Surprise! Orchids are easygoing

In the frigid climes of the Northern Hemisphere, February surely qualifies as the most solitary and dreary month.

Despite being the shortest on paper, this month seems oh so long.

"It feels like winter is never going to leave. It lingers, it never gets warmer, the snow keeps coming," says horticulturist and author Ellen Zachos, remembering the many Februaries of her childhood in New Hampshire and those when she was a student at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass..

Then her tempo changes. Her tone echoes the explosion of color as her mind's eye pictures an orchid: "But to have a beautiful, tropical, vibrant, enchanting bloom on your kitchen table or on your windowsill lifts your spirits tremendously.

"I get very excited ... seeing a flower open at a time of year when it's kind of hard to find that someplace else."

While orchids bloom year-round, more seem to show their radiant colors this time of year, says Ms. Zachos, author of the book "Orchid Growing for Wimps" (Sterling, $17.95).

Here are her tips for growing and caring for orchids at a time of year when the simplest colorful gesture can far outweigh its weight in gold:

Which orchids would you suggest people grow indoors at this time of year?

Right now is peak bloom time for the Phalaenopsis orchids, commonly called moth orchids. These are the absolute best orchids for any beginner. They're really beautiful and very, very easy to care for....

This is also the bloom season for a lot of the Paphiopedilums. Also known as slipper orchids, these are absolutely gorgeous. They're so exotic looking.

What color blooms can one expect?

On the Phalaenopsis you can have anything from pure white to bright magenta to pale yellow, and there are also some hybrids that are splotched and striped quite dramatically with dark purple. For the Paphiopedilum there's a very wide range of colors: anything from yellow to orange to green with lots of different stripes and blotches and polka dots.

Also, with the Paphiopedilums you have a choice [of] foliage. Some of the orchids are green leafed and some have a nice mottled leaf color, which gives you some variation even when the plant is not in bloom.

What should you look for when you buy an orchid?

First of all, before you buy it, check and see what it's potted in. A lot of orchids these days are sold potted in bark.... That's how you want to grow them. Bark drains very quickly and doesn't keep the roots too wet.

However, more and more orchids are being sold in a long-grain sphagnum moss - which is very nice for shipping because it stays in the container and keeps the roots wet. But it's not so nice for the uneducated grower because it keeps the roots far too wet and tends to lead to root rot.

There's no reason not to buy an orchid potted in this, but you need to make note of it mentally. You're certainly not going to water it more than once a week if it's potted in that.

When [the orchid] has finished blooming, I would take it out of the moss and replant it in a bark mix. But I would not recommend repotting it until it has finished blooming. If you're not really careful, you can shock the plant enough when repotting that it will drop its flowers.

[When shopping for an orchid], while you're still in the store, look it over very carefully to make sure there are no insects.

How often should you water your orchid?

That's going to depend a lot on the conditions in which you're growing it.

If your orchid is in average household conditions (let's say the temperature is about 68 degrees F.) and it's on a bright windowsill that doesn't get direct sun, here are some general thoughts:

If it's potted in a plastic pot - which is probably how you would buy it - it would need watering once every seven to 10 days. If it's potted in clay, you probably need to water it once every five to seven days.

I recommend actually soaking the orchid pot in a big bowl of water, especially if it's clay. The moisture can be absorbed through the pot, into the bark mix. Let it sit in the water for 10 minutes, take it out of the bowl, and let it drain in the sink before you put it back in place.

The important thing when watering an orchid is not to water it like a regular plant. When you pour water into a bark mix it just [runs] right through. So you want to take the orchid to the sink, pour water into it, and let it come right out. And then, two minutes later, do it again.

Many of these orchids are epiphytes in nature, which means they grow on another plant. They're not used to having their roots in wet soil and surrounded at all times by soil.

I've seen so many orchids killed with kindness by being overwatered. I'd say please don't overwater your orchid and give it as much humidity as you can. These are plants ... whose roots do best if they are allowed to dry out a little bit between waterings.

How would you go about creating humidity for your plant?

The single best thing you can do is to create a small dry well. Misting plants is highly overrated. You have to do it so frequently in order to make it even the smallest bit worthwhile.

Creating a dry well is so simple. It's a large saucer with pebbles on it. Pour water over the pebbles until it covers the top of the stones. Set your orchid on the wet gravel. As the water evaporates it will increase the ambient humidity for the plant, but the roots will be clear of the water.

You can make bigger dry wells if you have a large bay window. If you use a copper plant tray or a cookie sheet, you can create a really large dry well and put four of five orchids in it. It's a really nice way to up the humidity for all the plants.

What are the light requirements?

Both of the orchids I've recommended like bright, indirect light, which for indoor growers usually means a bright eastern window or a very bright northern window. Although, in a city, northern windows are normally a little darker because neighboring apartment buildings cut off some of the light.

Direct sun in an eastern window is normally morning sun, so it doesn't have the heat of a western or southern window. There are certainly plenty of orchids to recommend for these higher light situations.

How long, in general, do these orchids bloom for?

It will depend on which orchid you have. A Phalaenopsis orchid? Without exaggeration, I had one in bloom for nine months. It was a $19 plant from the Home Depot. But more typical is two to three months for a Phalaenopsis and for a Paphiopedilum, probably about six weeks.

How long do they live?

As with any houseplant or tropical that you grow as a houseplant, there's no reason at all why you can't have an orchid for 10 or 25 years if you care for it well.

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