A special Orchid question for Al/Tapla

meyermike_1micha(5)December 20, 2011

Al, I have never wanted to grow Orchids like I want to do so now, especially the fragrant ones.

I have been looking at web sites for Orchids and E-bay and everyone one of them sells SPECIAL Orchid food for blooms which usually has a much higher middle number. I saw one that had read 10.50.10!

Now I know that growing orchids is much different in the sense that many are grown on bark which drains more than freely with salts not something to build up as in soil mixtures.. I consider them a whole different species than tropical plants. Some are aroid needing just spraying on the ariel roots.

Does the same hold true for them to be satisfied with just a regular dose of Foliage Pro, or do they really need a much higher does of Phosphate to do the trick to encourage blooms?

My gut feeling tells me to feed them as I would all my other plants, and yet I do not want to assume anything since all these websites are either lying, money hungry, or just plain ole stupid.

Even the hydrponics store I just got back from tried to sell me a special food for helping orchids during their just vegitative stage, the one for their budding stage come the spring and both Urea free.

Here are a couple of sites I would love you to see what I am talking about. Thanks so much!


Here is a link that might be useful: Food for Orchids

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Orchids require less fertilizer than most plants. Fact is, Orchids can live without much nutrients at all. They grow very slow so fertilizer must be very small.

"I saw one that had read 10.50.10"

Pro growers would understand a basic 20-20-20 will do ok. But 12-6-13 is the best numbers for Orchids just to let you know.

20-10-10 are used where breaking down of bark is a problem.

Hope this answer to your question helped.


    Bookmark   December 20, 2011 at 2:47PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Mike - I think you'll be just fine with the Foliage-Pro. Instead of me explaining what you already know, I'll let you read through some info. The Michigan State University formulations you'll encounter are widely used as supplemental nutrition by many thousands of growers with excellent results.

"Without High Phosphorous
A New Fertilizer Proves Itself with Orchids
Orchids Vol. 72 No. 6. June 2003

Article Text by Jan Szyren

THE PAST TWO YEARS HAVE BEEN the most exciting of my horticultural career. Imagine my delight at receiving a Certificate of Cultural Excellence as my first-ever AOS award for Coelia bella 'Anastasia', CCE/AOS, which scored 91 points. Since that joyful event, the Michigan State University collection is, to a local judge, "creating quite a stir in the local orchid community..." with nine more cultural awards, an Award of Merit and a Highly Commended Certificate, 28 show trophies and countless blue ribbons since. The secret to my success: a new fertilizer developed at Michigan State University. And the great news is you can use this fertilizer at home, too.

The nutritional program at Michigan State University is vastly different from the majority of recommendations circulating within the horticultural world about the fertilization of orchids. This fertilizer is now being referred to as "Michigan State University's Magic Fertilizer." In fact, there were two formulas originally produced for the university that have been shown to work well for orchids. The first, called RO Water Special or 13-3-15, was designed for a pure water source like rainwater or reverse-osmosis (RO) purified water. Due to the extreme variability of well-water mineral content, the RO Water Special formula is the preferred choice for the home grower. The second formula, called Well Water Special or 19-4-23 was designed to complement the well water found at Michigan State University.

John Biernbaum, PhD, of the Horticulture Department at MSU, along with Bill Argo, PhD, of the Blackmore Company and Larry Metcoff of GreenCare Fertilizers, designed and formulated these two fertilizers for use in the MSU research and teaching greenhouse ranges on a broad range of horticultural crops: Easter lilies, poinsettias, annual bedding flowers, perennials - just about everything but orchids. Several years ago, I sought Biernbaum's advice and he suggested I give the Well Water Special a try on the orchids. I have been using it for the past six or seven years and I also use it for everything grown in the teaching collection: ferns, conifers, annuals and perennials, hundreds, even thousands of tropical plants, cacti and succulents, from mundane coleus to the unusual Welwitschia mirabilis.

The results obtained with the Well Water Special on the 400-plus species in our orchid collection were absolutely unbelievable after just one season. Five years later, we have specimens of Bulbophyllum, Coelogyne, Dendrobium, Laelia, Cattleya, and Cymbidium that are almost too big to carry.

In response to my puzzlement about our spectacular flowering and the folklore that high levels of phosphorous are required for flowering, Biernbaum told me that "it's not the high doses of phosphorous that boost the flowering, but the lack of excess nitrogen." (Excess nitrogen will cause excessive foliar growth at the expense of flowers.) Additionally, these two fertilizers complement or balance the two types of water that are found at Michigan State.


For the MSU orchid collection, I use the Well Water Special at a concentration of 125 ppm nitrogen. I first make a concentrate of the fertilizer by dissolving 27 pounds (12.2 kg) of the Special fertilizer in 50 gallons (190 l) of water, and then add one gallon (3.8 l) of organic acid (Serplex organic acid by GreenCare Fertilizers) to counteract the horrific alkalinity levels and high pH of MSU water. The concentrate is diluted with well water through an injector at a 1:100 ratio, yielding the solution of 125 ppm nitrogen. For those without injectors, this is equivalent to about 2 teaspoons (12 g) of fertilizer to 5 gallons (23 l) of water. I give two to three applications of the fertilizer followed by a generous RO drench, with less fertilizer and more RO for the lady's-slipper orchids and pleurothallids. In essence, this means the plants are fertilized with a low concentration of nutrients at almost every watering. This practice, called Constant Liquid Feed, reduces wastes due to unassimilated nutrients and also greatly reduces potential groundwater contamination from high-concentration runoff.

Because I love to water the plants, I prefer clay pots and wooden baskets. In the spring and summer, when new growths are developing, I often water many plants daily, Monday through Friday. But I do treat each plant as an individual. A dose of fish emulsion given in the spring is the only supplement.

On sunny days, the greenhouse warms up, causing the evaporative coolers or fans to run constantly, circulating such a volume of air that those plants in clay pots or baskets dry rapidly. Also, because the goal is big, beefy new growths, I choose to err on the moist side during periods of active growth. In the warmer months, I also like to go through the entire collection after watering (fertigating) and spray a fine mist of RO, just enough to wash the leaves off and trickle down into the pots. This helps keep excessive buildup from forming (we jokingly call our well water here "liquid rock") and besides, it just makes me plain happy - the earthy smell, the humidity, the glistening leaves and flowers. This is joyful work.

Of course, in the winter, this becomes problematic. I try to avoid at all costs the slightest amount of water stress, keeping each plant as hydrated as possible. Due to security issues, the orchid houses are locked on the weekends and the collection is left alone for two days. So the plants do dry out fully every weekend. I delight in those occasional dreary rainy summer days, when it's safer to skip watering entirely, those being my best days for repotting, grooming, weeding, sweeping or doing library research."

And then there is this from Bill Argo - an innovastive way toi package nutrition:

