Water – source of life
Without water there is no life. But water is not just water. Whether it is suitable for our orchids or not depends on how many and which foreign substances are in it.
The two most important values that help us assess the quality of the water we have for our orchids are conductivity and pH.
The conductivity of water indicates how well electricity is conducted in water. Pure (distilled) water conducts electricity very poorly. The more ions are dissolved in the water, the better the current is conducted. Conductivity (or EC value) is expressed in S/m (Siemens per meter). Since the units for our drinking water or our “orchid water” are significantly smaller than one siemens per meter – they are only in the micro range – the conductivity is usually given in µS/cm (microsiemens per cm).
A high conductivity of z. B. 800 µS/cm shows that there are a lot of dissolved salts (nutrients, trace elements and/or toxins) in the water. However, it says nothing about which substances are contained in it and in what ratio to one another.
In order to determine the conductivity, it is worth purchasing a conductivity meter (EC value meter). Simple entry-level models are already very inexpensive. If you want to deal with the matter more precisely and intensively, you can purchase a professional device that can be calibrated for several hundred euros. It is important that the device also measures the temperature and ideally converts it to a temperature of 25 °C – the conductivity is always specified at a water temperature of 25 °C.
Basically, orchids are so-called weak feeders, which usually do not need many nutrients to grow healthily. The smaller and finer the roots are, the less dissolved salts they tolerate. The following values can be used as a guide:
50 – 200 µS/cm for miniature orchids like Pleurothallidinae,
200 – 400 µS/cm for small to medium-sized orchids such as Paphiopedilum , Cattleya or Phalaenopsis,
400 – 800 µS/cm for large orchid species such as Cymbidum and many medium sized hybrids.
The pH value is of immense importance for all living things on earth. Enzymes, which are responsible for the biological processes, can only fulfill their important tasks if the pH value is correct.
The pH value is the measure of the concentration of hydrogen ions or hydronium ions in a solution, it is between 0 and 14. The higher this value, the more alkaline the water is. A pH value of 7 is called a neutral value, which is neither acidic nor basic. Anything below that is acidic. Values above 7 are referred to as basic (or alkaline). Only pure water has a neutral pH at room temperature.
The degree of acidity, which is indicated by the pH value, has an enormous influence on the absorption (uptake) of nutrients by the roots in orchid culture. The best nutrients in the most balanced ratio are useless if they cannot be absorbed by the plant due to an incorrect pH value. (See also: Boess, G. (2020): Heat damage to orchids – why is that? “The Orchid” 71(4): 270-271). (You can find the article here as a PDF).
An ideal value for the absorption of nutrients is in the slightly acidic range, i.e. below 7. Values between 5.5 and 6.4 are usually the right pH values for a successful orchid culture.
Basically, it is always helpful to find out about the soil conditions and thus also about the pH value at the natural location of your orchids. dr Ernst Avenhaus wrote about this in “Die Orchidee” ??(?), 2019? published an insightful article on the influence of different substrates on pH. (You can find the article here as a PDF).
It is fairly easy to determine pH using litmus paper or digital pH meters. Some acids and bases suitable for plants are commercially available in order to be able to set a desired pH value.
Although the tap water in Germany has drinking quality across the board, it differs greatly from region to region. In some regions it can certainly be used for the culture of hybrids and hardy species. But there are also regions where the conductance is much too high, which can lead to “burning” of the roots. This is reflected in brown areas that are really dry and begin to rot if there is too much moisture.
In order to assess whether the tap water is suitable for orchid cultivation, the conductivity and pH value should be measured or checked with the local water supplier.
If you have a garden or balcony, you can collect rainwater. This initially contains only a few dissolved salts, so it is basically well suited for orchid culture. However, there are local conditions that allow the conductance to rise too high and thus make the water unusable for orchid cultivation, e.g. B. Air polluted by exhaust fumes, a roof contaminated by bird droppings, a corroded galvanized gutter, etc.
Since success in aquaristics also depends on good water quality, the old water can be used when changing the water, provided the appropriate values are observed.
Distilled water is water that has been distilled to remove all impurities. It can only be used for orchid culture if nutrients and trace elements are added to the water in the form of fertilizer. If used pure, the orchid would “starve” in the long run. On the other hand, it is well suited to prevent the substrate from becoming too salty, as it likes to combine with salts and flush them out of the plant matter.
By the way: Not every distilled water from the canister is really distilled. Very often it is actually demineralized water.
This is water from which almost all foreign substances have been removed by a so-called ion exchanger. Therefore, nutrients must also be provided with fertilizer.
Simple water filters based on ion exchange for the kitchen usually remove too few of the substances, so that the water may not be suitable for sensitive orchids even after filtering. Professional aquaristic devices, for example, are much more effective and achieve almost as pure water as with distillation. However, the filter material of the ion exchanger must be chemically cleaned regularly. There is no excess waste water, as is the case with osmosis.
reverse osmosis water
Similar to demineralized water, reverse osmosis water is also filtered water that contains very few additives. Osmosis systems for private use are offered quite cheaply. Here, too, the orchid lover can set the right values after filtering with the right fertilizer and make the water usable for the culture.
