July 13, 2010

Growing Orchids, Fearlessly

By Lynn Mann


The first orchid myth I had to unlearn: orchids are difficult to grow. Actually, as long as you choose plants compatible with your growing environment, orchids are no more difficult than any other house plant. Do initial research, by borrowing a book from the library, going to shows or visiting a grower. While many species of orchids will thrive in your house, stay away from exotics, no matter how stunning. We'll discuss choosing and buying plants in more detail later.
Myth number 2: Orchids are finicky, requiring hours of misting and grooming. My experience has been that benign neglect is the key to happy orchids. They typically require much less water than you might expect. All the sales, auctions and greenhouses I've bought from provided care and feeding sheets on their plants as well as knowledgeable staff to guide your choices and help you take home an appropriate plant.


Myth number 3: Orchids are expensive and require a special room. I did at one point considered turning part of my deck into a greenhouse but decided the benefits (all the plants I could add to my collection) didn't outweigh the expense (of the greenhouse as well as the plants). Moreover, I love having all my plants in my house. If they were on the deck I would only enjoy them when I watered them.


Environment is key. For instance, most orchids don't like direct sunlight, or high heat. Many people assume that because orchids grow in the tropics that they require a lot of moisture and heat. While it is true that many orchids species grow in the tropics, many don't. Orchids grow world-wide, they "are native to every continent on Earth except Antarctica. They grow on rocks, on trees, and in the ground. There are temperate orchids and tropical orchids, orchids that grow all year round, and orchids the require a dormant period." (Orchid Growing For Wimps by Ellen Zachos). Experts estimate there are between 25,000 and 30,000 native species of orchids, and at least 10,000 man-made hybrids.


However, many of those would be highly impractical and for the purposes of house plants there are probably less than twenty to consider.


Remember what I said about benign neglect? The number one way people kill their orchids is by... watering them. Orchids need to dry out between waterings. Never, ever, under any circumstances, let your orchid sit in water. On the other hand, a humidity tray can be a good thing.


Rather than buy fancy equipment, I build my own trays. Buy the kind of tray you place under a houseplant to keep water off the floor or table. Buy the biggest one you can find (if this is for multiple plants), or several sizes larger than your orchid's pot. Fill the tray with gravel or small stones, set the orchid atop the stones and add enough water to cover the bottom of the tray. Be careful water does not come in contact with the pot at all. Add water as needed, remembering that less is better. Another safe way to add some humidity to your orchid's environment is to put other plants around it. Just be careful not to squeeze in so many plants that they can't get enough air.


Back to watering. Depending on the growing medium it takes my phals between five to ten days to dry out. How to judge whether your orchid needs water? I usually do it the old fashioned way, by touch. There are also visual clues: for instance, my Miltonias require more water than my phals do. Miltonia has long, thin leaves and if you see them pleating, they aren't getting enough water. As you become more familiar with your plants you'll also learn to judge their status by the weight of the pot. Rule of thumb: when in doubt, wait another day.

Most orchids grow on trees or rocks, and only get water when it rains. Even were it to rain daily there is nothing to hold the water, since the roots are not in the ground.

By the way, orchids are symbionts, not parasites. When they grow on a tree they are just living there, their roots don't penetrate the tree and they don't derive nourishment from it.


In the wild orchids grow under tree cover and few species will survive in direct sunlight. My phals live next to a window that gets great light all day but no direct sunlight. I tried growing Cattleyas, I love their huge showy blooms, but they need a lot more light than I have, so no more catts for me. (It is possible to grow orchids under lamps, and many growers do so.)


Another wonderful aspect of the phals is they bloom for months. Many orchids bloom for only a few weeks, once a year. Phals bloom up to six months, sometimes reblooming the same year. As I write this in August, some of my phals have been blooming since January. I find that by February, when I am slowing going nuts because I can't work outside in my garden, having orchids blooming like crazy helps keep me sane.


Now, the part you've been waiting for: How to choose an orchid and where to buy it. I buy almost all my orchids at auctions and shows, which are usually run by orchid societies and supplied by professional and semi-professional growers. You can be confident of getting healthy and well-established plants, disease- and bug-free. This is especially crucial if you are adding to your collection; all it takes is one sick plant to potentially infect your entire collection. Otherwise, visit the growers themselves, both for the beauty of their products and the knowledgeable staff. Try to buy plants that are "in spike", meaning are about to bloom, because you'll get the longest bloom time.


I strongly advise against buying orchids from places that don't specialize in orchids. Avoid "big box" and home improvement stores. The plants look great when you buy them, but the blooms may not last. None of those places are going to have anyone to answer your questions and because no one there knows anything about growing orchids they are frequently over-watered and the roots may already be rotting.


I also strongly caution against buying orchids over the internet. You have no idea with whom you're actually dealing or the quality of the plant(s) you'll eventually receive. The exception: if you have met the grower or visited his operation, and have a good level of confidence about his plants.


Are orchids expensive? They can be - prize-winning orchids sell for thousands of dollars. Personally, I don't think I've ever spent more than $30 on a single plant and usually far less. Something people forget when they buy an orchid: it's gonna grow! Orchids can live for a long time - twenty years is not uncommon. I have a Phalaenopsis so big that the next time I repot it (if it ever stops blooming long enough!) it will need its own table. So buying smaller plants isn't necessarily a bad thing, just look for one that's in spike, or has unopened blooms along with the open ones.


One last caution: no matter how well prepared you are, some of your orchids will die. Orchids are, to be simplistic, plants. Some thrive, some die - you learn from your mistakes.

Lastly - be prepared to enter a whole new world of addiction. Orchids have much in common with peanuts and potato chips: you can't stop at just one.


At shows, auctions and even greenhouses you'll often find books on raising orchids, at many levels of expertise. Buy one or two, they will come in handy.


Now that you've taken the first steps, and bought a plant or two, and a book, and maybe some planting medium, try visiting your local orchid society. You'll meet nice, knowledgeable people, hear great talks from experts and maybe even win a prize or two. I did.

18 comments:

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