Gardeners keeping African violets and orchids know that many times the highest maintenance plants offer the greatest reward during blooming season. For years now, the self-watering pot has been available to African violet gardeners, making the task of properly watering this sensitive plant much easier. Orchid growers who have an interest in lightening the burden of care can benefit from a self-watering pot as well. However, if you want to use a self-watering pot for an orchid, you need to be aware of variables that may affect the overall health of your plant.
As with African violets, the principle difficulty in growing orchids is the proper administration of water; too much, and their roots may rot. Too little water, and they’ll quickly fade. This makes the temptation to switch from a traditional orchid setup to a self-watering pot very strong. Self-watering pots are a great way to add moisture to soil gradually over long periods of time without saturating the plant and causing root rot. However, most African violets have relatively similar watering needs. By contrast, orchids grow in many different climates and have many different needs. Some grow high up in tropical rain forest canopies while others grow in denser, more temperate climates. This variety is part of what endears orchids to gardeners all over the world, but it is also the reason that one pot solution—like the self-watering pot—is not the answer for every orchid.
Pay careful attention to the specific needs of your orchid species before repotting an orchid in a self-watering pot. According to Flower Shop Network, most orchids are epiphytic, meaning they grow in trees rather than in the denser soil below. Growing in trees makes these plants particularly dependent on soils that are mostly organic, consisting of decayed tree leaves, bark and mosses. They glean moisture from the naturally high humidity of the rain forests they thrive in, which enables their roots to stay moist without becoming saturated. Tropical Plants, Flowers, and Decor points out that, "It is very important that [epiphytic orchids] have good drainage". When growing epiphytic orchids in the home, the best way to recreate their natural habitat is with frequent, light watering that moistens the roots but drains quickly. In order to thrive in the home, these orchids need a watchful gardener to provide that humid, airy habitat. Doing so sometimes requires slight adjustments on a regular basis. A self-watering pot does not have the ability to adjust the amount of moisture it delivers to the plant, and therefore is not the best solution for epiphytic orchids.
There are many orchid varieties that aren’t epiphytic. These have adapted to grow in more conventional soils and lend themselves more readily to a self-watering pot setup. You still need to use a soil blend designed for your specific species of orchid, but you don’t have to replicate the delicate cycle of very light watering and fast draining the way you must with epiphytic orchids. To successfully incorporate a self-watering pot for your non-epiphytic orchid, add a layer of perlite in the base of the inner, perforated section of the pot. Add the soil blend for your orchid, then fill the sealed outer section with water high enough that it reaches the perlite. Set the inner, perforated section inside the outer section, making certain that the water does not reach the actual soil as this could lead to saturation and eventually root rot. Oyama Planters, one of the larger manufacturers of self watering pots, states that, "Perlite used below the soil keeps the soil from being submerged in water, and acts like a wick to absorb the moisture and nutrients". The gardener still can’t control how much or how little water the perlite layer delivers to the soil above, but non-epiphytic orchids will prove much less sensitive to fluctuations in soil moisture than their epiphytic cousins.
If you do make the decision to employ a self-watering pot, don’t throw your old orchid pot away. Watch your orchid for two to three weeks; if you notice any wilting, or if the orchid begins to sag a bit, you’ll know that the self-watering pot is not going to be as effective in maintaining the proper environment for your plant. Having kept your orchid’s previous pot, you’ll be able to switch back quickly and restore the plant to vibrancy again.