Cheyenne Garden Gossip

Gardening on the high plains of southeastern Wyoming


Orchid adventure

2016-01bFantasy Orchids-Phalaenopsis1-by Barb Gorges

Phalaenopsis orchids were in bloom at the Fantasy Orchids greenhouse in Louisville, Colo., in early December. Photo by Barb Gorges.

  • Denver Orchid Society show and sale, March 14, 2016, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., and March 15, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m., at Tagawa Garden Center, 7711 S. Parker Rd., Centennial, Colo., http://denverorchidsociety.org
  • Fantasy Orchids, www.fantasyorchids.com, 830 W. Cherry St., Louisville, Colo.

Published Jan. 17, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “The wide world of orchids.”

By Barb Gorges

There is nothing in the middle of winter quite like the feel of Hawaiian humidity–that gentle touch on the cheek. And there’s a bit of it close by, in Louisville, Colorado, at Fantasy Orchids.

2016-01bFantasy Orchids-greenhouse center-by Barb Gorges.JPG            A look at the outside of the greenhouse, set between a residential neighborhood and a shopping mall, doesn’t prepare you for the view inside from the doorway. Beyond the doors is a vast expanse–10,000 square feet–of nothing but 30,000 to 50,000 orchids, accompanied by Hawaiian music.

2016-01bFantasy Orchids gardener Hannah Leigh Myers with prize-winning orchid-courtesy

Hannah Leigh Myers provided this photo of her and her prize-winning orchid.

Upon entry, I was lucky to find gardener Hannah Leigh Myers working, and willing to be my guide, teaching me about growing orchids at home.

Orchids can be an obsession. Myers brought home her first one five years ago and now has 50. Seeing all the new varieties coming in the greenhouse must make them hard to resist. She still has that first plant though. It won a blue ribbon at a recent Denver Orchid Society show.

No one is going to be able to collect all the orchids—there are 27,000 species. That doesn’t include the brisk orchid hybridization industry has produced 100,000 varieties.

Some people run out of room and build additions to their houses. Other people board their non-blooming orchids at Fantasy Orchids, waiting for a call to pick them up when they are in bloom again. They can also board them while away on vacation.

Orchid collectors can be another breed altogether. Susan Orlean’s book, “The Orchid Thief,” touches on the stories of murder and mayhem committed in the historical pursuit of rare orchids. Collecting them in the wild has since been banned by the 1973 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

Cheyenne’s most notable orchid grower was the late Judge Clarence Brimmer. You can see some of his orchids at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens greenhouse.

The orchids Myers showed me are propagated by cloning in flasks. Once out of the flask, an orchid can take 3 to 5 years to bloom. Fantasy Orchids general manager Kent Gordon visits Hawaii and selects varieties that will appeal to his customers, and provide a succession of blooms throughout the year.

2016-01bFantasy Orchids-greenhouse-by Barb Gorges

This is a view of less than half of Fantasy Orchid’s greenhouse, where young orchids may take a few years to grow to flowering age. Photo by Barb Gorges.

The day I visited, the center isle was overhung with gorgeous colors, but the majority of the plants were green, just busy growing. The bigger they get, the more valuable they are. You won’t find any tossed out because they are finished blooming.

It was tough choosing just one orchid. I liked the Cattleyas, the classic corsage orchids that can fill the house with perfume. They can bloom several times a year. There was Sharry Baby, an Oncidium with a scent of chocolate. Whole tables were filled with Dendrobium species and hybrids.

 

2016-01bFantasy Orchids-slipper orchid-by Barb Gorges

One kind of slipper orchid may bloom only once every seven years. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Myers brought out a slipper orchid, with its big pouch, related to some of the 27 native, terrestrial (grows in soil) orchids in Wyoming. Some slippers bloom once every seven years.

The butterfly orchids were intriguing as well, but only one fantastical flower opens at a time.

I decided on Phalaenopsis, one of the moth orchids. They are most forgiving, most likely to find my not so bright house favorable. They can be expected to bloom for months at a time.

