Introduction: Vertical Orchid Planter
One of the ways I'm coping with being at home all the time is by introducing more plants into my living space. I happened to buy my first orchid ever in February right before the shutdown started, and spent a lot of time on youtube in the following months learning about how to take care of it. Since then I've gone a bit overboard and now have six orchids (update: a year later and the collection has grown to ~20 plants... what can I say, it's been a rough year), so I wanted to build a vertical planter where they could all live together on my wall.
This wall planter has spots for up to 9 plants, and uses modular face panels that can support pots up to about 6" diameter (my thinking is that I might cut the holes bigger as the plants grow). I've designed the planter so that the plants and their plastic pots can be easily removed from the planter to check on their roots and water them thoroughly in the sink. This design also works great with other hanging plants – I made another, smaller 2x2 for some Pothos plants I have. I've also made a version with dovetail joints.
Up next are the build instructions, skip ahead to the last step to get some tips on orchid growing that I've learned over the past year.
(16ft) 1x8 board - I found some Douglas Fir fencing material at my local hardware store and had it cut into four 4' lengths to fit in my car.
(1x) 21-3/8" x 21-3/8" x 1/4" plywood - for back panel
(1x) ~4" x ~22" piece of scrap 3/4" plywood for mounting cleats
(10x screws) 1" pocket hole screws or some other 1" pan head screw Amazon
(4x bags) heavy duty plastic garbage bags
(27x screws) 100 pack #2 1/4" decorative slotted round head brass screws McMaster 92407A077
(81x washers) 100 pack M2 brass washers McMaster 91635A170
(3x screws) #6 1-1/4" flat head wood screws
(2x screws) #8 1-1/2" flat head wood screws (for mounting to your wall studs)
Titebond wood glue Amazon
blue painter's tape / masking tape
double sided scotch tape
sand paper + orbital sanding pads, multiple grits
Minwax clear polyurethane finish, satin Amazon
(9x pots) rePotme slotted clear orchid pots, various sizes Amazon – I like the clear pots bc I can see the roots easily, which helps me know when to water. Most of my orchids fit in the 4" or 5" pots. Other pots will work, just be sure they have a lip around the top edge so they will mount properly.
orchid media – I'm using the rePotme Phalaenopsis Monterey Dark Imperial Orchid Potting Mix. For my oncidium and hot growing phalaenopsis (they like more water), I'm using the rePotme Oncidium Imperial Orchid Mix. For both of these mixes I'm using long fiber sphagnum moss on top to help hold everything in, and I've added a bit of chopped sphagnum in with the bark to make it a bit more water retentive (so I don't have to water constantly).
(1x) clear fishing line Amazon – I'm using this to tie in the plants to their pots for extra security. The fishing line can also be used to support flower spikes that have been trained to grow vertically (new flower spikes that grown in while the plant is mounted will not need extra support).
(3x screws) 10 pack small brass eye screws Etsy – optional, for supporting current blooms with fishing line, a small pan head screw would also work here.
(1x) black anodized steel wire 19 gauge – optional, for making hooks to support current blooms.
jointer / planer
band saw – for resawing a thick board into 1/8" thick pieces for front panel, technically this is optional, see step called "Front Panels"
drum sander - for cleaning up my resawing
laser cutter – for cutting large circular holes in wood, this could also be achieved with a router
90 degree band clamps Amazon (I used two of these)
regular wood clamps, at least 12" long
Kreg pocket hole jig Amazon
staple gun and staples Amazon (a hot glue gun could also work)
needle nose pliers – optional, if making wire hooks
wire cutters – optional, if making wire hooks
Step 1: Design
I designed this planter in Fusion360, here are the files:
The design is fully parametric, with parameters to control the tilt angle of the front panels, the stock thickness, the outer dimensions, and the number of plants in the grid. The parameters I've used for this design are shown in the image above, they may be changed in the most up to date version of the file, but you can edit them back to my original design via Modify>ChangeParameters in Fusion360.
