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I admit it. For years, the thought of growing orchids indoors was intimidating to the point I never tried. And I’m sure I’m not the only gardener who feels this way. But if so, how do you suppose our friends feel when we present them with the gift of an orchard?
In reality, despite their reputation for being finicky flower divas, orchids aren’t difficult to grow.
Like any plant, they’ll thrive in the right conditions. Three of the best orchids for windowsill gardening are Phalaenopsis or phals; Paphiopedilum, also called paphs; and Cattleyas, catts for short.
Phals, or Moth Orchids, have an arching flower spike that is covered with clouds of blooms for weeks or months at a time. They’re divided into standard, novelty and mini flora varieties. The standards have large white, pink and candy-striped blooms. Novelties are the most fragrant, in colors of yellow, orange, red and green. Mini floras are a compact plant that sends up and branched flower spike covered with dozens of tiny blooms.
Paphs are also known as lady slippers for a jutting, chin-like pouch that forms their lower flower petals. The white, green, yellow, red or pink blooms are shaded, striped and covered with spots. Flower season is mid-fall through spring, but they bloom off and on all year with filtered light.
Catts are stunning, and versatile. They’re available in every size, shape, color, fragrance, and bloom time you could want. They’re also the most confusing, because they’ve been crossbred to create many hybrids. Look for names like Brassavola, Rhynchoaelia and Epidendrum or an entirely new genus like Brassoepidendrum. They’re all catts though.
When buying any orchid, choose one that’s already flowering since it’s the only way to really see what you are getting. Look for uniform color and shape. Splotches on leaves or petals may indicate a virus.
Leaves should be an even, medium green with no streaks. Roots should be fat and white with pale green tips. These orchids are epiphytes; they gather nutrients from air and water, not soil. They should be sold in an orchid potting mix made of bark, peat moss and Perlite. And that medium should be firm and damp to dry, not soggy.
Orchids aren’t picky about light once they’ve flowered, but before they bloom, light is critical. Give them at least six hours a day. Phals and paphs are low-light orchids that prefer an east, west or shaded south window. Catts do best in brighter, south-facing spots. Use sheer curtains to filter harsh sunlight, it can burn the leaves, turning them pale green. If you don’t have any suitable windows, try a 40-watt fluorescent light. Hang it about a foot over the orchids 12 to 14 hours a day.
These plants like it 70 to 80 degrees in the daytime, 10 degrees cooler at night. If you have a winter-blooming phal, put it in a basement or outside in 55 to 60 degree fall air for a few nights to encourage budding.
Give them all 40 percent to 80 percent humidity by setting pots in a tray filled with water and gravel. To prevent the risk of wicking excess moisture into the potting medium, be sure the pot is on the gravel, not in the water.
Overwatering is the quickest way to kill an orchid. In fact, watering (or the lack of it) to me is the easiest part about caring for house orchids. Simply place two or three ice cubes around the plant every 10 days or so and allow them to melt. That’s it. For a nutrient boost, use a liquid fertilizer diluted to quarter strength on the weeks between the ice cubes.
If you encounter pest or diseases, consider these options. A light mist of rubbing alcohol once a week will take care of any scale insects. You’ll know them because they look like small hard bumps on the leaves or stems. Fungus is a common problem with houseplants, especially when over-watering. To treat, try sprinkling a bit of ordinary cinnamon on the wet infected spots and the crown.
While an orchid’s reputation might be considered a little tricky, giving them the ideal environment, along with a bit of time and attention, will provide a great show through winter, and all year long.
BY JOE LAMP’L / TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE