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How to Grow Orchids in Water (Thriving Orchids Without Substrate)

Orchids are often considered finicky plants, but many gardeners would argue otherwise: it’s just that not everyone knows how to properly care for them, which can lead to some challenges.

As you may know, orchids naturally grow on trees and don’t require soil. At home, however, we plant them in a growing medium that needs constant monitoring. But there’s an alternative – growing orchids in water.

Discovering Alternative Orchid Cultivation

Growing orchids in water can improves nutrient absorption and ensures better growth
Growing orchids in water can improves nutrient absorption and ensures better growth

The plant needs more than just ordinary water to delight you with its flowers continuously. It requires a specially fertilized liquid.

All the substances added to the water must be in precise proportions to ensure the even nourishment of the plant. There are several soil-less growing methods:

  • Hydroponics – growing the plant in water
  • Aeroponics – letting the plant grow in air
  • Hydroculture – adding a substrate to the liquid used for growing

Growing an orchid in water isn’t difficult, which is dictated by the plant’s natural requirements.

Since it doesn’t initially need soil, water-based growing emerged. This method has many advantages, but it also has some drawbacks.

Soil-based growing falls behind hydroponics and hydroculture in some respects.

Advantages of soil-less growing:

  • No rot or parasites in the soil (a significant point). Orchid roots are naturally prone to rotting. But when cultivated using hydroponics, the water will have a high oxygen content, and regular water changes will prevent rotting.
  • No need for regular repotting, as with soil-based growth.
  • The plant doesn’t need excessive fertilizing.
  • The water is constantly enriched with nutrients, so the flowers grow strong and healthy.
  • Roots don’t dry out from oxygen deficiency.

However, there are some drawbacks to mention. For example, the orchid growing in water requires constant water temperature monitoring – it should remain cool.

Additionally, the gardener must ensure the water level marker doesn’t drop below the root system’s beginning. If this happens, you need to add more water. 

You must fertilize the orchid throughout growth, so care requires regularity.

Growing Techniques

To multiply an orchid, you’ll need to perform a few steps. First, cut the flower spike from the main plant. Then, prepare a bottle with a 2-inch (5 cm) wide opening at the top.

Place the plant in the water, ensuring the water covers the flower spike no more than 2 inches (5 cm).

Dissolve one activated charcoal tablet in the liquid. Use rainwater or pre-purified water instead of tap water, as orchids need clean water.

Next, follow these steps:

  1. Cut a semicircular scale from the flower with a sharp blade to expose the enclosed bud.
  2. Apply a special cytokinin paste to the cut area. You can find this paste at Amazon.
  3. Apply the paste once every 7 days for about a month.
  4. Change the water daily and place it in a sunny place away from direct sunlight.

Fertilize the plant throughout its growth period, using the same fertilizers as for soil-based cultivation.

It’s important not to overdo the concentration: dilute the fertilizer to half the strength recommended for soil-based watering.

Transitioning from Orchid Substrate to Water

You’ll need to acclimate the plant to its new environment. To do this:

  1. Remove the orchid from the soil, cleaning its roots from any debris.
  2. Submerge about one-third of the roots in water for 2 days, then drain the water and let the roots dry.
  3. After a week, increase the water submersion time to 5 days, followed by one day for the roots to dry (it’s essential to let them dry out).
  4. Afterward, keep the roots in water constantly, remembering to change the water regularly and rinse the roots more frequently.
  5. Observing the roots lets you know if the plant needs more water – they’ll become silvery.

During this period, young roots grow rapidly, and pale-green growths appear on the old roots.

Remove the plant from the vase for a day if you notice mold or a white coating. Then clean its roots with hydrogen peroxide or a fungicidal solution.

Don’t remove the green algae on the roots, as they improve the plant’s air exchange.

Selecting the Ideal Substrate for Your Orchid

As mentioned before, hydroculture uses a substrate, while hydroponics relies only on water.

Many gardeners prefer hydroculture, considering it aesthetically more appealing. The amount of substrate needed depends on its type.

How to add substrate:

  1. Layer diatomaceous earth and LECA (Lightweight Expanded Clay Aggregate) in the pot, filling up to the drainage holes.
  2. Fill halfway with expanded clay as a single component, place the plant, and add more substrate.
  3. If using perlite, first layer the bottom with expanded clay, place the plant and fill with perlite up to ½  inch (1 cm) below the drainage holes.
  4. Fill with the orchid growing mix, and water it to the drainage holes.

By selecting the appropriate materials, you can artistically enhance the orchid’s appearance by highlighting its elegance or creating striking contrasts.

Caring for Orchids in Water Cultivation

The main cause of orchid death is overwatering.

In water cultivation, it’s usually enough to have the water level just covering the tips of the roots. However, unclean water can lead to mold growth and diseases, so change the water daily.

Orchids from Southeast Asia are adapted to withstand dry seasons by storing water in their roots.

They can survive even if they are slightly lacking in moisture. Therefore, their roots are susceptible to damp conditions.

Watch Out for Root Rot

Signs of orchid root rot include mushy, discolored roots due to fungal infection
Signs of orchid root rot include mushy, discolored roots due to fungal infection

If the leaves become soft and wrinkled, it’s an early sign of root rot. If the orchid doesn’t bloom between May and July or the flowers, wither quickly, root rot may be the issue.

Even if an orchid has root rot, early and appropriate action can revive the plant. Don’t give up; keep taking care of it.

