Answers to your gardening questions
effective Deer Fence!
Welcome through Fred's Garden Gate! When you hear the word, "orchids," do you think of a very delicate and beautiful tropical plant that is very difficult to grow? That's what a lot of people believe but orchids are really quite hardy and very easy to grow. They require a little space, patience, something close to the right environmental conditions and time. Time... not in terms of labor but rather in patience.
Surprisingly, orchids take about the same effort and care as many other house-plants, African violets, for example. Most orchids like a temperature of between 65 and 85 degrees (F), about 60 percent humidity and fairly bright indirect light.
A greenhouse is not at all a necessity. They'll do just fine on a windowsill (west- or south-facing during the winter) as long as there is some protection against unfiltered sun and cold drafts. So if you're reasonably successful with houseplants, there's nothing to keep you from growing and thoroughly enjoying these exotic and showy plants too. The photo at right shows a delightful little phalenopsis ("moth orchid") flowering handsomely in our SW-facing kitchen window during Jan., 2001. Click on the picture for a larger image. Use your "back" button to return.
It used to be thought that orchids could only be grown by the very wealthy (experts, highly trained in the art) and then only in a very warm and very humid greenhouse. Indeed, there was a time (sometimes referred to as orchidmania) when the wealthy and elite traveled to the far reaches of jungled earth to collect rare and choice specimens. Prices skyrocketed as collectors struggled mightily to have the very best.
One of the earliest errors was in assuming that since most of the exotic types came from the tropics, the best growing environment for these showy specimens was a hothouse where temperature and high humidity were carefully controlled -- 24 hours a day, month after month. True, they do, indeed, prefer a warmer climate and don't care to dry out for long periods of time. Early collectors, however, failed to recognize the widely fluctuating conditions in the jungles.
Many orchids originated in areas that can get quite cold at night. Some have the ability to withstand long periods of drought. Others grow high up in trees, bathed in filtered sunlight and gentle breezes. All were collectively thrown into one monotonous hot and humid - and sometimes very bright - torture chamber. Many perished, contributing to the notion that they were difficult to grow. How times have changed! There are already large numbers of well-written and informative books about orchid culture on the market, so rather than go through a long detailed essay on all of the fine points, I'll give you a collection of tips ("keys," if you like) to successful orchid growing.
First, let me repeat, they really don't need extra-special care but there are a few simple points to remember that will make the experience much more enjoyable and rewarding.
Ordinary potting mix won't work for orchids because they need plenty of air around their roots.
Some, called epiphytes, even grow high up in tropical trees with no soil at all. Their roots simple attach themselves to the bark. I've found that the best potting medium for orchids is a 50/50 mix of shredded fir bark and coarsely granulated charcoal. The size of bark particles depends on the size of the orchid roots. Large, robust specimens prefer chunks 1/2-inch or larger. Tiny, delicate plants would do better in 1/4 inch mix. You can substitute shredded fern wood (osmunda) for the bark if you like. Some growers add about 1/4 to 1/3 volume of coarse sphagnum moss.
Orchids should be repotted every year, in the spring, just as new growth begins. That's because as bark decomposes the particles get smaller and that means less air. Gently remove the plant from its pot and carefully shake away most of the old, decayed soil. Don't divide unless absolutely necessary. Replant in the next larger size pot being careful not to plant it too deeply. Plastic pots are OK but I prefer the clay type if available because they're heavier (plants are less apt to tip over) and they "breathe" better. Be sure to include plenty of drainage in the bottom of the pot.
This one's easy...if you remember that you feed an orchid when it's actively growing, not to make it grow. Twice a month with recommended strength Peters Orchid Special (30-10-10) liquid. Commercial orchid growers feed at every watering. Amateurs and home gardeners like you and I don't lavish such careful attention on houseplants, so we're better off feeding a little less. When the plant is obviously trying to rest (after a heavy bloom) reduce the fertilizer to half strength and then only once every three or four weeks.
Watering is a little trickier because if an orchid gets and stays too wet its roots and other plant parts will rot. The amount of water depends on the size of the bark used in the mix and how old it is. Naturally, the coarser the mix, the faster water will run through it and be used by the plant. Conversely, a very fine mix used on one of the miniature varieties will hold water longer. The rule of thumb: the medium should stay consistently moist; never saturated; and never standing in a tray of water for more than a few minutes.
It would be best to set the plant in the kitchen sink once every few days and given enough water to run out the bottom. That'd be a good time to give your plants a refreshing shower, too.