2016-01bFantasy Orchids-Phalaenopsis2-by Barb Gorges

Phalaenopsis orchids, the “moth” orchids, are recommended for beginners. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Dendrobium orchids have different “faces.” Photos above by Barb Gorges.

            Most orchids in the trade are tropical epiphytes. They need no soil, usually growing on trees in their native habitat. Several fine specimens were growing on a tree in the middle of the greenhouse including a 20-year-old Vanda that has bloomed five times this year with giant flowers, a Volcano Trick with a large spray of small orange and red flowers blooming seasonally and a particular Dendrobium that has been blooming continuously for nine years. Myers assured me they are all fine in our homes, even in our dry climate.

2016-01bFantasy Orchids-Volcano Trick orchid-by Barb Gorges

“Volcano Trick” grows on a tree in the Fantasy Orchids greenhouse, just the way epiphytic orchids would in the tropics. Photo by Barb Gorges.

How to take care of an orchid

My new orchid came, as many at Fantasy Orchids do, in a clear plastic pot, with the merest hint of a bottom, filled with a mix of fir bark, horticultural charcoal and sponge rock, mainly meant to support the plant and retain a little moisture, rather than nourish it. The thick aerial roots often climb outside pots and are even photosynthetic.

But when watering it, I need to imitate a tropical rain shower. I’ll know when to water, maybe in 5 to 7 days or 2 weeks, when the roots turn whitish or the pot feels much lighter.

One expert suggests watering in the morning so water accidentally sitting in a leaf axil has more time to evaporate in warmer daytime temperatures, than at night, when it might cause rotting.

Myers said to set the orchid in the sink and let lukewarm water run over the roots for 1 to 2 minutes. When the roots turn green it means they have opened their pores. Once the roots are open, I can treat them with the recommended general fertilizer solution as directed.

Fantasy Orchids sells its own fertilizer concoctions and since they are what they use, I picked up some. They’ll also be suitable for some of my other flowering plants.

I also picked out a ceramic orchid pot. The special design is full of holes, so roots can breathe, but Myers said to just put the clear pot inside it. At least the ceramic pot is heavy enough to keep the plant from toppling over. It will be awhile before it needs repotting as orchids need to be somewhat root-bound.

2016-01bFantasy Orchids-wood mounted-by Barb Gorges

Epiphytic orchids can be grown on slabs of wood. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Alternately, you can mount your orchid on a slab of wood, though that seems messy—especially for watering.

The flowering stems of orchids mainly want to hang down, as they would from trees. But if my orchid is in a pot, I want to see the little flower faces. Orchids have bilateral symmetry, just like human faces. So to lift them, orchid flower stems are staked. Little clips hold them to simple wooden bamboo sticks dyed green to blend in.

Different kinds of orchids have different light needs at different times in their growing cycle. Phalaenopsis flowers have been known to last 6 to 9 months if night temperatures are 50-60 degrees and they are kept away from heat vents, cold drafts and rapid temperature changes. They need only indirect light.

When flowering is finished, I will move my plant to a brighter spot. For Phalaenopsis, the preferred exposure is within 2 feet of an east-facing or southeast facing window, or shaded in a south or west window. If the plant won’t re-flower, it probably needs more light, or fertilizer. I might have to augment natural with fluorescent light. Also, a 10-20 degree temperature difference between day and night is necessary next fall to encourage re-blooming.

Fantasy Orchids offers repotting services and, surprisingly, a trade-in promotion that includes plants bought at the grocery store. It’s a way to introduce you to the wider world of orchids. And give you the confidence you need to grow your own.

“There’s something really wonderful about tropical flowers when there’s snow outside,” said Myers. “And orchids can out-live us. They get better and better.”

Cattleyas are the orchids for classic corsages, and they smell nice, but they also make good house plants. Fantasy Orchids carries a number of varieties. Photos below by Barb Gorges.

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Keep Christmas plants alive

2016-01Christmas Cactus (pink)-King Sooper's by Barb Gorges

Christmas cactus, unlike true cactus, prefer less sunlight and more water. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Jan. 3, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Christmas plants: How to keep them alive year-round.”

