Growing Orchids Indoors for Winter Color

Growing Orchids Indoors 01 - Photo by Rich Baer

In spite of the internet and its excess information, one of the last holdouts for actual paper catalogs must be the garden seed companies. When they start to arrive in my mailbox (a real, old fashioned mail box that gets paper letters and catalogs), I know that spring cannot be far away. Just looking at the front covers of these catalogs gets my mind thinking about what I am going to do this year in the garden!

But back to reality: this is January, winter is still here and since we do not have much color outdoors, it is nice to see something blooming in the house. Have you given any thought to growing orchids indoors for winter color in your home? We see blooming orchids at many grocery stores and they are often purchased for their flowers, which last for weeks, and then unfortunately the plant is discarded. Often orchids are overlooked as a permanent house plant, perhaps because of an undeserving reputation of being ‘fussy’ or hard to grow and that is not the case. Orchids do have some unique growing requirements, but certainly nothing that is difficult to learn.

Probably the most unique aspect of growing orchids indoors is that they grow best in an orchid bark rather than a traditional potting soil. Lucky for us Black Gold has the products needed to grow orchids in a home setting. Orchids need extremely fast drainage and often the plants are grown in an actual bark type medium. Black Gold has a quality bark/media mix called Black Gold Orchid Mix that is great for cultivating many orchids. The unique orchid mix is a blended combination of small bark, Canadian Sphagnum peat moss and perlite and/or pumice. There is a small amount of lime added and so this product is ready to use.

Growing Orchids Indoors 02 - Photo by Rich Baer

Many orchid growers like to use just bark as a potting medium and others like to use bark and blend it themselves with pumice or perlite and sometimes even adding small amounts of charcoal.  Charcoal is excellent for helping with aeration and charcoal has the ability to help remove excess moisture.

Black Gold Orchid Mix is good for semi-terrestrial orchids, such as Paphilopedium and Cymbidium, which tend to have thinner roots that need more water retention. Compare this to orchid bark, which is perfect for epiphytic orchid for types like Odontoglossum, Phalaenopsis, and Cattleya and other medium rooted varieties. A note here about orchid roots and that is many orchid plants have a tendency to send out roots above the soil or bark level in the pot and these roots will grow and often extend out over the side of the pot. These roots should NOT be cut off as they are helpful to the overall vigor of the plant.

Growing Orchids Indoors 03 - Photo by Rich Baer

Lisa Long of St. Helens, Oregon is an Oregon State University Master Gardener and has been growing orchids indoors and out for nearly 20 years. She grows orchids on her windowsill in trays of pebbles. A small amount of water is in each tray with the level of it being just below the bottom of the orchid pot. The water will supply much need humidity in a dry indoor environment. The windowsill offers the light conditions they need; bright light but indirect sunlight in the summer. Also, try to keep the plants away from an area with drafts whether it is a door, window or heating vent.

Lisa waters her plants weekly and uses a weak strength of a water soluble plant food. She suggests new orchid growers join a local orchid society if there is one in your area. You can learn many tips from those that have been growing orchids. Learn what species you have and follow a water and fertilization schedule depending on the particular requirements that species has.  Overwatering is the most common cause of orchid death. Lisa also reports that orchids, as well as many other house plants, will benefit from a weekly dusting. Lightly wipe the leaves with a damp paper towel. She also recommends re-potting them about once every year and add fresh bark or whatever potting medium you are using. When you re-pot one, select a pot that is just the next size larger.

Growing Orchids Indoors - 6 up - Photos by Lisa Long

With the vast number of varieties available, it is possible to have orchids in bloom at any month of the year. Do not be discouraged if the plant you bought from a local store does not repeat bloom for a year, or even two. This is not unusual and as long as the plant is healthy, it is just getting settled into its’ new environment.

So the next time you buy a blooming orchid, do not consider it a dispensable, one-time blooming plant to discard when the flower is gone. Instead, treat it with some tender care and you could have a plant that will continue to grow, thrive and bloom for many years.

Photos courtesy of Rich Baer and Lisa Long

Tips For Winterizing Plants

It can be a bit difficult to shift gears and start thinking about winterizing plants, especially after we had such a dry and warm late summer and fall here in the Pacific Northwest. Recently we have had some rain but here it is mid-November and I have not had a frost at my house. Summer blooming plants have slowed down and do not look as good as they do in the summer, but overall, there are many semi-tropical plants that are still looking quite good. I have a large Canna in a pot on my deck and it is still in bloom. The Heliotrope has flowers and Begonia ‘Bonfire’ still has enough flowers to attract hummingbirds.