If you suspect root rot, start by observing the root condition.

Signs of advanced root rot, making revival difficult:

  • Roots are thin and mushy
  • There are no roots in the pot, just space
  • Many roots appear sagged and dark brown or black

If the roots are dark, fungus might be the cause. If the fungus has progressed, it’s likely too late for recovery.

Signs of potentially revivable roots:

  • Roots are thick and resilient, densely growing in the pot.
  • Root base is yellow to pale green.

Healthy orchid roots should be thick, resilient, and pale green, signifying vitality.

If you still see such signs and only a portion of the roots has turned black, you can prevent the progression of root rot by cutting off and removing the affected parts with scissors.

Be Mindful of The Orchid’s Location

The ideal environment for orchids is between 59-77°F (15-25°C), away from direct sunlight and in a well-ventilated area.

As these plants are native to tropical rainforests, they’re sensitive to cold. When the temperature drops below 45°F (7°C), the flowers can suffer frostbite and wither.

Move the orchid to a warm indoor location when the temperature falls below 59°F (15°C).

However, avoid placing the orchid where air conditioner drafts hit directly or near windows in winter, where it might be exposed to outdoor temperatures. Be cautious about where you place your orchid indoors.

Humidity is suitable for orchids during the rainy season and summer, but other seasons might be too dry. If the leaves seem dehydrated, mist water onto both sides of the leaves.

As long as the environment feels comfortable for humans, it’s likely suitable for orchids to grow.

Other Tips to Keep in Mind

When you transfer an orchid from its pot, the plant experiences significant stress. Let it dry out for about a week without watering it, and the orchid will stabilize.

During that time, water the leaves every 2-3 days to prevent excessive drying.

The water temperature is important; too cold or hot water can harm the roots and leaves. Lukewarm water is best.

When applying fertilizer, dilute it to a very weak concentration, around 1,000 to 3,000 times. Apply fertilizer during the growing season, from spring to fall.

Using a Plastic Bottle for Orchid Water Cultivation is Recommended

Orchids and plastic bottles surprisingly work well together and offer these advantages:

  • No need to buy pots; they are readily available
  • Easy to determine watering timing
  • Visible water level helps prevent root rot

If an orchid has multiple stems in a single pot, you must separate them after the flowers fall off. Conveniently, plastic bottles are easy to prepare for this purpose.

Using a clean plastic bottle also eliminates the need for disinfecting the pot, as you would with a previously used one.

Since you can visually check the water level in the bottle, it’s easier to monitor root health and prevent root rot.

How to Transfer a Water-Grown Orchid to a Plastic Bottle

Making a plastic bottle pot

Items needed:

  • Plastic bottle
  • Scissors
  • Box cutter
  • Tape
  • Drill
  • Work gloves
  1. Choose a plastic bottle roughly the same size or slightly larger than the pot the orchid is in. Use a 1-2 liter (34-68 oz) plastic bottle.
  2. If you want to match the height of the current pot, cut the plastic bottle with a box cutter or scissors. If the cut edge bothers you, secure it with tape for safety.
  3. Use a drill to create drainage holes in the bottom of the plastic bottle.
  4. Make additional holes on the sides of the lower part of the bottle to improve ventilation.
  5. Place a piece of foam or styrofoam slightly smaller than the bottle inside, and you’re done.

How to Repot an Orchid into a Plastic Bottle

Put on thin gloves or wash and sanitize your hands before starting the process. Disinfect the pruning scissors using a lighter or boiling water.

Since viruses can enter through the cuts, don’t forget to sanitize your hands and the scissors with heat.

  1. Remove the orchid from its pot and carefully take out the planting material.
  2. Inspect the roots and use disinfected scissors to remove discolored or blackened parts.
  3. Wrap the roots with water-soaked sphagnum moss. Ensure the moss also covers the foam or styrofoam inside the plastic bottle so it’s not visible.
  4. Place the orchid into the cut plastic bottle and fill any gaps with more sphagnum moss. Now, it’s complete.

Suitable Varieties

As more unique orchid varieties hit the market, it’s important to know that not all can thrive in water.

Phalaenopsis orchids, for example, are well-suited for hydroponic growth, especially those without a dormancy period.

  1. Paphiopedilum (also known as Lady’s Slipper) – native to mountainous tropics.
  2. Cattleya – has large flowers and prefers warm but not hot conditions.
  3. Dendrobium – naturally grows in cooler environments.
  4. Mormodes – features spots and dots on their petals and sepals.
  5. Zygopetalum – characterized by its uniquely shaped petals.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that flowers in water are immune to pests. While they may avoid soil-borne parasites, flying nuisances can still threaten them.

If you see a whitefly hovering near your orchid, gently wipe the leaves with a soapy solution at a 1:6 ratio to keep them at bay.

If your flower’s leaves become excessively wrinkled, the room’s air may be too dry. Rather than overwatering your plant, focus on increasing the humidity in the space.

Remember that orchids aren’t fans of temperature fluctuations – if nighttime temperatures drop significantly compared to daytime, your flower might show signs of distress.

Key Takeaways

Growing orchids in water allows you to cultivate them indoors without using the growing medium.

Miniature orchids are incredibly popular for home use, as they’re easy to place and affordable.

Whether you receive an orchid as a gift or buy one for yourself, growing it in water allows you to enjoy it easily and for a longer time.

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