If you’re itching to garden, try easy-to-grow orchids

Paph. spicerianum orchidby Connie Oswald Stofko

Your garden looks beautiful under its blanket of snow, but you may be missing the beautiful blooms it offered during the warmer months. If you’re looking for a way to grow flowers indoors over the winter, try orchids.

People think they’re difficult to grow, but modern orchid hybridizing has created a wide variety of orchids that you can grow easily inside your home, said Joseph A. DiDomenico Jr., president of the Niagara Frontier Orchid Society.

What sets orchids apart from other houseplants is that they are epiphytic;  that is, they grow above the dirt and use other plants or objects for support. In their natural habitat, you’ll find them growing on trees, on rocks and on the surface of the ground, rather than tunneling into the dirt, DiDomenico explained.

“The hardest part is to get people to understand that you’re not putting them in dirt,” he said.

In order to convince an orchid to grow in a pot, you must use a potting mixture that does two things. First, the mixture must allow air in, and second, the potting mixture must retain the proper amount of moisture without staying too wet.

“The one negative in our houses is the humidity,” DiDomenico said. “Otherwise, the environment is like the tropics, and most orchids are tropical in origin.”

“Tropical” doesn’t mean you have to turn up the thermostat for orchids. Normal room temperature is fine. In fact, DiDomenico keeps orchids in his sun room, which is cool, and the cooler temperature may prolong blooming, he said.

Laeliocattleya Puppy Love
Laeliocattleya Puppy Love

A south window with a light shade, or east or west windows should provide sufficient light for orchids.

However, because our homes are so dry in the winter, you must pay attention to watering. Generally, water once a week and adjust as needed from there. If the medium dries fast, water more often. If it dries slowly, water less often.

If the leaves get limp, you probably have a watering problem, though limp leaves can be a symptom of either  under-watering or over-watering.  DiDomenico’s advice is to look at the roots. If the roots look wet and rotted, that’s a sign of over-watering. If they’re dry, you’re under-watering.

If the pot is clear, you can view the roots right through the pot. If your pot is opaque, take the plant out.

“Don’t be afraid, you won’t hurt a thing,” DiDomenico said encouragingly.

To fertilize, prepare a gallon of water mixed with 1/4 strength orchid fertilizer. After watering your plant and draining, pour a cup of the fertilizer solution onto the plant mix and allow it to drain through as well.

An interesting thing about orchids is that the flower can change after blooming. In some varieties, after the plant blooms, the flower can grow larger. The Laeliocattleya Puppy Love, above right, can change color after blooming.  The flower in the foreground is white, while the older bloom at back left has taken on a blueish tinge.

Asian slipper orchid
Asian slipper orchid (Paphiopedilum spicerianum)

Orchids are widely available at garden centers and florist shops, and are relatively inexpensive. Orchids are also available in the gift shop at the Botanical Gardens, and vendors will sell orchids during the Niagara Frontier Orchid Society’s display at the Botanical Gardens on Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 26 and 27.

The more commonly available orchid families that can be easily grown at home include phalaenopsis (moth orchids), which can be seen in the photo at the beginning of this article; paphiopedilum (slipper orchids), which can be seen above and below left;  cattleyas (such as Laeliocattleya Puppy Love, above right);  dendrobiums and various oncidium intergenerics.

The slipper orchids get their name from their resemblance to, well, slippers. DiDomenico explained the difference between the Asian and South American slipper orchids. The Asian slipper orchid, above left,  has a “hard” or defined edge, while the  South American example, below left,  has a fuzzy edge that can curl in.

South American slipper orchid
South American slipper orchid

There are about 25,000 or 30,000 named varieties, and 1,000 new species are named every year, he said.

If you have a problem with your orchid, or you need an orchid repotted, you can get help from the Niagara Frontier Orchid Society from 9 a.m. to noon on Wednesdays at the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens. The society cares for the orchids at the Botanical Gardens.

Don’t be afraid to try orchids. Even if you can’t get the plant to bloom year after year, DiDomenico suggests you can simply enjoy the blooms while they last– which can be weeks or months– then compost the plant.

“There’s nothing wrong with that,” he asserted, pointing out that few of us keep poinsettias from year to year.

Meetings of the Niagara Frontier Orchid Society are held at 7 p.m. on the first Tuesday (following the first Sunday) of each month in Greenhouse #10 at the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens. The next meeting will be Jan. 4.

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