"Understanding pH management and plant nutrition
Part 1: Introduction
Bill Argo, Ph.D.
Blackmore Company, Tel: 800-874-8660, Int�l 734-483-8661, E-mail: bargo@blackmoreco.com
Originally printed in 2003 in the Journal of the International Phalaenopsis Alliance, Vol. 12 (4).
Plants are basically water surrounded by a pretty
package. If we place 100 lbs. of healthy living plant
material into a special oven to remove all the water, we
will have only about 10 lbs. of dry plant material left.
In general, plants are about 90% water and 10% dry
The 10 lbs. of dry plant material that we have left is
made up of carbon (C), hydrogen (H), oxygen (O), and
a number of inorganic salts. If we take the 10 lbs. of
dry plant material and remove all the carbon, hydrogen,
and oxygen, there will be about 1 lb. of ash left. Thus,
plant nutrition is the direct management of about 1% of
the plant by weight.
The ash that is left is composed of the essential plant
nutrient. However, these nutrients are not all taken up at
the same rate. The essential plant nutrients can be
separated into two groups, macronutrients and
micronutrients. Macronutrients are found at relatively
high concentrations in the plant tissue and include
nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K), calcium
(Ca), magnesium (Mg), and sulfur (S). Micronutrients
are found at much lower concentrations in the tissue
than macronutrients and include iron (Fe), manganese
(Mn), zinc (Zn), copper (Cu), boron (B), and
molybdenum (Mo).
These twelve essential plant nutrients are commonly
provided by various fertilizer sources, which includes
not only the water-soluble fertilizer, but also can
include the irrigation water and container substrate.
There are several other nutrients that are considered as
essential for normal growth including sodium (Na),
chloride (Cl), Nickle (Ni), and possibly chromium (Cr).
However, these later four essential plant nutrients are
not required by plants in large amounts. Because they
are often found as contaminants in a number of different
fertilizer sources, it has not been demonstrated that that
they have to be specifically apply to plants.
Substrate pH and plant nutrition
The term pH is a direct measurement of the balance
between acidic hydrogen ions (H+) and basic hydroxide
ions (OH-), and can be measured with a pH meter. The
pH of a solution can range between 0 (very acidic) and
14 (very basic). At a pH of 7.0, the concentrations of
H+ and OH- are equal, and the solution is said to be
When growing plants in containers, the pH range
commonly found in the solution extracted from the
substrate is much narrower, from about 4.5 to 8.5. The
recommended substrate pH range from growing plants
in containers is even more specific, around 5.8 to 6.2,
depending on the crop.
The reason that the pH of the solution in the substrate
is so important is that it affects nutrient solubility. Using
Figure 1 as an example, the solubility of micronutrients
(iron, manganese, zinc, boron) and phosphorus decrease
with increasing substrate pH.
Substrate pH can also be an indication of problems.
For example, low pH can be an indication that sufficient
lime was not added to the substrate, or that a fertilizer is
being used that is too acidic for the water quality. High
pH can be an indication that too much lime was added to
the substrate or that there is too much alkalinity left in the
irrigation water.
Substrate pH can also affect the uptake of nutrients
by the plant. Iron (Fe) uptake generally decreases with
increasing pH because it precipitates out of the soil
Not for publication or reproduction without the authors consent. Pg. 2
solution at higher pH levels. Phosphorus (P) also will
precipitate out of solution at higher pH levels.
Phosphorus uptake will be further reduced above a pH
of 7.2 because any phosphorus left in solution is
converted into a less available form. Nitrogen (N)
uptake can be indirectly affected by medium pH
because low pH decreases nitrification (conversion of
ammoniacal nitrogen to nitrate nitrogen) or the
conversion of urea to ammoniacal nitrogen.
Plants and nutrient uptake
Plant species differ in their ability to take up
nutrients at a given pH level. While there are not good
examples with orchids, there are good examples with
other plants produced in containers.
For example geraniums and African marigolds are
very efficient accumulators of iron (Fe) and manganese
(Mn), and are often grown at a relatively high substrate
pH (6.0 to 6.8) compared to most container grown
crops. The high pH reduces iron and manganese
solubility, which limits the uptake, and prevents toxicity
At the other end of the spectrum are plants like
rhododendrons, blue berries, and petunias, which are
very inefficient at taking iron from the soil solution, and
are often grown at a relatively low substrate pH (5.2 to
6.2). The low pH increases iron solubility, which
increases the uptake, and prevents deficiency problems.
There is a third group of plants, like poinsettias,
chrysanthemums, and impatiens that can be grown over
a relatively wide range of pH�s (5.5 to 6.5) without
showing any deficiency or toxicity problems.
While I don�t know it for sure, I would guess that
orchids are like all other plants. Some species will
perform better when grown at a low pH, some will
perform better when grown at a high pH, and for some,
it will not matter. However, for each of these groups,
the acceptable range where they will grow and perform
the best will be relatively narrow and will be similar
that of other plant species. If you had to choose a pH
range to grow all orchids, then the recommended range
would 5.8 to 6.2, again, just like all other crops.
pH management and plant nutrition.
` Many growers make the assumption that
growing in containers is like growing hydroponically.
Unless water is constantly dripping out of the bottom of
the container, then it is not like hydroponics. Others
consider growing in containers like growing outside in
soil. It is not like that either.
Research has shown that the pH and nutritional
management of container grown crops, including
orchids, is affected by the interaction of a number of
different factors, including the water quality, watersoluble
fertilizer, and the substrate. In the next issue, I
will discuss water quality."

You can see that orchid nutrition isn't notably different than that of anything else you'd be apt to maintain in containers.


