Unlike most houseplants, orchids don’t grow well in soil. Instead, they need a growing medium that is less dense and allows for more air circulation. This means that you can’t use regular potting mix when growing orchids. What you should use instead is an orchid bark mix.
Having the right growing medium for your orchid is vital. While there are several steps to making sure your orchid thrives in your home, intensive care will not make up for using a growing medium that is not suitable for your orchid. Once you have the right growing medium, you can then worry about the more finicky aspects of caring for your orchid—like making sure it gets exactly the right amount of light.
Keep reading to find out more about orchid bark mix and how you can make it yourself.
What Is Bark Mix?
As you might imagine, bark mix is a growing medium that is made primarily of tree bark. Bark mix also contains a smaller amount of some material that retains water well. The combination of bark along with a moisture-retaining material creates a suitable growing medium for most types of orchids.
You can buy a commercial bark mix for your orchids. While the exact composition of commercial mixes varies, it’s generally some combination of bark mix along with sphagnum moss, perlite, coco coir, or another material that retains moisture. Check the label before buying a commercial bark mix to see what materials are included in the mix.
While there are many good-quality commercial bark mixes made for orchids, it is also very easy to make your own bark mix for your orchids. When you make your own mix, you have control over the composition of the mix.
Why Do Orchids Need Bark Mix?
While it may be annoying that you have to use a different growing medium for orchids than you use with other houseplants, there’s a good reason why orchids need bark mix. They aren’t just being picky!
Many orchids are epiphytes in their natural growing environment. Epiphytes are plants that grow on another plant or object for support. These plants don’t grow in soil as most other plants do.
Since most orchids are epiphytes, their roots don’t handle traditional potting soil well. Soil can prevent orchids from getting enough air to their roots; instead, bark mix can come closer to mimicking these orchids’ natural environment.
Orchid bark mix allows air to easily circulate around the roots. Regular soil would be way too dense for a plant whose roots are used to growing mostly uncovered.
Bark mix allows water to drain quickly after orchids are watered. This is important because orchids get root rot easily if their roots are allowed to remain saturated in water for too long.
However, in addition to draining well, you also want your orchid’s growing medium to retain some water. Most orchids grow in tropical or semi-tropical environments. Bark by itself doesn’t hold on to water very well, and if that’s all you used for your orchid, you’d find yourself having to water your orchid very frequently. For this reason, most bark mixes designed for orchids contain some other ingredients that help the medium hold on to a reasonable amount of water without drowning the orchid’s roots.
Generally, a combination of bark and sphagnum moss is used to get just the right balance of moisture retention. Bark by itself dries out too quickly while sphagnum moss just keeps too much water around the orchid’s roots when it’s on its own. However, when you put the two together, you get a growing medium that’s just right. We’ll talk about the best ratios and other options a little further down in the article.
What Is the Best Bark for Orchids?
Fir bark is the most commonly used bark for orchid bark mix. However, it’s important to pay attention to the grade. Fine bark retains more moisture and doesn’t dry out as fast. Coarse bark allows for more aeration but dries out more quickly. While coarse bark is cheaper, it also will decompose faster.
Other popular choices for orchid bark mix are coastal redwood bark and Osmunda tree fern fiber. These are not quite as readily available, but they do work well. Be aware that redwood bark can be harmful to pets, though.
While you can technically use any type of bark for orchids, avoid using bark that breaks down too quickly. For example, soft pine degrades quickly, which means that you’ll have to repot your orchid sooner. Too much repotting can disturb or damage the roots, so it’s better to stick with bark that is more durable.
Related Reading: How to Repot Phalaenopsis Orchids
Can I Use Regular Bark for Orchids?
While you can use any bark for orchids, the best choices are lightweight and relatively bulky because these allow for the best drainage. However, you should buy commercial bark rather than harvesting it from trees yourself. Commercial bark is usually sterilized, while bark you harvest yourself might have disease or insects that could potentially harm your orchid. While you could technically harvest your own bark, it’s not usually worth the risk of losing your orchid.
The good news is that most orchids need relatively little bark mix, so you won’t need too much of it when potting or repotting your orchid.
