Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
January, 2012
Regional Report

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Add the beauty of moth orchids to your houseplant collection.

Moth Orchids -- Easy-to-Grow Houseplants

Although my home has been filled with houseplants since my early working years as an editor of a houseplant magazine, it wasn't until ten or so years ago that I started growing orchids. Or to be specific, phalaenopsis or moth orchids. I bought one on a whim and, lo and behold, it flourished. In the intervening period, moth orchids have become readily available, including at grocery floral shops. If you've wondered if you could grow them, let me say a resounding, "Yes!" Following are a few tips that will ensure success

I don't profess to be an orchid expert, just a gardener who has acquired about two dozen moth orchids over the years. I've kept most of them alive, with months of blooms every winter. Some of the ones I've bought have been chosen for the unusually marked or colored flowers (there are hundreds of varieties with lots of variations from the classic white-flowered version), but others were chosen because they were marked down for a ridiculously low price. Even at the great price of $2.00, I make sure to check that the leaves look healthy. Usually, these sale plants have faded flower stems and are very potbound.

What Do Healthy Leaves Look Like?
Whether you pay full price or buy on sale, moth orchid leaves should be dark, shiny green (some varieties have mottled leaf coloration) with a smooth surface. If the leaves are wrinkled, it means that the plants are very moisture-deprived. Sometimes you can get the plants to recover, but it's a risk. Decide how much of a gambler you are. There should also be no signs of insects or disease. Lift up the leaves to check for scale or other insects on the undersides.

Do I Cut Off the Faded Flower Stems?
With most orchids, the flower spike is cut off after blooms fade, but moth orchids are a bit different (although not everyone agrees). Generally, if the flower stem turns brown all the way down to the leaves, then cut it off at the base. However, especially with the newer hybrids, only the top portion of the stem may brown. If this portion is cut off, just above a node, the flower stem will branch off with new flower buds. The only downside to this is that the plant is putting energy into flowers rather than plant growth, taking away from healthy growth and blooms next year. A good compromise is to assess the plant. If it is a large, healthy plant with a substantial root system, then let the flower stem branch and keep blooming. With a younger plant or one less vigorous, cut the stem at the base.

Just to complicate matters a bit, there are some hybrid moth orchids that bear just a few blooms at a time at the end of the flower spike, which tends to keep developing flower buds over a long period. The flower spike also tends to grow horizontally. With this type, leave the spike until it become unruly.

When and How Do I Repot a Moth Orchid?
The ideal time to repot a moth orchid is when it finishes blooming. This is usually in late spring or early summer, But if I buy a potbound one with faded flowers in mid-winter, I'll repot then. The condensed version of repotting a moth orchid is to remove it from the pot, wash off all the potting medium, trim dead or broken roots, and plant in a slightly larger pot. For more detailed information, there are many excellent websites with step-by-step photos. Two to consider include and

Moth orchids do not grow in the type of potting soil used for most houseplants. Instead, there are mixtures available made either of bark or long-fiber sphagnum moss. I've used both, and both have worked fine, but I am now exclusively using the long-fiber moss type.

How Do I Care for my Moth Orchid?
My orchids are in a room that has both southern and western exposures. A good guideline is that if you have African violets that bloom, then that same exposure will be good for moth orchids. Eco-conscious home temperatures of 68 degrees F in winter will be fine, with indoor summer temperatures in the 70s. To initiate flowering in the fall, moth orchids respond to two weeks of temperatures of 55 to 60 degrees F.

As to watering, one of the cleverest marketing premises comes from Green Circle Growers and Mid-American Growers, two of the largest greenhouse operations in the Midwest, with their Just Add Ice growing information tags. The directions are to add three ice cubes to the pot each week. The point is that orchids need regular watering, but not too much. More moth orchids are more frequently killed with over watering than with under watering.

As to feeding, I use an orchid fertilizer when I water, increasing the amount during the growth period from May through September. Any flowering houseplant fertilizer will be fine to use.

The Bottom Line
Moth orchids add their unique beauty and exotic quality to your home easily and readily. Treat yourself to one this year.

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