Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
New England
March, 2006
Regional Report

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Orchid blooms are so intricate that you'll want to keep them up close and personal.

Orchids at Your Fingertips

Few flowering houseplants invite gazing as much as orchids. While they attract attention wherever they sit, personally I like to place them where I can see the flowers up close. My moth orchid with two tall stems of deep pink blooms resides next to the kitchen sink to give me a lift while doing dishes. Another one sits next to the computer and provides inspiration when I'm searching for the right word. Their flowers are so intricate that you can miss their detail -- and the fragrance of those so endowed -- if you don't bring them close to you when they are in flower. To get them to that point, though, they may need to live in an out-of-the-way spot, or wherever they will receive the conditions they need to thrive.

It's hard to generalize about the needs of orchids since there are so many different types, but some tendencies hold true for most of them. Lots of the more widely available types, such as moth orchids (phalaenopsis) and oncidiums, grow as epiphytes in nature, with their roots clinging to trees and taking in rainwater and moisture from the air. So as you can imagine, the roots need good air circulation, and soggy potting mix is the kiss of death.

Specially made orchid pots have elongated slits on the sides to allow better air circulation around the roots than standard pots, but they aren't necessary as long as you grow the plants in fir bark or osmunda fiber or lava rock or another medium that holds air and drains well and keep the drainage holes from getting blocked by little pieces of the growind mix. This is why it's a good idea to transplant them when the mix starts breaking down into little pieces -- about every year to year and a half.

Orchids prefer more humidity than our homes generally provide, at least in the winter with the dry air from heating, and there are three good ways to provide it. You can mist the air around your plants every few days in winter, more often on warm sunny days in spring and summer. Do this in the morning so the leaves have time to dry off before nighttime.

You can use a room humidifier during the day in the winter, but shut it off at night because orchids prefer both lower humidity and lower temperatures at night. A popular recommendation is to set the orchid pots on a tray filled with pebbles and keep water in the tray to evaporate around your plants. But an orchid grower I talked with recently pooh poohs this practice because he says it does little to increase humidity.

Fertilizer will help your plants bloom their best, especially if you grow plants in fir bark, which contains no nutrients. A little nitrogen will go a long way, and too much can prevent flowering. I give my plants weekly doses of a balance fertilizer (20-20-20 or 15-15-15 or 10-10-10) in spring and summer. The more light plants receive, the more fertilizer they can use. Since fertilizer can damage dry roots, water your plants first, then apply fertilizer solution.

Many orchids -- especially the commonly available ones -- can be grown at typical household temperatures, with temperatures at night about 10 degrees cooler. Some, such as miltonias and cymbidiums, like cooler daytime temps, so place them closer to windows in winter and in the coolest spots in summer. Dendrobiums will be happy with extra warmth.

My plants look the healthiest and produce the most flowers when they are under fluorescent grow lights, and my cattleya didn't bloom for years until I placed it under lights. Find out the light requirements for each of the types of orchids you grow because let's face it, we grow these plants for their flowers. (Actually my jewel orchid, Haemaria discolor, is popular for its beautiful, downy, deep purple foliage with light purple veins. The flowers are nothing special.)

Here in New England, you can grow some types, such as moth orchids (Phalaenopsis) and lady slipper orchids (Paphiopedilum) at your windows if your plants receive at least 6 hours of sunlight. Cattleyas, dendrobiums, and oncidiums, among others, require more light than that -- 8 to 10 hours. If you can't provide this amount, place them under lights for about 14 hours a day.

Just like us, orchids love spending the summer outdoors. They can't tolerate full sun outside, so give them a place in dappled shade where they will be treated to rainfall yet be protected from the wind. And keep the pots off the ground because the roots need air circulation through the drainage holes.

In fact, air circulation is one of the most important things you can provide to your orchids. Some people set up small fans to move the air around a grouping of plants. Give them space, don't cluster them too close together, and do keep windows open at night during warm weather to refresh the air.

When you're soaking up the color and fragrance at the flower shows this spring, you're sure to find some tempting orchids in glorious bloom. Don't hesitate. Buying one in bloom is the best way to know exactly what you're getting. And often the price is right, too.

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