Trowel & Error

Yes, you can grow orchids

You may not be able to stop

By Nancy Crowe

Master Gardener Nancy Crowe says you certainly can grow orchids.

Simply looking at an orchid brings to mind tropical places where all you have to clear from your driveway is the occasional fallen palm frond. Orchids make great Valentine’s Day gifts, and hardcore devotees pay large sums of money for prized (perhaps even illegal) specimens. Of course, there are orchid clubs all over the world filled with people who just love orchids, plain and simple.

Kim Weldon’s interest in orchids was sparked by her mother-in-law, Shirley Weldon, a longtime member of the Three Rivers Orchid Society. “I always enjoyed going over to her house and going through her greenhouse and seeing what orchids she had in bloom. She talked me into going to some of the orchid society meetings, and it snowballed from there,” she said.

Weldon began growing orchids herself — first in windows, then under fluorescent lights and finally in an attached greenhouse. “I think orchids are so diverse and fascinating that it keeps me interested in growing them.” She is also the current president of the Three Rivers Orchid Society. 

Most beginning orchid growers start out with the Phalaeonopsis variety; it’s readily available in stores and is said to be one of the easiest orchids to care for. However, Weldon would recommend a Paphiopedilum, Colmanara or Beallara for orchid newbies; they have simpler requirements and can produce stunning flowers.

Then what?

The first key element to growing better orchids is light, Weldon said; indirect light, such as from an east-facing window, is best. Orchids with higher light requirements may prefer a filtered south or west window. 

Humidity is another element, and, no, it’s not impossible during winter. All you have to do is set the orchid pot on a tray with some water in gravel, marbles or pretty rocks; as the water evaporates, there’s your humidity. Just don’t forget to add more water. 

About that water: It depends on what type of orchid you have, Weldon said. Some like to dry out completely before watering, and some like to stay consistently moist. She also uses special orchid fertilizer — these plants grow mostly on tree branches, so don’t feed them the way you feed your tomatoes. Or your other houseplants, for that matter. 

Another key element is temperature, something most gardeners don’t think much about after they’ve brought their houseplants in for the winter. Giving orchids a 10- to 15-degree temperature decrease at night for three or four weeks in the fall helps induce flowering, Weldon said. Orchids need cooler temperatures to store nutrients they generate through photosynthesis; if it’s too warm, the plants metabolize those nutrients instead of producing blooms, she explained. 

About those blooms: You need that temperature decrease to make it happen, Welcon said, and water the plant when it’s approaching dry. She keeps hers next to a drafty window from fall to spring, watering thoroughly until water runs out the bottom of the pot. To gauge whether it’s time to water, lift the pot; if it’s light, it could probably use a drink. If there is some weight to it, wait a day or two and check again, she said. 

She recommends repotting once a year in orchid bark mix, which you can find in stores. It’s what the orchids are used to, but it breaks down with regular watering and may smother the roots.

You can find out more on the Three Rivers Orchid Society’s Facebook page, and there is plenty of information on the American Orchid Society’s web page (www.aos.org). Don’t forget about the Home and Garden Show Feb. 27-March 2 at Memorial Coliseum, and beware: Orchids have been known to jump into the hands of plant lovers in the Garden Gallery. Be sure to check out the Purdue Master Gardener information booth and seminars. Great ideas are within your reach, and spring is not far away.

Nancy Crowe

Master Gardener Nancy Crowe's Garden Spot column also appears in interactive format online.

Posted Mon, 02/24/2014 - 9:51 am