Keep the plants of Christmas alive year round

By Barb Gorges

Did you buy or receive one of the iconic Christmas season plants? Did you know they can be kept alive to bloom again? Some are more of a challenge than others, but it’s worthwhile to try.

Amaryllis

Once these amaryllis are finished blooming, the pebbles used for their growing medium should be traded out for regular houseplant potting soil. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Amaryllis

Mail-order amaryllis arrive as bare bulbs, or bulbs planted in pots barely bigger than they are. They love being snug, with only an inch to spare between them and the edge of the pot.

I received a bulb by mail years ago. After enjoying its big blooms, I cut away the withered flower stalk. But the big strappy leaves were still a nice green accent on the windowsill so I kept watering. Over the summer I put it outside, under our clear patio roof, where it would be protected from hail, and it kept adding leaves. The following March it flowered and has every spring for seven years.

At the time, standard advice on getting an amaryllis to re-bloom involved letting it go dormant, then beginning watering two months before bloom was wanted. Maybe people didn’t want to put up with the floppy leaves or maybe they wanted it to bloom again at Christmas and not March.

This particular red amaryllis has a bulb that is now 6 inches in diameter with two off-shoots. In contrast, a pale pink variety I’ve had even longer has a bulb that never grows bigger than 3 inches in diameter, but it has been producing daughter bulbs. Last year I separated and replanted seven.

Amaryllis like plenty of light and do well with our average home temperatures and humidity. Karen Panter, University of Wyoming Extension Horticulture Specialist, said for fertilizer, use half of what the label says.

Shane Smith, director of the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens reminds us an amaryllis is poisonous, “Keep it away from kids and dogs.”

Poinsettia

Poinsettias come in many colors. The color is actually modified leaves. The flowers are the petal-less nubbins in the middle. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Poinsettia

You may see poinsettias growing outside some place tropical, but not here.

Keep them watered, making sure water can drain out through the bottom of the pot and isn’t impeded by decorative wrapping.

The colorful “flowers” – which are actually bracts, or specialized leaves—will eventually fade and fall off. My experience is that by summer poinsettias are rather leggy, and may look disposable.

Karen thinks we should buy fresh every year—to support her friends in the poinsettia-growing industry.

But if you want the challenge, there are directions I found online. In March, cut back the stems to 4 to 6 inches, put it in a sunny window and apply diluted fertilizer every two weeks.

In May, after last frost, put it outside in shade, eventually moving it into 6-8 hours of sun per day. Pinch shoots once or twice between late June and mid-August.

In mid-September, before first frost, bring the poinsettia in and place it in a sunny window. By early October give it complete darkness between 5 p.m. and 8 a.m.—no artificial light. The bracts should develop good color by early December.

Will you accept the challenge this year?

Christmas cactus

Modern varieties of Christmas cactus may not require 12 hours of darkness per day next fall in order to bloom again. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Christmas Cactus

Shane said the word “cactus” in their name gives people the wrong idea about caring for the Christmas cactus.

“Instead, they need less light and more water than cactus,” he said. “They are known as forest cacti and naturally live in the crotches of trees in the tropics. They love being root bound,” he said.

Getting Christmas cactus to re-bloom involves very particular light therapy, said Karen. Referred to as a short day plant, it is actually a long night plant, requiring darkness greater than 12 hours beginning a couple months in advance of Christmas. It needs to be protected from all light sources between 5 p.m. and 8 a.m., every single night. Perhaps you’ll have to put a box over it. But during the day it needs lots of light.

Even if you have a light accident, your Christmas cactus may still bloom depending on the variety.

Spring, or Easter cactus, is a different species and requires semi-dormancy (less water) in fall and winter, but the same light treatment to produce blooms.

These cactus can be propagated from leaf cuttings.

Dwarf Alberta Spruce

Of all the varieties of evergreens sold as miniature Christmas trees, only the Dwarf Alberta Spruce are likely to survive Cheyenne’s climate if planted outside. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Miniature Christmas Trees

The Jackson and Perkins catalog features 18-inch-tall, live, coniferous evergreens in beautiful pots, decorated with lights and ornaments.

