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Ask Martha

Give orchids a moist atmosphere

Research how frequently your variety of orchid should be watered.

Tony Cenicola/New York Times

Research how frequently your variety of orchid should be watered.

Q. I just bought an orchid plant. How should I care for it?

A. To maintain a healthy orchid, mimic its natural environments as much as possible. Orchids like temperatures close to those we like, but the air in your home may be too dry. There are a few ways to give an orchid a moist atmosphere: Keep it in a bathroom with a window (for sunlight), set it on a pebble tray partially filled with water, or group plants together to establish a mini ecosystem.

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While orchids thrive in moist air, be sure not to overwater them. There are more than 30,000 varieties, so research how frequently yours should be watered. Allow the plants to approach dryness before watering; then drench the potting medium with tepid rainwater or tap water. As the mixture dries out, the container will become lighter, indicating it’s time to water again. Never leave your orchid bone-dry for long. As with watering, avoid overfeeding: After every third or fourth dousing, feed your plant an orchid fertilizer diluted with water.

Place the plant in ample diffuse sunlight. East- and south-facing windows provide the best light. The leaves should be grassy green.

When the plant has outgrown its original pot, use a potting medium suited for your kind of orchid. There are two main types: terrestrial orchids, which grow in the ground, and epiphytic orchids, which are usually found on tree branches and trunks, says Marc Hachadourian, manager of the Nolen Greenhouses for Living Collections at the New York Botanical Garden. Terrestrial plants like a mixture with a fine to medium consistency; epiphytic ones thrive with less potting medium near their roots. In either case, you’ll need a fast-draining potting mix, typically made from a combination of orchid bark, sphagnum moss, tree-fern fiber, perlite, and charcoal. Ask at your local garden center about ready-made varieties for your particular orchid.

Q. How do I polish brassware? I’ve tried silver polish, and it just doesn’t work.

A. Polishes involve chemicals that strip a microscopic layer of oxidized matter from the surface. To avoid damaging your metalware, it is important to know the metal and whether it is solid or plated and then use the proper agent to polish it. To determine whether your piece is solid or plated, scratch in a place not easily seen. If your brassware is golden yellow, it is probably solid brass. If it has a white sheen, it could be steel, aluminum, zinc, pot metal, spelter, or something else plated in brass. Silver polish uses a relatively safe, weak chemical, so it can only be substituted for brass polish when the tarnish is not too severe.

For brass pieces, Michael Vetrone, president of Empire Metal Finishing in New York City, often uses NevrDull Metal Polish (available from www.nevrdull.com). If the piece is brass-plated, do not use too much polish or rub too vigorously, as the thinly plated metal will wear.

Adapted from Martha Stewart Living.
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