Sunday, November 8, 2009
Orchids for Dummies
Yesterday's market was fun and went well! But today, I shall digress because when I displayed my orchids the other day, there were a lot of comments left about the lack of success with orchids. I'd like to offer a simple overview of how I grow them, which is pretty easy and has proven to be quite successful over the past 4 years or so. I was inspired to try this plant by a favorite uncle who was quite the aficionado when it came to orchids. When he passed on a few years ago, though I was really quite intimidated by their reputation, I decided to teach myself how to grow them, too.
Potting: It's critical that the potting medium that the roots are anchored in is very airy BUT can also hold some moisture. I just buy commercial orchid mix (at Walmart) and typically, re-pot a plant every 2 years or so. A smallish clay or plastic pot holds the roots and the medium AND THEN, this pot goes into a larger pot, usually called a cache pot (no drainage in the bottom.)
Light and location: East windows work best for me, here in the Midwest. The idea is to have strong, bright, indirect light--no direct sun except early or late in the day. It's probably best to keep them out of cold drafts yet they benefit from a temperature change between day and night, if this is possible. Here, my eastern entry way seems to work well as it's got windows and a patio door so is very bright and tends to cool down at night due to all that glass (except in winter, when there are too many icy cold drafts when the door is used-then, they are moved to a different east facing window.)
Humidity: Extra humidity seems to really improve the health of the plants. Trays or shallow bowls filled with marbles or gravel are rigged up to set the pots on, then water is kept just covering the gravel, so local evaporation provides higher humidity around the plants. I've read that plants do very well in rooms like bathrooms and kitchens where extra humidity is typical, so long as the light is good there.
Watering: Now this is probably the key to growing them well. I water every 7 to 10 days, less often if it's cooler and there's less evaporation, and more often if it's warm or dry. I use the "immersion" method and one nice thing about cache pots is I can just fill them to the top with water, let them soak for about 15 to 30 minutes. Then the smaller pot is lifted out and left to drain completely in the sink. Empty the water from the cache pot (I just water other houseplants with it), and put the pot back in it. I find working at a sink is easiest for me. An alternative to cache pots is to fill up a large bowl or a small bucket in order to soak the pot and the medium well, then let drain. One key thing--never leave an orchid in standing water--left too long and the roots may rot! In fact, except when an orchid is in bloom, it's probably OK to water a little less often than more often! They are actually really pretty tough plants but being waterlogged can be the kiss of death.
Feeding: I don't go for any special fertilizers, but do use the liquid type that I use on all my house plants. "Weakly weekly" is a motto that helps. I put perhaps 5 drops to 2 quarts of water and fertilize every time I water in the summer, and every other time the rest of the year. This water-fertilizer mix is what I use for the immersion watering method. I confess, I live on a rural well that has very hard water OR has salt softener treated water--neither which is good for plants. I have rain barrels (water butts) for spring and summer water and a filtration system for the rest of the year. Dakota, Red, Mariah and I all drink filtered water, too!
Blooming: I've learned the hard way it's important to keep an eye out for the blooming stem's emergence. These may need to be staked to grow upright, rather than sideways, and a simple piece of bamboo and some twist ties usually works well. Tiny hair clips can be used to hold the stem, too and while that critical stem is growing, it's important to gently shape and guide it to eventually be upright. Remember, these flowers can last a month or two once open, so I think it's worth the effort to grow the stem into a reasonable position.
Re-potting: It's not really as hard as I expected. The main thing is to un-pot the plant, pick or shake out all the bits of old medium and then trim away all the damaged, dead or oldest roots. The cleaned up plant is arranged back in the pot with fresh medium, soaked, and sometimes, it must be sort of "pinned in" until the roots settle in to hold it, which usually happens pretty quickly. There is a vast amount of information and diagrams, etc. available online--but I tend to keep things as simple as I can and (knock on wood) I haven't killed one yet. In fact, most of my plants bloom once a year and sometimes, I even get two stems from one plant!
I know our friends in the tropics, who are used to having orchids as part of the landscape, must think it's a bit nutty to have to work at growing these plants in such "unnatural" situations...but I confess, to have those flowers around in the winter, and to be able to enjoy these blossoms for WEEKS, is just irresistible to me--and hopefully, these easy notes will help encourage any of you to enjoy them, too! Yes, these plants have some special needs...but these aren't really hard to meet in most homes and oh my, the flowers are so worth it!! Good luck!