Note: This box is mounted to the wall using a french cleat, and you'll want to be sure that the cleat spans at least two wall studs for a good hold for larger planters. Typical stud spacing is 16" or 24" - if you are planning to mount this to a 24" studded wall, you will want to increase the overall width of the frame to at least 28" (maybe by adding an extra row of pots, lucky you).
Step 2: Frame
First I ran 12 ft of my 1x8 lumber through the jointer/planer to square it up on three sides. I took the thickness down to 5/8" to get it flat. 8ft of this will form the outer frame, the remaining 4ft will form the shelves.
Using a miter saw, I cut four 22" boards with 45 degree mitered edges (would have been better to do this on the table saw, but I didn't have the right sled available). Then I put the mitered boards back on the table saw to clean up the last edge (should be about 7.25" wide) and cut a 1" rabbet into the rear side to receive the back panel (a piece of 21-3/8" x 21-3/8" x 1/4" plywood and the 3/4" thick cleat).
I cut two 20-3/4" x 6-1/16" shelves from the remainder of the 5/8" stock. I saved the offcuts for a later step.
Step 3: Front Panel Receiving Slots
Next I cut 8 degree angled slots in the shelves and the top and bottom of the outer frame to receive the 1/8" front panels holding the pots. I cut the bottom slot about 1/8" deep, and the top slot about 5/16" deep so that the front panel could be removed by pushing it up into the top slot and lifting out the bottom edge from the frame of the planter.
Step 4: Front Panels
The front panels are made from 1/8" stock, they could be made from a plywood with a similar color (eg birch veneer ply) or you could glue a piece of veneer onto a piece of ply to match the wood you're working with. I wanted to give resawing a go with this project since I've never done it before, so I took the remaining 2ft of my 1x8 board and cut it into 3 layers, each slightly thicker than 1/8". Here is a video that describes the resawing process in more detail:
Resawing was tricky and my cuts were quite messy, but after a few passes on the drum sander the results came out great. I work out of a community shop and the resawing blade we had was a bit dull and tended to drift. I cut my 24" board into thirds on the miter saw so that I would not have to perform very long resawing cuts to minimize drift – I also found that approaching the cut from both sides helped. Since posting this, I've made a second version where I used the table saw to get the cut started and that helped enormously. I had plenty of room to cut 3x1/8" panels, so I aimed to cut everything as thick as possible and took each piece down to 1/8" on the drum sander. Be sure to use push sticks liberally with this operation because it exposes a lot of the bandsaw blade.
You can cut the outer dimensions and holes in the panels with a variety of tools (I used a laser cutter). Be sure to have some spare pots handy to test the fit. When cutting the outer dimension of the panels, one thing you'll want to pay attention to is the direction of the grain. Since the front panel boards are supported along the top and bottom edges, they will be stronger if the grain is running vertically.
I did a couple of test cuts and found the following diameters worked well for the rePotme pots I'm working with:
6" pot: 5.9"
5" pot: 4.85"
4" pot 4.05"
3" pot: 3.18"
Step 5: Glue Up
I glued up the 4 sides and back panel of the outer frame (using masking tape to help align the miter joints) and lightly clamped the piece overnight with band clamps and regular clamps.
Step 6: Mounting Support
I used one of the offcuts from the shelves (measuring 20-3/4" x ~1-1/4" x 3/8") as a mounting support for the frame. This support will receive the screws from the cleat on the back and distribute loading across the rest of the frame (I didn't want everything hanging off just the back panel or the top panel of the frame). To add extra strength, I cut some pocket holes on either end of the mount and used these to secure it to the side panels before glueing the whole piece in.
Step 7: Back Mount
Next I created the french cleat that will attach my planter to the wall. I use a ~4" x 22" piece of scrap 3/4" plywood to make both sides of the cleat. I set my table saw to 45 degrees and ran it through the center fo the plywood strip I used 1-1/4" screws to screw the cleat straight through to the inside support of the planter.
Step 8: Finishing
I sanded the visible surfaces with an orbital sander, starting with 120 then with 180 grit paper. I broke the corners of the miter joints a bit by hand to take the hard edge off.
I finished the exterior of the wood with two clear coats of polyurethane, sanding with 600 in between cured layers.
