Monday, May 21, 2018
Home and Garden

Growing orchids isn't difficult — if you learn a little

I'm really not very good at listening to long-winded stories, although I tell them all the time.

But recite for me in painstaking detail how you coaxed your Brassavola nodosa into blooming, and I'll listen for as long as you want to talk.

I "like" all the orchid flower photos proudly posted by friends — and strangers — on Facebook. And every once in a while, I write a gardening column about orchids.

It's not because I have a passion for this sprawling family of third cousins twice removed with impossible-to-remember names. It's because I fear them. Which gives me tremendous respect for gardeners who have the patience and great big brains it takes to get them to thrive — and bloom again.

Paul and Patricia Phelps of Phelps Farm Orchids in Odessa, Eileen Hector and Anne Boldrick, all members of the Tampa Bay Orchid Society, tell me, emphatically, that my orchid fear is completely irrational. (Sadly, we'll never know what my dead orchids have to say about that.)

"The hardest orchid there is to grow and bloom is the one you're trying to grow in the wrong spot," says Paul, citing the first commandment of gardening — right plant, right place.

"Location, location, location," adds Anne who, as publicity chairman for the orchid society, will surely give me 50 lashes with a whiplike terete Vanda leaf if I don't mention right now that the club has a big show and sale starting 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today and continuing through Sunday.

The society's "Living With Orchids" show includes a wide variety of hard-to-find plants to admire and buy. You can ask successful local growers all the questions you want, buy all the supplies you never imagined you'd want, and see award-winning amateur and professional displays. (Paul has won the American Orchid Society trophy for Most Outstanding Exhibit four years in a row. He's going for five this weekend.)

Whether you're an orchidphile or an orchidphobe, you may benefit from these great growing tips:

light: Most orchids need strong filtered light. Not direct sun. Not part shade. I have a very sunny yard, so I put most of my not-full-sun plants in containers under the eaves. That won't work for orchids, Paul says. They want filtered light — not part sun/part shade.

"If you have orchids that like higher light — the Dendrobiums, Vandas, Cattleyas — put them in the pool cage or under an oak tree. If you have a successful staghorn fern, it's in a spot that's great for most orchids."

Those that like lower light — Phalaenopsis and some slipper orchids — will do well on a lanai. If you have none of the above (like me) Paul suggests crafting a little pergola with lattice and hanging the plants inside.

Eileen adds, "If you can't get them to bloom, it's probably the light."

water: Hose-aholics (as Paul refers to those who love to water) will do best with orchids that are not planted in a medium such as fir bark or sphagnum moss.

"You can grow almost any orchid on a stick as long as you water and fertilize," Paul says, meaning most do not need to be planted. If you're growing orchids with roots exposed — in hanging baskets or mounted on a tree — water thoroughly, then water again 10 minutes later. And do it frequently. The Vandas love growing this way.

"But the Vandas are pigs," Paul says. "They want tons of light, tons of water and tons of fertilizer."

If you have a water softener, find another water source. Orchids don't like the salt.

For planted orchids, water thoroughly, allowing the water to drain through the bottom, then let them dry out before you water again. But don't let them sit for days bone dry! Different varieties have different needs. Be sure to ask the grower when you buy.

fertilizer: Paul and Patricia fertilize with a weak solution (1/2 teaspoon to 1 gallon of water) of 20-10-20 fertilizer every time they water. The brand he uses is not available in stores, so he buys in bulk and repackages for sale to customers. "If you use what the grower uses, you'll have success," he says.

If you fertilize regularly, as he does, occasionally drench your pot with clear water to rinse out residue.

Other important to-dos: Repot regularly; provide good air circulation — if your orchids are on a lanai, leave the ceiling fan on when there's no breeze; and be prepared to move some plants when it gets very hot or cold outside.

There really aren't many hard and fast rules, Paul says.

"It's experience and finding out what works well for you. If you're a hose-aholic, some containers and planting mixes will work better for you. If you tend to neglect watering, other containers and media will do better," he says.

"If someone finds their orchids do well in redwood baskets full of wine bottle corks, I tell them that's what they should use all the time.

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Penny Carnathan can be reached at [email protected] Find more of her gardening tales at or join the chat with other local gardeners on Facebook at digginfloridadirt.