Repotting an Orchid

Have you ever bought an orchid and have it die just a few short weeks later? This has happened to me before, and I used to think it was my fault for not looking after the plants properly. Then I went and visited a nursery that grew their own orchids, and I realised that maybe it wasn’t me after all.

The difference that I found between the nursery orchids and the ones at the market was the potting medium. Those growing freely and happily were planted in charcoal bark, while the ones that died on me at home were in sphagnum moss. When I brought home orchids that were planted in bark, they thrived even months later and grew new leaves, stems and flowers. All with very little effort on my part, aside from the occasional watering.

Orchid from the market with sphagnum moss
Orchid bought from the market that was potted with a lot of dense, sphagnum moss

Last week, I spoke to a plant seller and asked about the moss, and she told me that orchids actually don’t need it and they grow just fine in charcoal. The moss is optional and is mainly used for a decorative look on top of the bark.

Why, then, do so many orchids come with this horrible mucky moss squished tightly in around their roots?

I can only guess that the moss helps to keep the roots moist which may be useful in the short-term, for example when the orchids are being transported long-distance or being stored for some time without being watered. But in the long-run, this isn’t very healthy for the plant because consistently soggy roots = root rot. This I learnt from growing succulents and I guess the same logic applies to orchids.

Since it is getting very close to the lunar new year and everyone’s busy buying up orchids, I thought I’d do a quick tutorial to show you how I repotted mine in case you want to give this a try with your orchids as well. You’ll see in the photos that this particular orchid I bought is already seeing a bit of rot (the black parts) in the roots. Healthy orchid roots should be whitish green and the black bits are a sign of trouble! So I don’t know if this one will stay alive, but fingers crossed that there are enough healthy roots to keep it going. I’ll follow up in a few weeks’ time and let you know how it’s faring!

Repotting an Orchid

1. Take the plant out of the pot. Sometimes the roots will be really tightly wound into the pot so you might need to squeeze the pot a bit to loosen the edges.

2. Remove all the wet moss from around and in between the orchid roots. Really get in there between all the roots and dig out all that moss.

Roots freed from all that soggy moss

3. Remove the really black roots. Think of the orchid root like an electrical wire. The wiring itself is protected by the green, red or white plastic covering. Similarly with an orchid root, the fat juicy bit we see (called ‘velamen’) is really an outer coating, while the actual root itself is thin and wiry, found inside the velamen.

Black roots are a sign of root rot

I didn’t want to leave the really black, rotted velamen so I stripped those parts away, leaving the central root in place. Honestly I don’t know if that’s the right thing to do, but it seemed wrong to let it go on rotting. (Sorry for the out of focus video below, but hopefully you get the gist).

4. Stuff some charcoal bark in between the now loose and free roots. This gives the roots something to cling onto, which helps to stabilise the plant in the pot.

5. Ball up the roots and bark and place into the same pot, or into a new one if the existing one is unsuitable. What is an unsuitable pot? One that doesn’t have sufficient drainage holes, or one that’s too small for the roots to bundle back into. With this particular pot, it only had one hole on the base which I didn’t think was enough. So I cut additional breathing holes into the sides. I would have cut them into the base, but it was made of really tough, hard plastic that my scissors couldn’t poke through.

Extra holes help with drainage when watering, and also allows more air to circulate between the roots

6. Add additional bark into the pot where you can fit it. This helps to anchor the orchid, which can be top heavy when it’s blooming.

7. Place the repotted orchid into a decorative pot. This step is purely optional of course, but I think a plant always looks nicer when you hide away the plastic and the roots! I take the plant out of the decorative pot when it needs watering, and then pop it back in when it’s no longer dripping out water at the base.

Orchid in Decorative Plant Pot (Drogon by The Rain in Spain)
Orchid in ‘Drogon’ Plant Pot

As I mentioned, I’m not sure how this orchid will fare, but hopefully getting rid of all that damp moss will give it a chance to continue blooming and growing well into the lunar new year.

If you have any tips to share, or have had experience with orchids growing in bark, feel free to comment below, I would love to learn from you!

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