc, manganese, and molybdenum. So long as they're in the product label, you're good to go.
9. Water once a month without fertilizer
I do this to clean up on any pollutants or build-up from fertilizer salts in my plants and potting media.
10. Water first before fertilizing
If you put fertilizer on a dry orchid, the strength of the compounds may burn the roots of your plant. Instead, do your watering first and then fertilize.