14 February 2016

In Lieu of Herald Column: Orchids for the Midwinter Blahs

A note to my readers: Normally, I write a gardening column for the provincial paper of record, the Halifax Chronicle Herald. I've been doing this for probably 12-15 years (I can't honestly remember when I started). However, though I choose to be a freelancer rather than an employee, I am also electing not to file my column to the paper while the regular journalists, including editors and photographers, that work at the paper are out on strike, due to a draconian and poorly-thought-out attack by the owners and management of the paper. So I'm posting my column here, instead.

I will never been an expert in or specialist about any particular type of plants. There are far, far too many that fascinate me, both outdoors and as houseplants, native and exotic. Especially, I will never be an expert on orchids. But I do love them in their myriad forms, colours, shapes, species, hybrids...I love the native and hardy varieties that we can grow outdoors in our gardens, like Cypripedium lady slippers and Bletilla hyacinth orchids.  

(yellow lady slipper, native to NS) While this is gorgeous, it is not suited to every garden, and it's recommended that you consult a good greenhouse before trying one in your own garden. 

 But I do profess to be rather besotted with the exotic orchids that we grow in our homes, or sigh over in other people's homes. And I can tell you, they are worse than potato chips, because you really, really cannot have just one. 

Like many others, I used to think I couldn't grow orchids--that they were highly demanding, requiring just the right amount of heat and light and special growing media and pots and if you looked at them sideways they would die. Okay, there are certainly some that are particular, but there are many that are quite happy, or at least tolerant, of most home growing conditions. 

I'll always be grateful to the acquaintance who was an orchid expert--a judge, breeder, and seller of these glorious plants--and who gave me a small, tough, and interesting orchid. This was about the time that moth orchids, (Phalaenopsis), became widely available and dropped in price accordingly. Suddenly, they were worth trying because they were no more expensive than other flowering plants and if they throve, fabulous. If they went to sleep, I could deal with that, too. Turned out they liked my growing conditions and they did rather marvellously. I was hooked. 

Getting braver, I consulted with another orchid enthusiast and bought my first Paphiopedilum, one of the non-native genera also given the common name of ladyslipper orchid. I nurtured it with care and when it flowered for me the next winter, I was so proud of myself. And got a little more daring as a result. 

Now I also have a couple of Oncidiums, also known as 'dancing lady' orchids. This is the chocolate-scented 'Sharry Baby', which is a delightful plant both for all its flowers and for that fragrance. 

One of the most important things when growing orchids is to make sure to use filtered water from the tap, or rainwater. Filtering tap water is important because some natural sources of drinking water can be alkaline, which affects the available nitrogen orchids need for healthy growth. Don't use bottled water, which can have high levels of salt, definitely not good for orchids! And don't overwater your orchids, which will kill them quite quickly. I give mine a drink, then let the water drain away from the pot, so that standing water doesn't cause root rot. 

My fondness for green flowers is well known, so it's no surprise that I would have green orchids--both a moth orchid, and this fabulous Cymbidium. At one time I had a green-flowered lady slipper orchid, but it succumbed during the transition from one place to another til I finally landed here in Wolfville. Oh well. Plants come and go, as a wise gardener once told me.

 It is important to match your home's light and heat conditions with the right type of orchids. Many enthusiasts have an attached greenhouse, solarium, or a special room dedicated to growing the more tropical types that require higher temperatures and humidity than the average home can offer. If you can find a local enthusiast and ask questions, these folks are very generous with advice, tips and suggestions. They often have plants for sale as well, which is an added plus! You can buy moth orchids at department and grocery stores as well as at florist shops, but finding more unusual species may be a little more challenging.

Ask orchid enthusiasts about what they grow their plants in, and you'll get a variety of opinions on the best medium. Orchids in stores are often potted up in sphagnum moss, which can stay soggy and cause root rot, or dry out and be hard to rewet. Either way, it's only good for about a year before it has broken down completely. If you're going to use bark, order or purchase bark that is FOR orchids, not bark out of the mulch in your hard. Some growers are now using coir fibre (coconut husk fibre) but before transplanting their orchids into this medium, they treat it with epsom salts and calcium nitrate to remove naturally-found salts that can cause root burn. I have no experience with this product, but I bought a bag of bark sold by a reputable potting medium company which I have just used to pot up a couple of my plants. We'll see how they do before I mention the name. 

 If you want some inspiration and to be able to pick the brains of experienced orchid growers, do check out the Orchid show at the KC Irving Environmental Science on Saturday, February 20, 1030am-4 pm. This annual show includes some breathtakingly gorgeous plants, and hopefully there will be vendors this year after a hiatus last year. This show is a photographer's dream and the perfect antidote to the winter blahs.


  1. I don't have any fancy orchids just a few phalenopsis. I have over the years learned to really appreciate these flowers for their winter blooms. I would love to sometime try one of the really special ones. I am always afraid I would just kill them. Orchid blooms are so vivid and strong even tho they look delicate.

  2. Nice article, I do love orchids. I bought us a pretty yellow cymbidium and it is on our patio. They live outdoors here year round but if it dips below 40 they need protection.

  3. Good for you for support the striking "Herald" staff. Your Orchid photos are lovely. I went to the show at Acadia and though I really enjoyed seeing the Orchids, I was under-whelmed by the facility or rather the lack of use being made of the facility. I was expecting a lush, green, earth-smelling greenhouse. Wow. What a disappointment.


Thank you for visiting and for taking the time to comment! It might take me a bit, but I will return the compliment whenever possible.
Spammers--need not apply. Because I delete your comments and they will never make it here. Kthxbai!

Search Bloomingwriter

Custom Search