A disadvantage of reverse osmosis is that it produces waste water whose conductance is then extremely high and is therefore no longer suitable for orchids. However, it can still be used in the garden and with insensitive indoor plants. Regular filter changes are also required for reverse osmosis.
bodies of water
Well water, spring water and the water from rivers, streams and lakes varies so regionally that it can be well suited in some places and out of the question in other places. Anyone who has access to such waters can determine the important values and thus check whether it is high-quality “ orchid water “ or not.
Water from the condenser dryer
Here the testimonials of orchid lovers differ. While some highly recommend it because it is essentially distilled water (through evaporation and condensation), others demonize it because the water may contain detergent and fabric softener residue, as well as residual fibers from the dried fabric. Again, the measuring devices help here, but also the human senses. If the water smells of detergent and perfumes or looks dirty, it should not be used.
Water temperature Last but not least, the temperature of the water also plays a role. It should be at room temperature and not deviate too much from the orchids’ normal ambient temperature. Plants that are very warm should also be watered with lukewarm water. On the other hand, orchids that are cultivated in the cold stairwell or in the cool area of a greenhouse in winter should not be given water that is too warm.
Even water in its coolest form – the ice cube – can be used in orchid culture. As Thomas Jacob explains in the Disa uniflora article, he puts ice cubes on the substrate on hot summer days to keep the roots cool. In Africa, Disa uniflora grows directly on mountain streams and rivers, whose cold water regularly washes over the roots.
Dip – Pour – Spray – Semi-Hydro
Now that we have thought about the water quality, we now want to deal with the watering itself. For this we have to look at the climate in the natural range of the species to be cultivated. What are the temperatures? How much precipitation is there? How is it distributed over the year? Is there a dry season? How long does it last?
Some orchid species go through a distinct dormant period with little or no rainfall. If you water too much during this time, there is a high risk that the plant will rot and die. If in doubt, you should water a little less and watch the plant, because orchids rot rather than dry up.
In general, one can say that at higher temperatures in the culture room, more water is required, especially in summer during the growth phase.
Depending on the requirements of the plants, the season and the temperature, the following methods of watering orchids have proven themselves:
When dipping, the entire pot, in the case of plants that are tied up or bare-rooted, the entire root area is dipped into the water and allowed to soak for a few minutes.
Too dense or old, decomposed substrate dries very slowly after diving. Therefore, potted plants should be carefully watered rather than submerged, especially during the cooler winter months.
A disadvantage of diving is that you have to pick up every pot
The famous »shot glass per week«, which is supposed to be enough for orchids, is usually not enough. Nevertheless, the normal watering, as we practice it with many other potted plants, can also be used for orchid culture. The substrate does not soak up so much water and dries off more quickly, which reduces the risk of rotting roots.
Especially in the cool winter months, watering is a good choice for many species and hybrids that do not want to be too moist and are going through a more or less pronounced rest period. Depending on the individual moisture requirements of the plant, it is poured penetratingly or sparingly.
Spraying is basically a very natural way of watering. Finally, it simulates the rain in nature. However, there are some difficulties here, especially when it comes to culture in the living space. With insufficient air movement, water on the leaves or in the heart can cause rot if it doesn’t dry off quickly enough. This is especially true at lower temperatures. Fans can help.
Spraying to increase the humidity in the room is mostly useless. Although the humidity rises sharply for a short time, it falls to a similarly low level as before after just a few minutes. Humidity lasts much longer in a greenhouse or orchid display case. Therefore, when spraying, special attention must be paid to factors such as temperature, air movement and exchange.
In contrast to hydroponics, the roots of the plant to be cultivated do not grow in water with semi-hydroponics, but in the plant matter, which is either in a little water or is kept permanently moist using the wick method and a water reservoir. Such systems can be bought ready-made or you can build them yourself
In another semi-hydroponic method, the plants are planted in a closed container, in which there is always some water at the bottom. When it’s used up, it’s poured again. Transparent vessels help control the moisture in the plant matter. The method is also known as SGK (substrate glass culture).
If the right plant material is used, semi-hydroponics is suitable for those orchid species and hybrids that like to be constantly moist.
Some species of orchids also like wet foot culture. Here the pot is in a bowl, in which there is always some water. This method is particularly recommended for mineral substrates and is very successful even in normal bark substrates, for example with Phragmipedium . The big advantage of semi-hydroponics is that you only have to spend very little time watering the orchids.
With orchids, it is usually not enough to quickly take water out of the tap. If you are serious about your culture and want to achieve success, you should also deal with your water and watering behavior. A large part of the cultural mistakes can be found in the subject area around water.