Growing Orchids

Growing Orchids

Part of Ep. 603 Too Cold to Garden

Grow orchids as a respite to the winter blues.  John Mather, greenhouse manager for the UW-Madison Department of Horticulture explains how.

Premiere date: Dec 19, 1998

TRANSCRIPT+
Wisc Gardener Transcript: 

Shelley:
It's hard to be patient in early spring. I want to get outside and I want to see flowers blooming. Luckily, there's a group of houseplants that blooms when nothing else is, orchids. I'm with John Mather, greenhouse manager for the UW-Madison Department of Horticulture. And John, I agree. These are beautiful. They bloom late winter, early spring when nothing much else is. But, I've always heard the were very hard to grow.

John:
Well, Shelley, that's really a popular misconception. There are a lot of orchids that are pretty difficult to grow, but the two we're going to talk about today are really pretty easy and make great houseplants.

Shelley:
Okay, good.

John:
The two we want to talk about are the Slipper Orchid, or the Paphiopedilum, and the Phalaenopsis, which is the moth orchid.

Shelley:
Beautiful. Alright, let's look at the Slipper one first then.

John:
All right. The first thing you probably notice is that the flowers will remind a lot of people of our native lady slipper orchid. They're very closely related. They have two different kinds of foliage. There's a green and a mottled.

Shelley:
The mottled is really pretty.

John:
When these aren't in bloom, they're really pretty attractive house plants, as well. There's a wide range of flower colors. Usually, there's only one or maybe two flowers on a stalk. And they bloom once. Some bloom twice a year.

Shelley:
Okay, what about this, the Moth Orchid?

John:
The Moth Orchid is named for its shape. The first thing you notice here, is not the foliage, but the flower. There are many, many flowers on here.

Shelley:
Far more than the other.

John:
Maybe up to 15 or 20 flowers on a stalk at one time.

Shelley:
Now, the leaves aren't quite as entertaining, but I don't think I'd notice.

John:
No, I don't think you'd notice when they're in bloom.

Shelley:
Well, how easy are these to grow, then?

John:
Well, they really are very easy. They like, these two types, like the kinds of environment that our houses have in the winter today. First off, they like the temperatures. We're setting our thermostats back at night. These plants like 50, maybe 60 degree temperatures at night. During the daytime, they like, say, 60 or 70 degrees. As far as light is concerned, they can take up to maybe a couple of hours of direct sunlight a day, but they really do well in an east window or a west window, or even in a south window, as long as we don't give them too much hot summer sunlight.

Shelley:
So, I don't need a greenhouse to make them bloom?

John:
No, you don't. In fact, that day/night temperature differential and the sunlight combine together to cause these plants to bloom. So, it's important to have that set back at night.

Shelley:
Okay, is that all I need to know?

John:
Well, no it isn't. These do have some other special requirements. And that's primarily because many orchids are epiphytes. Epiphytes are plants that don't grow with their roots in the soil. They grow on, say, trees or rocks in tropical areas. And they develop a special kind of root.

Shelley:
Is that why I'm seeing-- well this one right here in fact, the roots are hanging out of the pot?

John:
That's normal. Notice on the end of that root, there's a hairy coating on there. That retains water. But those hairs on there are also very sensitive to moisture. So, we have to have a special kind of media. Now, that media is very coarse and has good drainage in it.

Shelley:
Okay, and this is an orchid mix that we can buy?

John:
It's an orchid mix usually sold wherever you're going to buy your orchids. Now, the parts that are in this are actually kind of interesting. They're made so that they don't break down.

Shelley:
Can we take a look at some?

John:
We have some right over here. Now, the first two things that are there are fir bark--

Shelley:
Just these chunks?

John:
Right, and fiberized redwood. And of course, those don't break down very well. The other things you might find in there are charcoal and peat moss and perlite. Now, those as I said, don't break down very well. But you're not really going to have to worry about replacing the media on these things for maybe a year or two after you buy the plant.

Shelley:
So, it'll last for a while in the pot. But there's no soil at all in that mix.

John:
That's right. And that's another important thing to know here. There's really not much nutrition in this potting mix. So, we have to do a little extra fertilizing with these.

Shelley:
So, they probably need a higher nitrogen fertilizer?

John:
A higher nitrogen fertilizer, which is usually sold as an orchid fertilizer right from the place that you bought it or usually in garden centers or nurseries. Now, you fertilize them every second or third time you water them. And watering really isn't as much as many people think. Though they do need humidity, they really only need to be watered maybe every seven to ten days, maybe up to two weeks in cooler temperatures.

Shelley:
Well, houses are pretty dry in the winter. How do we provide the humidity you mentioned?

John:
Well, you do have to have the humidity that's provided in the natural environment for these plants. And the way we do that, is we put a dish underneath the plant and put gravel in the dish. And then, when we water, the water goes right through that porous media, into the gravel, and as it evaporates, it comes up around the orchid.

Shelley:
It provides humidity.

John:
Yes, that's exactly right. Now it's really important, though, not to let the pot sit in any kind of water. So, if there's a little water in there above the gravel level, you want to pour that out so the roots don't rot.

Shelley:
Okay. Is there anything else I need to know then?

John:
No, not really, except to sit back and enjoy these plants during the winter months when everything's so dark. Remember, a lot of the flowers here can last upwards to three or four months.

Shelley:
Oh, wow.

John:
And they're just beautiful.

Shelley:
Terrific. Okay, great. Thanks, John.

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