A Summer Vacation
As the weather warms up and the danger of frost has past, take your orchids out of doors for a relaxing few months of fresh air and gentle rain. Any bright spot with light shade like beneath a tree is best. Remember to continue your normal watering routine because even a gentle breeze will cause them to dry out quickly. Bring them back in when nighttime temperatures fall to the mid '40s and check them carefully for insects that might have crawled on board.
Any gardener who is reasonably successful with houseplants can also enjoy an orchid or two. I'd recommend that you start small with one or two blooming size plants. Many nurseries with greenhouses, particularly those that stay open all winter, sell orchids. Prices vary but you can find a nice plant, budded up and healthy for between $20 - $30. Some cost less; others have price tags into the hundreds. Even grocery stores occasionally sell orchids in a variety of colors - for about $20.
I particularly like the Cymbidiums, Cattleyas and Paphiopedilums because they adjust to the home environment and require only slightly more than minimal care.
Resembling the lady's slipper orchid familiar to most New Englanders, paphiopedilum is a terrestrial, needing a fairly fine mix of fir bark, charcoal and a little fine gravel. They require less light than many other types of orchids. Paph blossoms are not what most people picture in their mind when they hear the word, orchids. Colors are somewhat unusual, too, with more mahogany shades and greens mixed with yellow. But they do quite well in the home, bloom readily and have very attractive foliage. Flowers appear on short spikes from buds stimulated by a sharp drop in temperature and can last for as many as four weeks. If the tips of leaves turn brown, reduce the application of fertilizer. Browned leaf tips can be trimmed back with sharp scissors to a "natural" leaf shape. Click on the picture for a larger image. Use your "back" button to return.
Phalaenopsis orchids are probably the most frequently seen types — and clearly the easiest to grow — on the open market today. Commonly called "moth" orchids, they are forgiving and seem to hang onto life with rarely seen tenacity — even in the face of moderate neglect. Moth orchids have a base of broad, sturdy, mostly dark green leaves from which arise gracefully-arching flower scapes with supporting numerous buds. Colors range from spectacular, blistering white, to rich, bright colors and, as in the photo at the right, attractive — if not fascinating — combinations of colors. Opening successively over the space of sometimes several weeks, this is one that's perfect for both the novice and "pro". Click on the picture for a larger image. Use your "back" button to return.
Foliage of these easy and showy orchids looks like coarse grass, is gracefully arching and a rich, dark green. Flowers arise in our home during January and February. From seven to as many as fifteen blossoms alternate along a 24- to 36-inch long spike and, for a time, virtually all buds are open at once. Flowers may last about six weeks. Colors range from a clear white to pink to a very deep rose with lots of yellows, mahoganies and some greens in between. Cymbidiums are the easiest of the easy and will even tolerate a little neglect but will reward you handsomely for their share of tender, loving care. This is the type that is most often seen in the flower boutiques of supermarkets and chain-stores. They grow best in a mix of three equal parts of fine fir bark, shredded sphagnum moss and clean sand.
These are the very large, "traditional" orchids that attracted so much attention during the early years of "orchidmania" in England. Flowers of the standard size can be larger than the gardener's hand and are quite fragile but also deliciously fragrant. I prefer the newer, more disciplined dwarf or mini-kats whose two- to four-inch flowers are so familiar in lovely corsages. They are native to South America and are epiphytes - normally attaching themselves to the branches and trunks of large forest trees. Cattleyas come in a wide array of colors from pure white to a very, very dark maroon that almost looks black. They can handle more light than other orchids and will actually bloom better when their leaves are just on the edge of sunburn. This is the one for you if your windows are wide, bright and warm...and you sometimes forget to water.
That's it for orchids. I've only scratched the surface and suggest that if you are encouraged and interested, you might pick up a good book on their culture. A particularly helpful one is volume 22 of the Time-Life Encyclopedia of Gardening. You might also drop a card or letter to the American Orchid Society, 6000 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach, Florida 33405. Of the 30,000 known species and probably twice that many hybrids, you'll surely find just the right one. Perhaps it'll be the basis of a fun and rewarding lifelong hobby. The Internet abounds in sites dedicated to the culture and marketing of orchids.
Also conduct a search via any of the popular search engines (www.google.com [my personal favorite!], www.yahoo.com, www.search.com and www.altavista.com are examples) and just type in "orchid culture" (and leave in the quote marks for best search results). If you want even better and more reliable "hits", type this into the search box: "orchid culture" site:.edu — and leave the quote marks in...that'll limit the search to only institutions of higher learning and force the search engine to look only for the exact phrase. There'll be nearly 70 to choose from...just poke around to find more cultural information than you ever hoped for.
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