Musa Basjoo - Mike DarcyOverwintering Hardy Banana

However, we all know the mild weather is not going to last forever, and so now is a good time to discuss tips for winterizing plants. Soon we will be having regular frosts and temperatures below freezing and the tropical plants will be no more and the semi-tropical plants will need to have been put to bed for the winter. The Hardy Banana (Musa basjoo) is a very vigorous grower and even with the top growth dying to the ground in the winter; it can still reach 12-15 feet in height by the end of the summer. However, getting it to bloom can be quite a challenge.

This past summer I have been to several gardens to see Musa basjoo in bloom. The flower is large and quite unusual with a brown color and then behind the flower, small bananas will appear. Musa basjoo is native to a group of islands off the coast of Japan and it is referred to there as a fiber banana. This means that even if we had weather warm enough for the bananas to mature, it would not be considered an edible banana.

To increase the chance of plants having flowers, it is probably necessary to wrap the stems to protect them from the cold. I actually did this on three of my thickest stemmed plants and the wrap kept the stems from freezing. In the spring, the banana will then begin sending out new leaves at the tip of the stem. On the three stems I selected, I cut off the tops at about the six-foot level. I used bubble wrap and tied it around the stems and then wrapped burlap over the bubble wrap to protect the stems from being burned by the sun. Burlap also makes the wrap aesthetically pleasing.

Banana - Mike Darcy

In the spring, I removed the wrapping and the bananas started sending out leaves at the six foot level and the plants grew much taller than if the stems had died to the ground. Even though the roots are considered hardy, I like to give them the added protection of a thick layer of Black Gold Garden Compost Blend and on top of that I make several layers of the banana leaves I have removed. The leaves give some additional protection from the cold and also serve the purpose of preventing the soil conditioner from blowing away. The photo of the bananas is from my garden and this is all just the growth through mid-August.

The overwintering of the Musa basjoo may seem rather extreme and if you do not care if you have flowers, cut the stems to the ground after a hard freeze, add a layer of Black Gold Garden Compost Blend and layer the leaves you have cut off and your plant should survive just fine.

Gunnera at Walt's - Mike DarcyOverwintering Gunnera

Gunnera is a spectacular plant that also likes some winter protection. Since it likes lots of moisture, add Black Gold Just Coir and mix with existing soil when planting. Coir is actually coconut pith and is a natural and renewable product with superb water retention qualities. The crown of Gunnera can be tender to cold temperatures and I cut off the huge leaves and place them over the crown for winter protection.

Other Late-Season Plants of Interest

Another plant we can easily grow here but is not common in gardens is the hardy hibiscus (Hibiscus moscheutos). I think the word ‘hibiscus’ makes people think it is the tropical plant from Southern California and Hawaii, but it is very different except for the flower. The hardy hibiscus flower has the typical hibiscus flower shape and in some cases is even larger. Many times I have seen the hardy hibiscus with flowers the size of dinner plates and they come in a variety of colors. The hardy hibiscus will die to the ground but reappear in the spring with new stems. I like to add a layer of compost similar to what I do with the hardy banana. Hardy hibiscus is a great plant for a full sun location and it tends to bloom late in the summer, usually not until August.

We should never forget the wonderful winter color some plants can provide with just the bark or stems. Paperbark maple (Acer griseum) is a great example. This tree looks nice at any time of year but once the leaves drop, the trunk and stems are exposed and it is easy to understand how it got the common name of Paperbark Maple. A bonus in addition to the bark is that the foliage turns red in the fall. I have seen Acer griseum used as a tree for street plantings and it looks nice all year and is very easy to care for.

There are probably many other gardeners that have some tender plants in pots that they like to overwinter. I have more than I should! I have had good success with a tender Podocarpus and several citrus trees in pots just by putting them on a cart with wheels and bring them into the garage on nights when temperatures are expected to go below freezing. Then during the day, once temperatures have gotten above freezing, I wheel them out into the sunlight.

Just because we do not live in a tropical climate, with some extra effort we can push the zone!