    Bookmark   December 20, 2011 at 3:35PM
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susan2010(6 Massachusetts)

Not that I'm suggesting you buy it, but if you're interested, Repotme.com does sell the Mish. State formula. They also have the complete report available for free download.

You'll enjoy orchids, I think. I love that when they bloom, the flowers stay around for so long. I have several budding right now. (And it is nice that so many bloom in the winter when we really need flowers.)

    Bookmark   December 20, 2011 at 4:09PM
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meyermike_1micha, you might be interested in the series of articles; follow the link.

    Bookmark   December 20, 2011 at 5:23PM
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penfold2(4b, MN)

Here's something I wrote about fertilizers in the orchid forum.

The uselessness of high phosphorus levels

The orchid tissue analysis that I posted found a relatively low percentage of P as expected, but also found a much higher percentage of K than expected. I use FP 9-3-6 on all my orchids, but thought about adding some Pro-tekt 0-0-3 after finding that article. I haven't bought a bottle of Pro-tekt yet, but maybe I will next spring. Most of my orchids are growing very slowly right now, if at all.

    Bookmark   December 21, 2011 at 10:33AM
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Thank you so much everyone!

I really appreciate the reminders and confirmation about how orchids can perform their best. I have never had success with them and was always afraid to try, that is before I met Al and joined this forum.

So here I go again thanks to you all.

Al, I have plenty to read come the Holiday when I have 7 days off. Thank you and Penfold to!

    Bookmark   December 21, 2011 at 9:36PM
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greenman28 NorCal 7b/8a


I'm glad you posed this question, Mike, and I'm glad for the excellent responses.
As you know, I, too, have an Orchid that I am growing. It is my first, so I have nothing
against which to compare. I have mine in a mix of screened fir bark, red pumice,
and perlite (I might have some Turface in there, as well). I've been fertilizing every
few weeks with Foliage Pro.

For a while now, I've been meaning to purchase Pro-TeKt 0-0-3, and this gives me good cause.


    Bookmark   December 22, 2011 at 12:31PM
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i am new to this forum. Have & had plants in containers "forever" & after reading a lot on this forum (especially Al's extremely interesting articles about soil etc.),I realized that I have tortured all of them...Since topic is orchids, few of my questions-comments: I have 4 Phalaenopsis and a Ludisia (jewel orchid). They should be re-potted soon - seems like I should replant all of Phals into a 511(?).Two of them are flowering right now, 3rd has a new flower spike. How about Ludisia(some info I found:Jewel orchids are terrestrial and thus prefer equal parts of soil and peat moss with perlite as a drainage additive). I have to say I am surprised any of my plants are still alive...don't ask me how many orchids I had & don't have anymore...Hope I am not in "wrong" place to ask these questions, if so, pls. point me in right direction. Thank you all. Rina

    Bookmark   February 7, 2012 at 3:55PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

I don't know much about orchids, other than all the hardy terrestrials I've grown have done very well in the gritty mix. I can say I get emails all the time saying this or that orchid has taken very well to the gritty mix, but since I know so very little about the nature of the plants they're describing, I'll let those more expert than I guide you.

I will say too, that I would be concerned about putting any plant in equal parts of soil (topsoil?) and peat moss + perlite because of compaction and water retention issues.


    Bookmark   February 7, 2012 at 4:03PM
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thank you for your answer, I'll keep reading & learning; have to admit I did't even check if there is an orchid forum...anyway, have lots of other plants that need saving & will post on appropriate (hope so!) thread...Rina

    Bookmark   February 7, 2012 at 4:59PM
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Welcome, Rina!

I'm no orchid expert, growing only a few, myself... I would like to become a lot more accomplished at growing some of the many types, though... they're so beautiful! Actually, I grow mostly Amaryllids, a couple of Hoyas, and an assortment of other plants. But I do so love orchids!

I do know that Ludisia orchids are terrestrial and require different medium and culture than your Phals do. I would not recommend the 511 for your Phals, although a lot will depend upon the environment you have to grow in.