Note that there are a few extra pieces pictured above, you can ignore those, I've simplified the design a bit since taking this picture.
Step 9: Waterproofing Frame
I stapled some plastic lining along the entire back wall of the frame to prevent water from leaking out the back. Be sure not to put any staples where the shelves will go.
Step 10: Install Shelves
Though the shelves of this planter aren't directly supporting the weight of the pots, they will support the front panels that hold the pots in place. Additionally, they will catch water drips and help brace the miter joints of the outer frame.
I cut pocket holes in each of the boards and screwed both shelves to the inside of the frame with 1" screws, separating the inner compartment into three equal-sized volumes.
Step 11: Waterproofing Shelves
I added more plastic lining to each of the shelves to catch any drips coming off the pots. Again, I securing this lining with a staple gun. After I installed the front panels, I used some double sided tape to adhere the garbage bags to the front panels and cut away any excess lining.
Step 12: Mount Cleat to Wall
I mounted the other half of the french cleat to the wall via two 1.5" screws straight into two wall studs. I used a level to ensure the cleat was straight. For a smaller planter, you could cut a taller cleat and use two vertical screws into a single stud. From here the planter can slide on easily and should feel very snug on the wall.
Step 13: Repotting Orchids
Generally when you buy an orchid, it's been living in its pot for a while and is desperately in need of new media (and maybe a larger pot). Wait until after the blooms fall and it enters its growing phase to do repotting. Sometimes, plants that have not been taken care of very well will have some root rot; in extreme cases, this rot can cause the plant to drop leaves and flowers and may require immediate repotting.
Repotting the orchids involves completely removing the old media from the roots, addressing any root rot or other issues, and then placing the plant in a pot with new orchid media. The best media for you is going to depend on your desired watering frequency and your climate. See my notes on media in the last step for some advice. I'm using a bark mix with a bit of chopped sphagnum mixed in (so I don't have to water constantly) and some extra sphagnum on top to hold the media in the pot as it's tipped sideways.
I like using clear pots with my orchids because it allows you to see the roots clearly, which for me is the best way of checking the health of the plant. I had some problems with algae in some of my plants when the clear containers were exposed to light, but have not had this issue when using the wall planter. Though orchid roots can photosynthesize, they don't need to be exposed to light for the plant to thrive.
This video gives a good overview of the repotting process. I've been spraying down the roots with 3% hydrogen peroxide as recommended to prevent pests from spreading (I've come across aphids and snails on some of my plants). I have noticed that I usually see a bit of a fungal bloom after bringing the plant home or shortly after repotting, don't worry about this, the media is never going to be completely sterile so don't even try, you just have to give it time to let things come to some kind of equilibrium. If the fungus grows to a point that it seems to be taking over and overwhelming the plant, then maybe try repotting, but I haven't experienced this. In general I've found that's it's best to not be too reactive as you usually end up doing more harm than good.
Step 14: Installing Orchids in Planter
I found that when the orchids are mounted horizontally like this, they can still slip out of the pot, especially when they are in bloom and tend to be pretty top heavy. I was hoping the slight tilt I put in the design would help, but as the blooms get really big, it's hard to rely on gravity and friction alone to keep things in place. So I'm using fishing line to tie the media and roots down to keep everything secure. This is a common practice when mounting orchids to a piece of bark – a popular method for displaying them.
To tie down with fishing line, I made a small "needle" out of a bent piece of wire and threaded the fishing line through the slots in the pot, up and over the media, and back through the slots (see first pic). Be careful not to run the fishing line directly over the plant or its roots as it may cause some damage, but the sphagnum can act as a nice buffer.
I used something called a "turn button" (normally used on the back of picture frames) to secure the pots into the wooden frame. The smallest ones I could find were 5/8" from Cherry Tree Toys. They recommend using #16 Escutcheon Pins with the turn buttons, but I went with some small slotted screws instead so it would be easier to adjust later if needed. I also used a few small brass washers to offset the turn button slightly from the front of the wood panel.