You might be thinking about where to plant the little tree next spring. But not all of these trees can survive outside in Cheyenne.

Trees identified as European or lemon cypress, or Italian stone pine, are all rated warm-climate, Zone 8-10. Treat them as house plants. We live in Zone 5, though we tend to favor plants rated for Zone 4 and lower, for extra assurance they will survive winter.

But you can plant the Dwarf Alberta spruce outside. A paler green than the familiar blue spruce, with very short needles, it is rated Zone 2 through 6 and does well here. However, it may only grow about 12 feet high in 25 years.

“But if it has been grown in the house for a long period, its hardiness might decline due to the shock,” Shane said.

It is best if live Christmas trees you want to plant outside next spring are not in the warm house long enough to break dormancy, meaning the bundles of new needles begin opening.

After less than a week you may have to put your tree out somewhere cool, like your garage, but not so cool the roots freeze.

Check every once in a while to see if it needs watering. When the ground thaws in April, you can plant it outside. Use the tree-planting methods explained in a previous column archived at www.CheyenneGardenGossip.wordpress.com.

General houseplant care instructions

Any potted plant has the potential to become a permanent resident of your home. If the information tag doesn’t tell you how much sun and water it requires, look it up on the Internet. Then figure out where in your house will suit it best.

Karen said many houseplants can adapt to a wide range of conditions and are happiest if left to adapt to one place. The most important step for success is to train yourself to water them the right amount.

Check a newly acquired houseplant daily for a couple weeks to get a sense of how quickly the soil dries out (and if it has bugs). Vigorous growers in a warm house in small pots with soil that doesn’t hold water well may need water every few days. More absorbent potting soil under opposite conditions may take two weeks for the top inch to dry out, the sign for most plants that watering is finally required. In the winter it might be a week or two between waterings.

Add water a bit at a time until it begins to drain into the saucer underneath. Empty the saucer or use a turkey baster (not to be used for cooking again) to siphon up the overflow.

Regarding fertilizer, Karen recommends the slow-release type. The one commonly available in Cheyenne stores is Osmacote. Measure out an application as directed and you won’t have to think about it again for months.

It’s quite possible your gift plant will continue growing, even flower again, and perhaps even multiply, allowing you to pass new plants on as gifts to others.


Have a black thumb with houseplants?

Pothos

Pothos tolerates low light. As the vine lengthens, you can make cuttings and replant them in the same pot—just poke a hole in the soil with a pencil. Or if you lay the stem, still attached, on the soil surface, it will root. Or put stems in a jar of water where they can grow for years without soil. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Oct. 19, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

“Have a black thumb? With houseplants, you can cure it with dirt.”

By Barb Gorges

Do you have a black thumb when growing houseplants? The cure is as simple as having the right plant in the right place with the right amount of water.

Ironically, the best way to check the water needs of plants is by feeling the soil—and probably getting a little black dirt on your fingers.

Plants indoors provide several benefits besides accenting your décor. They produce oxygen and add humidity. Some, including the spider plant and pothos, remove toxins from the outgassing of building and furniture materials.

Also, scientists tell us gazing at their natural forms does something good for our psyches, especially over a long winter.

The right plant

Often, people complaining about their black thumbs are having a bad experience with a potted plant that came from a florist. It was in full bloom and now it’s dead.

The likelihood of a beginning indoor gardener finding success with a hothouse plant is about the same as for someone trying Mount Everest for their first hike.

Houseplants are often descendants of tropical plants brought back by Victorian-era explorers in a time when the wealthy could afford glass-walled conservatories. When glass became more affordable, houseplants proliferated.

But these plants come from many micro-climates around the world with varying amounts of humidity, rainfall, light and heat.

Your best bet is to start with the standards, plants that can tolerate a wide range of conditions. These tend to remain foliage-only plants in the climates provided by our homes and offices.

My three favorites, spider plant, jade plant and pothos, which looks like variegated philodendron, are also easy to propagate so you may be able to find a friend who will share cuttings or a starter plant.

