Gardening: The exacting demands of orchid care

By Stan Cutler
Posted 12/10/20

Plants have a need to flower. While a plant may not feel desire in the same way an animal does, it is compelled to reproduce. Horticulturists are voyeurs who are happy to assist. My wife, Valerie, is …

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Gardening: The exacting demands of orchid care

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Plants have a need to flower. While a plant may not feel desire in the same way an animal does, it is compelled to reproduce. Horticulturists are voyeurs who are happy to assist. My wife, Valerie, is such a person. She devotes many hours every day to her stewardship of countless plants, including about seventy-five orchids. Orchids are a class of more than 25,000 known species from every continent except Antarctica. Valerie’s collection includes dozens of species.

These days, you can buy potted orchids at the supermarket. The plants have five equal-size, almost-round petals in many colors arrayed in a circular fan-shape. (All orchid flowers have five petals.) The supermarket variety are phalaenopsis, a species that can be easily cloned. In commercial greenhouses the world over, there are acres of potting benches with nothing on them but thousands of identical phals. It’s a weird sight. Valerie has at least ten phals, few of which she bought. Most are orphans, given to her because their owners were watching them slowly die.

Most supermarket phals are planted in sphagnum moss. Growers like it because the tiny fronds, which are harvested from the top layer of peat bogs, retain water and are resistant to bacteria.  Mature orchids, however, need a sturdier medium in which to grow. Many species of orchid, like phals, do not grow in the ground. Rather, they grow on tree limbs, getting nutrition from plant debris and animal scat and water from the atmosphere. The organs that capture these essentials are thick “air roots”. These need to breathe. If you water the plant too much, the sphagnum becomes saturated and the roots smother. Most of the orchids Valerie has rescued were suffering from too much water. She recommends that you don’t water an orchid unless the medium in which it is potted is dry to the touch.

If a plant is on death’s door, she won’t repot it immediately. She removes it from its pot and snips off what has already died. She keeps a little propane burner on the bench and fires it up to sterilize the snippers before she performs the surgery. She puts the plant inside a clear plastic bag with a few pinches of moist sphagnum touching the rooting area. She hangs the bag by a clothes pin in a warm place with moderate sunlight. It takes months before new air roots emerge. When they appear, she replants the orchid in a medium of tree bark chips, charcoal chips and a little bit of sphagnum moss.   

Even tree bark breaks down over time, so she mail-orders bags of Orchiata, hard bark from the Pinus Radiata of New Zealand. Other barks disintegrate and become soil-like in just a year. Using Orchiata, the medium lasts for around three years. Valerie keeps track by writing the potting and flowering dates on the plant tag that she sticks between the medium and the inner wall of the container. Phals do better in hanging wooden lattice boxes than they do in pots.  

The reason you rarely see other species of orchid is because they cannot be cloned at commercial volume. But there are over 25,000 species that are not Phaleanopsis.  Most of the varieties (except Cymbidium) thrive in the same media as phals and do well in clay pots with holes in the bottom for drainage. In the last few years, orchid pots with slits in the sides have become available. These are hard to find but are desirable for the increased air flow. If the idea of orchid care appeals to you, there’s a store in Lancaster (Little Brook) and another (Waldor) in Linwood New Jersey.

Valerie pots the plants at her basement workbench, surrounded by trash cans filled with media. Her big secret is not a secret; you really need a greenhouse. We built Valerie’s from a kit in 1998. It’s seven feet wide by twelve feet long– extremely crowded, intensely green. When we installed the greenhouse in its current location, we connected it to house utilities underground: electrical conduit, a gas line, and hot and cold-water pipes. Thermostats and a gas furnace keep temperatures between sixty and eighty degrees in the cold months. Grow-lights on timers supplement sunlight on short winter days, and a misting device keeps the relative humidity above 60%. The orchids spend the warmer months outside, either hanging in trees or on tables under the trees.

You can keep phals flourishing in your house in a place with indirect sunlight. Spray the roots at least once a week, mix some orchid food with the water a few times a year. To avoid leaf rot, try not to spray the leaves and wipe off any accidental droplets. If you get it right, the phal will bloom year after year. You can, of course, dispose of it when the flowers drop – just don’t tell Valerie. 

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