Ingredients for Making Orchid Bark Mix
While bark and sphagnum moss are the most common ingredients in homemade orchid bark mix, they aren’t the only options. As mentioned earlier, the biggest concerns with orchid bark mix are that it must allow enough air to reach the roots and allow water to drain quickly while still retaining an adequate amount of moisture.
You have several different options to choose from when creating your own orchid bark mix.
Bark forms the base of most growing mediums for orchids unless you are choosing to mount your orchid. The advantages of bark are that it doesn’t break down too quickly, it allows air to reach your orchid’s roots, and it allows water to drain away from the roots quickly.
You can choose either fine-grade bark or coarse-grade bark.
Fine-grade bark is better for orchids that prefer more humidity because it doesn’t dry out as quickly. If your orchid needs to be watered before it dries out, fine-grade bark is the best choice.
Coarse-grade bark is better for orchids that need their roots to dry out between waterings. If your orchid only needs to be watered once the growing medium has dried out completely, coarse-grade bark is the best choice.
Sphagnum moss retains water well, so this makes it a good addition to an orchid growing medium. Because it is so absorbent, you only need a small amount to ensure that your growing medium doesn’t dry out too quickly.
When you buy an orchid, you might find that it is potted only in sphagnum moss with no other materials mixed in. This is generally done because sphagnum moss is lightweight, and orchids potted in this material cost less to ship. While some people successfully grow orchids potted only in sphagnum moss, we don’t recommend trying this. It requires much more careful attention to keep your orchid happy when it’s just in sphagnum moss.
Grit or Perlite
Small amounts of grit or perlite may be added to an orchid growing medium to increase aeration. Orchid roots are happiest when they have good access to air. Perlite also has the added advantage of retaining moisture.
Similar to sphagnum moss, coco coir retains water well. It also allows air to reach your orchid’s roots. While not every orchid growing medium recipe calls for coco coir, it can be a good addition.
You can also try using coco coir on its own as a growing medium. Because it both retains water and allows for aeration, it has similar qualities to both bark and sphagnum moss, which are the base of most orchid growing mediums.
How to Make Orchid Bark Step by Step
There are multiple formulas you can follow to make an orchid growing medium. We’ll just talk about the simplest and most common one:
Step 1: Start with 5 parts bark. Generally, the most commonly used bark is fir bark, but you can use other types of bark as well.
Step 2: Mix 1 part sphagnum moss, coco coir, or perlite in with the bark. The traditional choice is to use sphagnum moss, but you can also use the other two options.
Step 3: Soak the mix in water for 24 hours to allow the bark to absorb as much water as possible. Use the mix as a growing medium for your orchid.
Orchid Bark Mix Final Thoughts
As you can see, creating your own orchid bark mix is relatively easy. Remember that orchids only need a small amount of growing medium, so you don’t have to use large quantities of each ingredient.
Also, it’s important that you repot your orchid every year or two. Over time the bark begins to break down. As this happens, the bark becomes denser and less able to drain water quickly. This causes your orchid to be more at risk of developing root rot, so check your orchid every spring to see if it’s time to repot.
If you don’t want to grow your orchid in a pot, mounting your orchid is a good choice depending on the type of orchid you have. While mounted orchids usually have to be watered more often, they don’t require a bark growing medium like potted orchids do.
Related Reading: Mounting Orchids | Driftwood, Rock, and More…
FAQ Orchid Bark Mix
Can I plant orchids in bark only?
Bark doesn’t hold water well, so while orchids can technically grow in bark alone, you’ll have to be prepared to water much more frequently. That being said, some orchids, like phalaenopsis, do fine when grown in bark in a humid environment because their roots are able to easily absorb moisture from the air.
We still recommend adding another material to help the growing medium retain water, though, as it will make caring for your orchids easier.
What’s the best bark for orchids?
Fir bark is the most common choice for orchids. Other popular choices include coastal redwood bark and Osmunda tree fern fiber.
Should orchids be in soil or bark?
Most orchids do not grow well in soil because soil is too dense. Instead, they should be grown in a bark mixture or other materials that allow for good aeration, adequate drainage, and some moisture retention.
Is orchid bark the same as mulch?
Mulch should not be substituted for orchid bark. Most mulch is designed to break down more quickly than orchid bark. Also, mulch can be made up of a variety of materials, not all of which will be good for orchids.
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