I'm stuck with a very dry indoor environment, myself, and I grow most of my plants in an east facing window. Everything I read these days says that Phals are one of the easiest orchids to grow in the average home environment, but I have NOT found this to be true in my case! I've killed several, and I cannot figure out what I'm doing wrong. I've read and researched, tried different mediums and methods, and they simply do not like what I have to offer them, apparently.

However, I find that Dendrobiums do much better for me, and seem to be doing very well in a slightly altered rendition of Al's Gritty Mix. In fact, I recently had a young plant develop nice buds... though they ended up shriveling up and dying before they had a chance to open.

I am determined to learn enough, and perhaps sacrifice enough orchids, to become successful at growing and blooming them. It is often said that a person can't be called a true orchidist until he or she has killed at least a hundred plants in the learning process... or something to that effect... and though I hope this is not true, I've lost many different types within the past several years. I'm still determined, and I'm not ready to give up just yet!

So far, two Dendrobiums, one Encyclia, and a Cymbidium backbulb are all surviving, and even thriving! They're all in a Gritty Mix with more bark than other ingredients, all minus the turface... and the Cymbidium has a tad bit of chopped up sphagnum moss pieces added, just to help retain a little more moisture around the newly grown roots.

My question to you, Rina, is what type of environment do you grow in, and what are the average conditions like? As in light, humidity, average temperature, the mediums your plants are in currently, your watering and feeding habits, and anything else you can think of... perhaps we can help!

    Bookmark   February 8, 2012 at 9:59AM
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Hello dear friends!

Well, I thought I would just share an orchid with you that took me by surprise!
I found this one behind my Citrus tree when I was cleaning one day and the only thing that it was fertilized by was Foliage Pro.

I will say it is in a very barky, pumice and perlite mix which it seems to love too.

I can't wait to see yours flower for good Jodik! Oh the anticipation!

Thanks again Al, Josh, Jodi,Susan, Ron, Pen, and Rina:-)

Oh, the fragrance!

    Bookmark   February 8, 2012 at 10:12AM
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Hello and thank you Jodik for welcoming me. I have had few different orchids over the years & unfortunately not anymore; some given to me, some I bought. (Ashamed to say I "had" following:Dendrobium, Oncidium, Masdevallia & few Phals). I bought Ludisia abt.3yrs ago in garden centre & surprise-it is doing well. Was just 1 "stem" in 4"pot (paid Cd $9.99!) It grows well, have a hanging basket full which was hanging from the maple tree last season. Flowered last 2yrs a lot. (Have smaller hanging pot of another 9 that I rooted.)They are in potting soil...am sure they could do even better.I am surprised they take more sun than I expected from reading. I have Phals for almost 4yrs, and 3 are blooming for me 3rd time. Repotted year ago in same type of medium they were before(bought bark at the show). Conditions are not the best, probably quite dry.Have them now not too close to south-facing window, but there are many other plants "filtering" the strong sun, seems to work(same spot for abt.8mo).I know now I was definitely overwatering ones I lost, together with too dry-too humid(when I tried misting...)probably overfertilized too. Tried to fertilize according to books, but just read lots about fertilizing(thank you Al)& obviously there are better ways. I water on average every 5days (or as necessary), mostly with destilled water with maybe 1/3rd recomm.dose of fertilizer. Take pots to sink, water well&let drain. Why do you think that Al's mixes may not be better? I am willing to water more often...The flower spikes this time are not that big, one has 5buds, other 8buds & 3rd just comming out.I read that sometimes is good the let orchid rest between flovering-maybe they would have more buds/blooms if "rested"? I also love orchids-but than again, I have not "met" plant that I did not like!!!(have abt.58 in house right now...)-not trying to expand orchid collection(but tempted) until am sucessfull with keeping them alive. Any suggestions greatly appreciated.

    Bookmark   February 8, 2012 at 11:16AM
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Rina, how did your orchids fare after a year and a half? Boy does time fly by!


    Bookmark   September 3, 2013 at 6:53AM
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My orchids are still alive...all phals were blooming, one had really beautiful white, large flowers. I clipped off spent flower stems, so the plants 'rest' more... Ludisia is doing very well too, it has been outside whole summer.
Soon have to start bringing plants inside, it's getting colder overnight. We had already few nights well below 50...

    Bookmark   September 8, 2013 at 12:08AM
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