A lot of people are terrified of growing orchids. This fear is “bizarre,” according to orchid expert Martin Motes of Motes Orchids in Florida, who calls himself the “tribal elder” because he’s been growing them for 60 years. “They just don’t understand how different orchids are.”
Motes Orchids is one of the most renowned orchid nurseries in the world. It hosts the Tamiami International Orchid Festival, the largest winter orchid event in the United States, coming up on Jan. 23. But even though Motes is a busy man, he told us he’s “never too busy to disseminate information about orchids.”
1. Orchids are more like cacti than any other plants.
They are extremely tough and durable and just about the only plant imaginable you can totally neglect for weeks on end, and it would still survive. “We’ve had them left in a box without any light or water for two months, and they’re still alive,” Motes said.
2. Not all orchids are equal.
You can’t have blanket rules for all types of orchids, according to Motes. “You can’t put the cow in the stream or the fish in the pasture.” Know your orchid and its requirements.
3. Rule of (green) thumb.
“When in doubt, you always want to underwater the orchid,” said Motes. “They’re locked in an evolutionary struggle with their enemy, the fungus.” If you have a Phalaenopsis — the most common genus in cultivation — “water the bejesus out of them, so the plant’s roots are totally saturated.” Then let the plant dry out completely. Do this two or three times, separating the waterings by two or three minutes. “Feel the weight of the plant. If it’s as heavy as it can be, you are done.”
4. Seeing the light.
Phalaenopsis orchids want indirect light. Other common orchids, such as the Dendrobium, do best in bright light. “The leaves should be a shade or two darker than a Granny Smith apple,” he said. “If they’re more yellow than that, they’re getting too much light, or not enough water or enough fertilizer.”
5. Orchids need to eat, and be cozy.
Motes recommends time-release fertilizers for orchids — one teaspoon for a 6-inch pot. He suggests Dynamite brand orchid food, with a low phosphorus content. Feeding them once every nine months is adequate. And don’t overpot them, he cautioned. With most plants, the bigger the pot, the happier the plants. With orchids, you want to grow them in the smallest containers possible.”
Linda Matchan can be reached at email@example.com.