Fertilizer 101 (An Introduction to Orchid Keeping, Part 3)

Vanda Loke Photo courtesy of JM
Demystifying the world of orchid fertilizers.

By Yvette Tan

In Part 2, we talked about choosing an orchid, figuring out how much shade and watering it needs, and what potting material to set it in.

Now we delve into fertilizers, insecticides, and rooting hormones. All of these, with proper application, can be useful additions to the orchid enthusiast’s arsenal.

Why Fertilize?

Fertilizers aren’t necessary to cultivating a healthy orchid. After all, orchids have thrived in the wild for millennia without a concerned gardener pumping it full of extra stuff. “You have the option to just water your orchid every day,” says JM, an agricultural consultant and orchid enthusiast.  “Anyway, plants produce their own food through photosynthesis.”

But most people who consider using fertilizers do so because they want more than just a healthy plant. JM understands this all too well, saying, “Nagmamadali ka because you want to see the flowers, so you have to give them some sort of nutrition.”

Choosing a Fertilizer

There are standard fertilizer preparations in the market. JM says that any of them is fine as long as they are certified by the Fertilizers and Pesticides Authority (FPA). “If you see that seal, you don’t have to worry about quality. Since they are FPA registered, they have been monitored by the necessary government agencies,”JM says. “Don’t take risks in purchasing chemical fertilizers with no FPA seal.”

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Paphiopedilum philippinense
Photo courtesy of JM

How to Read Fertilizer Labels

Fertilizer label may seem like a different language at first, but with a bit of practice, you’ll be reading it like an orchid whisperer. The acronyms on the label refer to the active microelements in the fertilizer. NPK, for example, stands for nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). “These are the three basic elements that are advertised in the labels of fertilizers because these are what are required by the orchids in large concentrations compared to the trace elements or micronutrients like boron, zinc, magnesium,” JM explains.

For seedlings, look for a fertilizer with a high nitrogen proportion, which will give it lush leaves. “Once it matures a bit, more than six inches na ang laki nila, then you can give it more balanced formulations.”

How can you tell which element your fertilizer has more of? Check its percentage. The three numbers on the package refer to the percentage of the elements indicated, in the sequence in which they appear. “An example of high nitrogen formulation would be 30-10-10. 30% nitrogen, 10% potassium and phosphorus,” JM says, which, as he mentioned, is great for seeds. “You can shift to more balanced formulations, for example 20/20/20 or 18-18-18 or 19-19-19. These are balanced formulations for juvenile orchids. You’re basically giving them more phosphorus and potassium compared to high nitrogen.”

Different concentrations of elements have different effects. “Formulations with high phosphorus ratios like 9-45-15 are called bloom boosters,” JM says. “Mayroon ka ring makikitang mataas ang potassium. They’re basically for fruiting trees, but you can use them also for orchids for growth.”

“Nitrogen is for leaf production, phosphorus is for flowering, and potassium is for fruit production and fruit set fruit trees or to minimize bud drop of flowers,” he concludes.

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Aerides flabellata
Photo courtesy of JM

Using Fertilizer

Using a fertilizer is easy— just follow instructions. “The rule of thumb for chemical fertilizers is the younger the plant is, the higher the nitrogen requirement it requires,” JM says.

Most fertilizers suggest using one tablespoon of the formulation per gallon of water, applied once a week. “Yun yung nakalagay sa label. Pero from my experience, I can use half tablespoon per gallon and apply it twice a week,” JM says.

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Row of Aranda orchids
Photo courtesy of JM

Organic Fertilizers

Whether to use a chemical or organic fertilizer is up to you. There are ready-made organic fertilizers in the market with easy-to-follow directions. “However, you can’t expect instantaneous effects compared to synthetic fertilizers,” JM says. “But what’s good about organic fertilizer is they are not at all hazardous or toxic. They’re a bit pricey compared to synthetic fertilizer but you have peace of mind.”

Folks on a budget or who want to know exactly what goes into their fertilizer can make their own. “You can use yung pinaghugasan ng bigas to water your orchid once a week,” JM says, warning about overusing, “Huwag naman mag-fertilize every time maghugas ka ng bigas. Baka fungus naman abot nun kasi there are fungi associated with rot that you can inadvertently transfer to the orchid or the media.”

Other organic household waste can be used as fertilizer. “You can also use yung pinaghugasan ng hilaw na karne o isda, which is mabantot pero it works. Use it once a week at most because you will attract flies,” JM says. “To avoid that, once you water your plants with organic stuff, after one hour or so, you have to water it again to wash it down because they’ve absorbed the nutrients already.”

When do you apply fertilizer? “When you’re sure that there’s good weather kasi if it’s cloudy or rainy, you don’t need to apply that because the plants will minimally absorb nutrients, so you’ll just be wasting money,” JM says.

How often should you fertilize? “Just fertilize regularly. The thing is once you apply fertilizer, you have to apply it regularly so that the plants would get what it is expecting,” JM says, adding that it is a good idea to change fertilizer brands once in a while so that the plants don’t get used to a certain formulation. A change every three months or so may further encourage growth.

In Part 4, we discuss insecticides, rooting hormones, and sharing your passion with the rest of the world.

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Yvette Tan
Yvette Tan is Agriculture magazine's managing editor Agriculture.com.ph’s web editor. She is an award-winning writer who likes to eat, travel, and listen to stories about the strange and supernatural. She is dedicated to encouraging people to push for sustainable food sources and is an advocate of food security, food sovereignty, and the preservation of community foodways.

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    1. […] Read Part 3, where we discuss fertilizers and insecticides, and how to best apply them. […]

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