Some of my orchids are still in bloom from when I first got them. Since these have been trained to grow upright, the flower spike may need some support when tipped to the side in the planter. I attached some small eye screws along the top of the planter, and used fishing line to provide support for the blooms. I bent some small s-hooks from stainless steel wire to connect the fishing line to the orchid. Once these flower spikes are done and the plants start producing new flower spikes while mounted, they will hang naturally and be able to support themselves.
Step 15: Caring for Orchids
That's it for the build, now comes the work of keeping these plants going until they bloom again next year. I've been watching a lot of videos by MissOrchidGirl on YouTube and checking out r/orchids to learn about orchid care. Phalaenopsis orchids (the ones from the grocery store) tend to be pretty hearty despite their reputation – they can lose the entire root system and get down to their last leaf or two and still come back (and even bloom again within a year). Here are the main points I've learned:
Repotting - The most important thing for orchid success is to get your plant in new media as soon as the flowers drop and you start seeing the plant growing new roots and leaves (or earlier if the plant is dropping leaves). By the time you've bought your plant from the grocery store or nursery, it's been in the same media for 2-3 years at least, and that media is on the edge of turning so acidic that it will kill the plant. You can neglect an orchid in a lot of ways and get away with it, but the one thing they can't survive is staying in the old media from the nursery forever.
Watering - You'll know the orchid needs water when the media is dry and the roots look silvery-green/yellow (as opposed to bright green/yellow), or in extreme cases, when the flowers or leaves start to wilt (don't let that happen). Phalaenopsis orchids need to get pretty dry in between waterings, so I wait until the sphagnum on top of the pot is fully crunchy – pretty much bone dry. To water, I've been fully drenching the pots in the sink with room temp tap water, and letting the media drain any excess water once they're back in the planter – the drips coming out should be fine in the plastic lining. People get really worried about using tap water on orchids, but I think it's fine, even with hard water, as long as you periodically give the plants a really good flush under the sink to get out any built up salts – if you go the route of using distilled water for your plants you will just end up under watering. Do not use ice cubes to water orchids, no matter what you read on the internet.
I was hoping it might be possible to water the orchids in the planter, but I just don't think it's the case unfortunately; they really need to get drenched. I actually ended up 3D printing some containers that fit the repotme pots (6", 5", 4", 3" STL files attached below) so that I could let the plants sit and soak for a few minutes when watering (following something similar to herebutnot's recommendation). One thing you'll want to be careful of is not to share water / containers between orchids, as this can transmit disease; so I print a new container for each orchid. This sounds overly crazy I know, but I did end up with a plant that had fusarium wilt, which is a fungal disease that will eventually spread and kill all your plants. The infected plant came from a reputable nursery, which goes to show that you really can't trust the health status of any new plants that you get. Fortunately, it seems to have been confined to that one plant (which later died), so I'm glad I was careful. Thankfully, no other plants have died in my care so far.
Crown Rot - I know a lot of people say that you have to be really careful to avoid water getting on the crown of the orchid as it will cause crown rot, I have not had this issue and all and happily drench everything in the sink to give the plants extra moisture, no toweling off or anything. I live in a less humid climate, so this may be one of the reasons why I can get away with it. I think that mounting the orchids sideways also helps any water in the crown drain out. As for misting, I don't think it's strictly necessary, but the plants probably benefit from it if you can remember to do it.
Media - Orchids don't grow in soil, they grow in some kind of orchid media, which provides adequate moisture and air to their roots. The best media for you is going to depend on your desired watering frequency and your climate. One thing I've realized after growing these plants for about a year is not to put too much weight on what people online say is best, you will drive yourself crazy trying to figure it out, and if you're listening to someone who lives in a different climate, their advice is pretty much useless. There is not some "perfect" media for your particular climate, a lot of different things will work. Most of all, these plants will adapt to the environment you give them; as long as you are consistent with your care, they should be able to adjust. You may lose some roots or leaves along the way ("set-back"), but don't worry, they bounce back really quick, just be consistent and stay the course. It takes a lot to kill these plants. That being said – if you're going to use a lot of sphagnum moss, be sure to pack it pretty tightly, loose sphagnum moss holds waaaay too much water and will probably rot your roots. I'm interested to switch to inorganic media in the future so I don't have to do any repotting (it's time consuming and tough on the plants), but I think I will need to redesign to the planters to incorporate some kind of self-watering system as it's tough to provide adequate hydration with an inorganic setup.