With jade and pothos, planting a cut stem is as easy as poking a hole with a pencil into a small container of potting soil and inserting the stem. With the spider plant, a “baby” growing on the end of a long stem can be cut off (or left attached), laid on top of the soil and held in place with a paper clip bent in a u-shape. And then keep the soil moist—not wet—until they start showing new growth.

Spider plant

Spider plants prefer bright light, not direct sunlight, but can survive in shade. Most have a white stripe down the center of the leaf; some have a green stripe or a plain green leaf. Older plants produce stems with new plants, “spiders,” and little white flowers. Photo by Barb Gorges.

The right place

In nature, plants grow where they get what they need. To be a successful indoor gardener, you need to match the plant with the conditions at your house.

Many houseplants prefer sunny, south-facing windows. Others are fine with shorter periods of sunlight on the east or west sides of the house. Some plants prefer dimmer light on the north side, or being placed a distance from a window. Only fake plants survive very dim light. And for some varieties, bright overhead fluorescent office lights will be enough.

How do you tell how much light your plant will need? Read the label that came with it. Or find out what kind it is by asking a Laramie County Master Gardener, or look it up at the library or online.

Experiment with your plants. If they grow long and leggy, or older leaves fall off too soon, they might need more light.

Humidity can be important. I had an avocado I grew from the pit that did very well in a bathroom in which two teenagers showered every day. But then we got a new furnace with a stronger blower that dissipated the humidity better and the plant died. Short of growing humidity-loving plants in a terrarium, it helps to group plants together, so they humidify each other.

Garden soil—at least our garden soil around here—is a bad choice for indoor plants. General, all-purpose potting soil that can be found at any garden supply center will work for the majority of houseplants.

All pots need drainage holes and a saucer that allows you to see when water starts draining out. A pot too big will make your plant look scrawny, besides, many plants prefer cramped roots–it encourages some to bloom. My azalea has been in the same pot 20 years and blooms regularly.

Jade plant

Jade plants are succulents with thick, water-storing leaves. In full sun they grow bushy and may even flower, but even with less than ideal light, they look interesting. Always err on the side of less water rather than more. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Watering

Don’t kill your houseplant with kindness. Most types will drown, literally, if you keep the soil soaking wet. Roots need air and as soil dries, microscopic air pockets develop.

On the other hand, if you let the soil get too dry, especially some of the potting soils with a lot of peat moss, they can become hydrophobic and it’s hard to get them to absorb water again.

During the winter, my spider, jade and pothos plants can easily go a week between waterings. But other plants will dry out faster if they have soil that doesn’t hold water well. Same with plants in clay pots, small pots or located near the heating vents. This is where people with black thumbs must get their fingers dirty.

The general rule is that the top inch of soil should dry out before watering again. So a few days after watering, stick your finger in the dirt. You can also learn to evaluate the soil’s dryness by the color of the surface, or if you have small plants in light plastic pots, check how heavy they feel.

My watering method is to pour enough in to fill the pot nearly to the rim, but no more than the saucer below can hold. Then I wait, water other plants and come back in a couple minutes to see if any water is draining out. I repeat this until I see water in the saucer. If water more water is draining out than what would evaporate in an hour, be sure to dump it or suction it up with a turkey baster so the roots don’t rot.

Maintenance

A plant in a livable temperature, receiving the right amount of light and water, is not stressed and is resistant to pests and diseases.

Plants look greener if you trim away dead parts. If you occasionally wipe or wash dust off their leaves, they absorb more light and your plants will grow better. Don’t block pores with leaf polishes.

Directions for houseplant fertilizer may recommend frequent feedings, but be very cautious, especially in the fall as days get shorter and indoor plants grow more slowly.

Wait until early spring to start fertilizing, when plants are really growing again. Even then, don’t be too generous. My three recommendations, spider, jade and pothos, do well enough at my house with hardly any fertilization. Cheyenne tap water seems to be about all they need.

Spider plant shoots

“Spiders,” spider plant offshoots, root easily. Photo by Barb Gorges.