Tropical treat: A beginner’s guide to growing orchids

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Photo: John Robinson Photo: John Robinson

Fascinated with orchids? So is anyone with eyes, at this time of year when the world outside tends toward browns and grays. Orchids can bring a splash of tropical color and a certain joie de vivre to your indoor environment.

Aren’t they hard to care for, though? Not necessarily, says Stephen Shifflett, co-owner of Floradise Orchids in Gordonsville. “This is the largest plant family in the plant kingdom,” he said. “The variety is just remarkable.” More than 50 orchids grow native in Virginia alone, though most sold as houseplants hail from warmer climates. In short, there’s an orchid for everybody—even those with black thumbs.

There are a few varieties that Shifflett recommends for beginners. First, decide where your new friend will live. If it’s a low-light spot—that is, “a spot where you can read without having to turn a light on,” but lacking intense direct sun—consider the phalaenopsis or paphiopedilum (known as ladyslippers). “They’re sturdy houseplants,” said Shifflett. “Most people do quite
well with them.”

If you’d rather put an orchid in a south-facing window or another very sunny spot, opt instead for dendrobium or cattleya varieties.

Caring for an orchid can be simple, but it’s important to know the preference of the variety you’re growing. For example, “Phalaenopsis are allowed to almost dry between watering,” said Shifflett, while “ladyslippers are kept evenly moist.” Depending on conditions and the potting mix, the amount of time between waterings can vary. A little attention will go a long way.

As for fertilizing, Shifflett said, “Continuous feed fertilization is superior. Periodic feeding works; it’s just not as good.” In other words, feed a little each time you water, rather than giving the plants large infrequent meals. Properly cared for, orchid blooms can last from three weeks (cattleya) to four months or more (phalaenopsis).

One final note: Shifflett warned that the popular “ice cube method”—in which you water by adding a few ice cubes per week to your orchid pot—is not ideal. The method may not deliver enough moisture; besides, tropical plants prefer their water warm. “No commercial grower would do it that way,” he said.

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