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The Care and Feeding of Orchids

Q. Mike: I have been gifted twice with potted orchids; the first did not survive and the second is hanging on by a thread. I don't know what I'm doing wrong. Please help!
    ----Wilhelmina; in the row home heart of Philadelphia
A. Well, to start, you should identify what kind you have. Orchids are an incredibly diverse family of plants, with thousands upon thousands of different species. But let's assume you have the most commonly purchased type, the Phalanopsis, or 'moth orchid'—so called because its flowers resemble little butterflies in flight when they open sequentially on their long stem. (The common name actually refers to a specific butterfly-like tropical moth.)

Like most of their genus, moth orchids are epiphytes; that means they hang onto surfaces (like the trunks of tropical trees) with aerial roots—those white freaky-looking things you (hopefully) see crawling over the rims of their pots. That's a big clue to survival lesson #1: Epiphytes need to have their roots open to the air. Smother them in typical houseplant-type soil and your orchid will soon join The Choir Invisible.

(Note: There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. They're called "terrestrial" or "garden" orchids and grow naturally with their roots in soil, like 'regular' plants. The best known--and well-loved--such orchid is the famed Lady's Slipper, which is planted in the ground outdoors and blooms in Spring, right around the time that many Spring bulbs are also flowering.)

That's why pots containing orchids are typically filled with big bark chips; it gives the plant something to help it stay upright while allowing lots of airflow around the roots. The best way to hydrate such a plant is to place the entire pot in a sink or bowl of water to saturate the bark for about 15 minutes once a week, then let it drain and put it back in place. (Don't let water collect in the saucer underneath; it's just there to protect the surface the pot is sitting on.)

Ah, but in the wild, these epiphyte orchids also have the naturally moist air of a rain forest-type environment to keep them happy and hydrated. You can replicate this effect indoors with frequent light mistings—every morning if possible. (Some people try to achieve moist air around their plants by keeping 'pebble trays' full of water under the pots, but these things are of questionable value; misting is greatly preferred.)

Then comes light. Again, think of your orchid in its native environment—clinging to a network of branches in a big old tree. It can be bright up there, but almost never direct sun. So the rule is {quote} "an East or West facing window or a South-facing one with sheer curtains filtering the light". In other words, think bright and indirect (or the opposite of me, both ways). Just don't place an orchid on any windowsill that gets freezing cold at night or direct sun during the day.

Now all of this would be based on book learning and interview info were it not for Sheila and Jerry Cave, a wonderful couple who produce Washington Home & Garden, a magazine and website for DC area gardeners. They asked to meet me when I was in Annapolis the first week of March last year and surprised me with a gift: A big, beautiful moth orchid with a few open flowers up top and lots of nice fat buds below (exactly the kind you should choose when buying one in person).

Despite it being moved across numerous state lines in really cold weather—and being given to ham-handed me—it got home safely, where it was placed on our dining room table in nice indirect light; not near our old, cold windows or old-style radiators (which I keep big saucers of water on top of to keep the room less dry).

Every one of those buds opened up slowly in sequence, and it was August by the time the last faded one fell off. I enjoyed almost six months of beautiful blooms from that one flush of flowers. Then the big leaves stayed green and glossy, the ghostly white roots grew slowly and every which way, and last month a new spike began emerging from the bark chips, carrying with it the promise of a new flowering display. Thank you, Sheila and Jerry, for yet another education in how good plants are at surviving if their owner doesn't try and help them too much.

Q: Mike: Do you have any advice on fertilizing orchids organically? I have evolved and no longer use Miracle Grow on my houseplants. But they only get the water from my aquarium changes as fertilizer, and I don't think that would be enough for an orchid. Can you help?

    ---Kathy in Pottstown, PA
What can I use to fertilize my orchids? I can't bear to use the chemical slop recommended by the nursery. Thanks so much!
    ---Steve in Colorado Springs, CO
A. You got that right, Steve! Although most reference books recommend using ridiculously over-strong chemical salts like the one Kathy refers to, I can't think of a worse plant to receive such unnatural 'food'. In the wild, orchids survive brilliantly on whatever weak nutrients get washed down the sides of their trees by rain, and often die in the 'loving care' of humans from the salt build-up caused by harsh chemical fertilizers.

Now, as with all plants, orchids should only be fed when they're actively growing. 'The book' says that should be Spring through Fall, but apparently my orchid is illiterate because it started producing new growth in December. So I've been giving it a bi-weekly 15-minute root dunk in worm castings mixed in water until the liquid is the color of strong tea.

A similar dilution of compost tea would be ideal; same with Kathy's fish-poopy water (a favorite fertilizer of my own house plants). Or just about any organic fertilizer diluted in water to around half strength. Just sniff the mixture first to make sure it isn't something more olfactory-appropriate for outdoor plants than close-to-the-nose indoor ones.

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