A passion for orchids; growers reveal the secrets to make them thrive
Bright white fluorescent lights bathe intricate colorful orchid blooms in April Arroyo’s Penn Hills plant room, which masquerades as an office. The shelves hold tightly stacked pots filled with plants, some in full bloom and others waiting patiently to put on their show.
Her love of orchids started with a visit to Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens when she was 12 years old. Her mother bought some phalaenopsis varieties for Arroyo to try. They’re often referred to as the moth orchid, and the young woman enjoyed success growing most of them.
“I killed a couple,” Arroyo says with a laugh. “I didn’t really branch out to the other genres until about six years ago.”
As a horticulture student at Penn State, her passion for the plants continued. She would skip class, spending hours in the library reading everything she could find about orchids.
She recommends beginners start by taking care of the phalaenopsis variety as she did.
“Don’t water them with ice,” she says, even though that’s what many plant tags instruct gardeners to do. “I think they do that so you don’t overwater. Orchids really don’t like to be overwatered; if they stay too wet they will rot.”
That’s what kills most of them, she says, but complete neglect also will cause an untimely end for the plant. To tell if the orchid needs to be watered, she’ll watch the plant to see if it starts to look a little tired. Arroyo also has a good feeling for how heavy the pot should be when it’s ready for moisture.
When choosing a moth orchid in the store, look for healthy plants with more buds than blooms. Those buds will slowly open, which could result in months of flowers.
When the plant is done blooming, Arroyo says to repot it if it’s growing in moss, a medium that many commercial growers use as it simplifies shipping. Use a bark mix specifically designed for orchids.
Now that the days have gotten longer, she starts fertilizing. Seeing new growth signals it’s time for an application of half-strength liquid fertilizer applied once or twice a month depending on the orchid.
Over the past six years, she’s developed a “healthy” obsession for orchids with a collection reaching 150 plants.
“Right now, since I have so many plants, I have something in bloom all the time,” she says.
When asked if her husband complains about the orchid jungle upstairs and downstairs, she laugh and says, “No, he has cars, I have orchids.” He’s even helped out by building outdoor shelves and other things for the garden as her orchids summer outside.
The 35-year-old grower is a member of the Orchid Society of Western Pennsylvania and has learned a lot from other members expanding into a wide variety of cultivars.
“I love going there because it’s like-minded people,” she says with a smile. Her windowsills are home to plants with long Latin names and spectacular flowers of just about every color in the rainbow.
Arroyo will be helping members set up for this year’s Orchid Show on March 18 and 19 at Phipps Garden Center in Shadyside. The show features exhibits, vendors, raffles and speakers. Members will even repot your orchid in the perfect growing medium for $5.
“They are not as difficult as people think,” Arroyo says of growing orchids. “They’re not any harder to grow than a tomato plant.”
Ellen Zachos has written two books about orchids — “Better Homes and Gardens Orchid Gardening” and the wonderfully titled “Orchid Growing for Wimps: Techniques for the ‘Wish I Could Do That’ Gardener.” The former is out of print but easy to get online used and well worth the time to find. She agrees with Arroyo that novice orchid growers should start by caring for phalaenopsis varieties.
“Some people might roll their eyes and say, ‘Oh it’s such a common orchid,’ but it’s a great orchid,” the author says. “It comes in such a huge variety of colors, patterns and sizes from miniature to ginormous and they are so easy to grow.”
Zachos says you can coax the plant into re-blooming or even more color by snipping the bloom stalk after the flowers have finished, which often forces the plant to produce more blooms. Study the stem, she says, and look at the nodes or horizontal markings that are found every few inches along the flower stem.
“Cut right above one of those and you can choose which one you want to cut above depending on how tall you want the ultimate bloom spike to be,” Zachos says. “The new spike will come right out of that node.”
She says chances are good the plant will bloom again, but it doesn’t work every time.
When choosing moth orchids this time of the year, Zachos warns to be sure buds have not been affected by cold weather.
“They (retailers) put them near the door because they are attractive and it lures people in, but as a result the buds often get blasted,” she says. If they do, they will never open. “They get this yellow, sort of caved in look and then they shrivel up.”
After growers find success with phalaenopsis, there are a wide variety of cultivars like cattleya, dendrobium, cymbidium and a host of others. After watering is mastered, then it’s all about the light to determine what can be grown.
“If you have an unobstructed south facing window, pretty much the sky’s the limit,” Zachos says,
Most of the orchids will bloom once a year; some flowers will last longer than others. But with enough variety, the show could be year round. Discovering new types is one of the joys of growing these exotic looking plants.
“Once you get into those, the cattleyas, the corsage orchid, they are frilly and gorgeous and a vibrant combination of jewel tones, and you get fragrance that’s really out of this world,” she says.
Some orchids can be a little fussy, Zachos adds, but for the most part when given a little attention, it’s pretty easy to make them thrive and the payoff is spectacular.
“They are just so gorgeous,” she says. “What flower is more beautiful than an orchid? I think they are the ultimate seductive flower.”
Learn more about Ellen Zachos, her love for orchids and passion for foraging here.
Doug Oster is the Tribune-Review home and garden editor. Reach him at 412-965-3278 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at everybodygardens.com