Remounting - I marked the top of the pots with a sharpie so that I put the plant back in the same orientation each time it's removed from the planter – this is especially important when the plant is growing new flower spikes because the spikes will be stronger when hanging in a certain direction. Be careful when you are mounting/dismounting the plants, especially when new flower spikes are growing in – I accidentally broke one this year, it's easy to do (I didn't even notice when it happened). Once the spikes are mature they are much less prone to breaking.
Light - Give the plants bright, indirect light if possible. Mine are probably a bit too shaded as they are about 12ft away from some large west-facing windows, but it's the best I can do for now. For about half the year they get an hour or two of late afternoon direct sunlight, and they seem to be handling that fine. Too little light will impede blooming, so far I have not experienced this. I used to be worried about the dark color of the leaves on some of my Phalaenopsis orchids, that it meant they we're getting enough light, but have since realized that some phals just have darker leaves and that's ok.
Fertilizing - Now that I've started lightly fertilizing (I only used water for the first few months, now I use 1/4 diluted orchid fertilizer about once a month), it's recommended to flush the excess salts off of the roots every few months. Note that when watering or flushing fertilizer out of the pot, you should save the excess water and use it on your other plants (orchid fertilizer is fine for other plants). You should not rinse fertilized water down the drain as it contributes to algal blooms in waterways, which can kill marine life. In general, use the fertilizer pretty sparingly, especially if you have hard water to begin with.
Old flower spikes - I'm surprised to read that many people get worried when the flowers fall, thinking that the plant is dying. This is just the natural cycle of the plant, unfortunately the flowers don't last forever. There is some debate about whether or not to cut green flower spikes on a healthy Phalaenopsis orchid. Many people say that cutting the spike results in bigger blooms next year, but I was swayed by some of the arguments in herebutnot's blog. Phalaenopsis orchids will continue to bloom off of green spikes, so you can end up with a lot more flowers by leaving spikes on if possible. I have already seem examples of old Phalaenopsis spikes reblooming in my own collection, so I'm firmly in the "don't cut green spikes" camp at the moment. I did cut some green spikes that were trained to grow vertically and just looking odd in the planter, but now that the plants are producing new spikes, I'm leaving them.
Reblooming - It's important that Phalaenopsis orchids experience some cool night temps (50-60 deg) for at least 4-6 weeks (longer is better) to induce the formation of new flower spikes. I was hoping that my apartment would get cold enough on its own if we didn't run the heater (I live in San Francisco), but found this was not the case. Instead, I had to remove the Phalaenopsis from the planter and place them near the window each night. This was super annoying and it would have been great if I had a place to mount the entire planter outside during the winter – hopefully this is an option for you. I got some spikes started by early January this year, but then we hit some very warm weather in February and now I only have a few (3-4) flowers on each spike. I'm thinking that if I can induce the spikes earlier next year (by Thanksgiving), the orchid will have a longer cold period to produce more buds. In industrial greenhouses, they use air conditioning to temp cycle the orchids over many months, generating the long cascading blooms that you see in the store.
Set back - "Set back" is when a plant experiences stress that causes it to temporarily grow smaller leaves / pseudobulbs / flower spikes until it recovers. From what I've observed, the transition from the greenhouse to a home environment is pretty significant source of stress for these plants and set back may be inevitable (but it's not that big of a deal, so don't overreact). Set back seems to be occurring in my collection at random, so I'm not sure there's a lot that you can do other than be patient and let it pass. I've noticed that air roots that have developed in the greenhouse will desiccate in the home environment and eventually die – I don't think it's worth fighting against this process, just be consistent with your care going forward so that new roots can acclimate and thrive.
Cross pollinating - I've been having a lot of fun cross pollinating some of my flowers too. Success rate is low, but I've managed to get a few seed pods to full maturity. For now I've just frozen them (not sure if they will even survive that) because I don't have the space to try to flask them, but it's something I'd like to try in the future.
Here are some useful videos describing some of the basics: