In the Garden:
Mid-Atlantic
January, 2010
Regional Report

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Orchids such as this moth orchid (Phalaenopsis) are more available and less expensive than ever.

Moths -- On Your Windowsill

Two things are sure to distract me from a day's "To Do" list. "Sale" signs and dark chocolate. Put a "Sale" sign among plants -- I'm THERE.

My latest find -- moth orchids on a discount shelf. Granted they didn't look the perkiest. Most of the blossoms were wilted. On close examination, two fuschia Phalaenopsis had potential -- droopy flowers atop stems holding promising buds below. Shiny, healthy green leaves with no insects circling or crawling 'round the plant or potting bark. Price is usually $20 or more.

I am fond of orchids. My first was a collector's speciality. A ladyslipper orchid (Paphiopedilum) with a stem or two of flowers with claret and green-striped petals above mottled leaves. This exotic was a gift from an appreciative group I cooked for, once upon a time, at an ecumenical retreat center in Bangor, PA. The Paph thrived in dappled light in humid bathrooms for more than a decade.

Moth Orchids Everywhere
Today decorative moth orchids are ubiquitous, accessible. And beautiful in white, pinks, lavender, yellow; solid colors and mixes of stripes and spots. They're within reach, literally and budget-wise, in grocery stores, garden centers, floral shops, nurseries.

Anyone who's walked in a tropical forest or visited a fancy flower show has seen all sorts of colorful orchids -- clinging to branches. Orchids are epiphytes -- air plants whose aerial roots attach to other plants or rocks. They don't live in soil. They get moisture from the atmosphere and nutrition from debris around the roots.

Moth orchids bloom long and are easy-to-care-for. They can flower for three months, late winter into spring. They thrive in low/diffused/indirect light and warm temperature (75-85 F day; 60-65 F night). They like moist air (misting or a humidity tray), moist (not wet) bark. Root moisture's a delicate balance -- too much water and they'll rot; too little and they'll dehydrate and die. Thorough watering once weekly is recommended via soaking the plant in pot and bark in water. I let tap water aerate for several days before use -- to lower chlorine level, though I've not read that's necessary.

When the top flowers die, look at the stem for emerging buds below. Clip stem above those buds and they'll likely open to flowers. Otherwise clip stem halfway down for possible rebloom.

Some orchids -- Obcidium, Laelia, Cycnoche, deciduous Dendrobium -- require a period of dormancy (six to eight months of rest) and little to no water, no fertilizer before rebloom. Check with orchid experts for details.

Phalaenopsis are evergreen easy. Fertilizing information is so variable, it's puzzling. I'll compromise with weak (about quarter-strength) biweekly feedings of 20-20-20 balanced plant food. One source recommends switching to a bloom booster of 10-30-20 when there's a new flower spike. Where to find an organic orchid fertilizer?

After three weeks, my two bargains are thriving. The wilted flowers on one plant revived prettily. Top flowers on the other died; the stem tip was broken. Below though, nodes are plumping up into shiny, burgundy-hued buds. I've repotted both from plastic containers -- into new bark mix in glazed, open-holed orchid pots.


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