Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Growing Orchids: No Hothouse Required

The perception among novice gardeners is that orchids are hard to grow. The truth is: some orchids are hard to grow. If you start with the right type, it can be easy.

A born window shopper, I have a penchant for orchids that began when I first saw one in the window of a flower shop. I stared in awe at the cascading arch of white flowers. Thinking of my stuffy city apartment -- more like a closet with a window -- I didn't have the nerve to buy such a delicate plant. But around the city, I began seeing these flowers thriving in low streetside windows, even in midwinter. I couldn't imagine that these apartments had much more light than my own. I began to have orchids on my mind.

Then I was lured by an advertisement in the newspaper, a question in bold type that read, "What do you do if you want to begin growing orchids?" The answer, in smaller type, was "Go to an orchid show." It was followed by a list of dates and venues, which I took as a promise that all would be revealed if I attended.

Five steps into the show I had smelled vanilla, then coconut, then a sharp floral perfume. The sheer variety of species and hybrids amazed me. I didn't know the flower I had been seeing in windows (I learned it is called Phalaenopsis) came in colors ranging from the brightest fuchsia to the purest white, and in spotted and striped hybrids. I became transfixed on a bloom the color of red wine with something sinister about its shape. This genus -- known as Paphiopedilum -- includes flowers different from any I had ever grown: one a swollen shape floating in the air like a perfect piece of bubble gum, pink and unpopped; another a yellow and brown flower with leathery petals.

I did not leave my first show knowing all there is to know about orchids, but the urge to grow one was irresistible. I did leave the show with pot in hand, plotting where it would sit on my kitchen windowsill and what the color fuchsia would add to the room for three to six months of the year. Perhaps these photographs from the 1996 Greater New York Orchid Show will encourage you to do the same by starting with some of these beautiful, easy-to-grow orchids.

Easy-to-Grow Windowsill Orchids

Some of the most stunning orchid species can be grown in the home without elaborate lights or intensive care.

Orchid growers are known to say: "If you can grow African violets, then you can grow orchids. . . . As far as temperature and humidity, if you feel comfortable in the room, then your orchids are comfortable. . . . If you don't know how to grow it, then don't buy it!"

I first heard these snippets from Marilyn Rutel, an orchid hobbyist from Westchester County, New York, who presently grows more than 4,000 orchids, and they sounded like genius. Later, in talking to florists and other orchid growers, I heard these phrases repeated again and again, and it occurred to me that they contained good advice but were not much more than logic. You really don't have to be a genius to grow these orchids. Just use common sense.

Bringing my first orchid home reminded me of how I felt when I brought home my hard-won goldfish from the county fair. I was very aware that I was responsible for something living, and I wanted it to remain that way. This recognition goes a long way in orchid culture, since an orchid must be given the basic necessities for just about all living things: light, water, air, and nutrients. Temperature and humidity come into play, but in fact your home conditions are quite similar to those of the natural habitats of these three easy-to-grow orchids: phalaenopsis, paphiopedilum, and cattleya.

Exotic Orchids

After mastering the culture of any of these three windowsill orchids, you may be ready for more challenging and more exotic flowers. Once you reach this level, it's time to attend another show, for nowhere else will you be given so many options in one place.

I asked Morty Kostetsky, a trustee of the Manhattan Orchid Society, what flower shouldn't be missed when viewing the 1996 show. He shook his head and said I had asked a bad question. "Whether it's the size of a flea or ten inches across, each has its own individuality and beauty," said Kostetsky. "Some bloom one week per year, some ten months per year, and then there are all those in between."

Orchids do have an appeal that easily crosses over to obsession. You may want to invest in grow lights or even build a hothouse, provided you have the time and space, to simulate the climate of more exotic orchids, though there are other species from the mountains that need cool conditions to thrive.

An aspect of the hobby that appeals to many is self-education, whether it involves conducting personal research on your new hybrid or joining an orchid society to hear what works for others. It's constant learning, and for many, that's what makes it fun. As you can see in the variety of this photo selection, orchids come in shapes and colors you've never dreamed of. With 125,000 orchid species, there's a lot to grow and learn.

No comments: