ORCHIDS: You can’t live without them, and you can’t keep them alive. I’m kidding, sort of, but who among us hasn’t wished we could do better with a gifted or adopted beauty that just won’t re-bloom, or generally looks less happy now than when it arrived last year?
I asked Marc Hachadourian, author of the new book “Orchid Modern: Living and Designing With the World’s Most Elegant Houseplants” and senior curator of the world-class orchid collection at the New York Botanical Garden, to let us in on some insights.
Besides curating the orchid collection, Marc is Director of Glasshouse Horticulture at NYBG, overseeing cultivation of tens of thousands of tropical and temperate plants for conservatory exhibitions and permanent display there. The Orchid Show there each March and April is a must-visit. And Marc’s new book teaches us not just which to grow and how, but also how to apply a mini-version of the signature showmanship and artistry of that big event to how we display plants at home.
Learn how to water properly, and the subtleties of repotting—a step most of us fear, but when put off can really set a plant back–and which way to repot which kind of orchid, since not all want the same treatment. Most of all, get some ideas for using orchids more creatively: no more just lining up those garden-center plastic pots on a windowsill.
Plus: Enter to win the new book by commenting in the box at the very bottom of the page.
Read along as you listen to the August 26, 2019 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
success (& flair) with orchids, with marc hachadourian
Margaret Roach: It was so fun to come to the show this year, especially. I was just agog.
Marc Hachadourian: One of the greatest thrills is seeing those faces as the people walk into the conservatory…
Margaret: Oh my goodness. [Laughter.]
Marc: … and their jaw just drops at the displays we put on. That horticultural showmanship has really been one of my most favorite parts of my career here at the Garden.
Margaret: Yes, and what’s great is that in this book, which is about real people like me adopting and growing orchids, not about putting on the NYBG Orchid Show in a historic Victorian conservatory…
Marc: [Laughter.] Not too many people have those around.
Margaret: No, I’m short on those. But it still has that spirit and flair. And you’re encouraging me not to just adopt that orchid and keep it in the same container it was in and sit it on my windowsill, and that’s the end of it. You’re asking me to go farther, and that’s what I love. So before we get to some of those ideas, congratulations obviously on the new book.
Marc: Thank you. Thank you very much. As you know, producing any book is a labor of love. And to see it come to final fruition is just a real thrill.
Margaret: We’ll disclose that it’s from Timber Press, who’s my publisher, too, and also a sponsor of the A Way to Garden Podcast. So really how to have orchid success, I mean that’s what everybody asks me about. And I’m sure more people ask you. [Laughter.]
Marc: You’d imagine, yes.
Margaret: In gardening, there’s that old expression, “Right plant, right place,” as in match the plant to the intended conditions of the location. And that’s true of orchids too, isn’t it?
Marc: One-hundred percent.
Marc: I think so many times, like with any garden, any beginning gardener, you’re choosing what catches your eye in the nursery, and you plant it. And if it thrives, wonderful. And sometimes it doesn’t. And that little bit of extra knowledge makes the difference between having sort of a hit-and-miss approach to succeeding with any plant, whether it be a garden perennial or an orchid.
But once you sort of understand your conditions, whether you have sun or shade, whether you water heavily or you’re the type of person who kind of forgets every once in a while… And then looking mostly with orchids, when it comes to your temperature conditions, how warm or how cool your growing environment is.
With the diversity of the orchid family and how many hundreds of thousands of hybrids of every different size, shape, color imaginable, there’s an orchid for every location. And when you find that right plant, you’ll be surprised how easily and how well they will thrive in a home.
Margaret: Right. And so are there some, and I don’t know whether it’s to the species level or what it is, that are more adaptable, generally speaking, to the average home environment, and especially in a region where we, say, have indoor heating, where our homes are closed up, for instance, part of the year?
Marc: Absolutely. To try to generalize with a home, obviously a home in Miami and a home in Maine are two very different environments.
Marc: But nowadays, with the orchids that are bred for the mass market, some people look at them and they say, “Well, they’re not as special because there’s so many of them.” But the reality is, it’s actually kind of the opposite. Those are orchids that are generally very durable, very adaptable. And the reason why they’re able to produce them is because they’re easy to grow. And these orchids have been hybridized by expert hybridizes around the world, really in many cases with the intent of creating a much more growable plant for the home hobbyist.
So when you go to your store and you are tempted by that Phalaenopsis or whatever orchid you see, in many cases those plants are actually pretty easy to grow in the home. Plants like Phalaenopsis, or tropical lady slippers known as Paphiopedilum, adapt very well to the conditions that you or I would enjoy in our home. The same kind of light levels, temperature levels, and even that humidity level that we would enjoy, those plants match along with our culture very well. Different than, say, a maidenhair fern that would want tremendous humidity most of us might not be comfortable with.
Margaret: Right, right.
Marc: Most orchids are actually quite adaptable. And despite their reputation, orchids are actually survivors. Because many orchids grow as epiphytes, in which they’re attached to the branches of trees in the rain forest, they’re actually growing in conditions that are a little bit more arid, in some cases, than most people would think. They’re adapted to drying out, bright conditions. In some ways, they’re survivors. And I think more people kill the orchids with kindness than they do by a little bit of benign neglect going a long way.
Margaret: So you just said epiphytes. And then the other type or group of orchids would be terrestrial, would they? Ones that grow on the ground level, in the ground?
Marc: Yes. In our homes, the only orchids that would be considered terrestrials are your tropical lady slipper orchids and some of the foliage orchids known as jewel orchids.
All of your Oncidium, Cattleya, Phalaenopsis, actually most of them will naturally grow as epiphytes in which they’re attached to the branches of trees high up in the canopy, in which they’re kind of exploiting the best light, air and water found in a rain forest environment.
Margaret: So then does knowing that, for instance, which it is—terrestrial or epiphytic—does that inform, for instance, the medium that we grow it in or on, or does that inform its versatility? You know what I mean? Do we infer anything from that as growers?
Marc: Absolutely. Many people when they get those orchids, they look, and the first thing you can see is that that plant is not growing in the same thing some of your other houseplants are growing in.
Margaret: No. [Laughter.]
Marc: It’s not growing in a soil mix with perlite. It’s growing in sphagnum moss or orchid bark. And what that is, it’s replicating the plant’s natural conditions in a containerized environment in the home. So what we’ve done is translated the plant’s ability to sort of grasp on to the branches in that tree into a container situation, which is why we choose the potting mediums we do for orchids, for them to replicate those conditions. That way they are happiest and feel quite at home in their container on your windowsill.
Margaret: So let’s get to sort of some of the basic care. A plant, often what happens is someone gives you a beautiful blooming orchid. And it may bloom for a very long time, and you’re thrilled. And then the next year nothing happens. [Laughter.] Oops!
Marc: It’s a common story.
Margaret: Oops! And so you might think if… A lot of times out in the garden, if you’re a gardener, you might think, “Oh, I didn’t give it enough light,” because sometimes outdoor plants sulk if they’re in too much shade, or whatever, and they don’t bloom as profusely. So you might think that’s the thing. But there’s more at work than that, in successful orchid culture, than just a light factor.
Margaret: So let’s talk about some of the things and, yes, the basic care.
Marc: Like anything, the amount of care you invested in it will be also related to the amount of return you get from that plant. Many times, people of course, the orchid is the center of attention when it’s in full bloom.
Marc: Right in the middle of your living space, and every day you go over and you check on it and you count every bloom and bud and see what’s going on. And when that plant is done flowering, what happens?
Marc: It gets banished to a side room; kind of forgotten. Sometimes people sort of remember on occasion to water it.
Marc: But that attention that that plant gets in bloom is not as important as the attention you give your plant when it’s out of bloom. That is the period when an orchid is storing up energy and the required energy that it needs to bloom. So when that plant is out of flower, you want to make sure the plant is getting the proper amount of light, water, and very importantly, the proper amount of fertilizer, making sure that plant has enough strength and energy to produce that beautiful flower spike generally once a year, the following year.
In many cases, especially with the common Phalaenopsis nowadays, they’ve almost been bred to sort of bloom themselves to death. In three, four, five, six months, in some cases, the flowers are still going. And at the end of that period, that plant has expended a tremendous amount of energy. It’s kind of run a marathon. And at this point, you want to make sure it gets rest and some TLC to make sure it stores up enough food to produce that gorgeous flower spike the next season.
Margaret: So how often am I feeding? How am I feeding? I have some friends who put their orchids, they have a dishpan kind of a thing and they do their dilute fertilizer in it instead of watering their orchids from above and letting the water run through. They dunk them until they stop bubbling and then they take them out. [Above, a Phalenopsis producing a plantlet, or keiki, on the faded flower spike. Keikis with roots can be removed and potted up on their own.]
Marc: [Laughter.] There’s a lot of different techniques out there.
Margaret: Right. How often are we watering this beloved thing so that it can show off again next year, hopefully?
Marc: It depends on, of course, the type of orchid. Some orchids will prefer more moisture, some less. In most cases, you’re going to be giving the plant a good watering once a week. And ideally what you’re trying to do with watering is a number of different things. Not only are you hydrating that plant, but that’s also how air gets to around the root system.
Since orchids are epiphytes and their roots are generally and mostly exposed to the air, the way you get air into your container is allow water to flow through. And bringing your orchid to the sink and allowing tepid water, not ice-cold water, to run through that container is a way you can not only exchange moisture, flush out any decomposing bark that might be there, and rinse out pests and diseases that might be starting to get a foothold, but mostly it’s to get that aeration around the roots.
Margaret: Oh, interesting.
Marc: So the watering, we think of it only as providing hydration. But in reality, watering actually has several very important functions, especially in orchid culture. So ideally you want to allow your plants to approach dryness, not go bone-dry, between watering. Approach dryness. And once they approach dryness… On average, in my home, I’m watering once heavily almost every five to seven days, depending on the season. During the summer when humidity is high, it’s not as bad as during the winter when humidity is dropping.
Marc: So the key here is I wish I could have an exact formula or recipe for success.
Margaret: No, no, no, no. We have to be vigilant and we have to be observant, right?
Marc: Exactly. A little bit of observation goes a long way.
Marc: When it comes to feeding your plants, you do want to feed on a regular basis, kind of the mnemonic of “weekly-weakly.” It’s better to feed smaller amounts regularly than a large amount once a month, for instance. And so every second to third watering, applying a dilute liquid feed. A balanced fertilizer is fine. You don’t have to buy special fertilizers. One with all the numbers are the same, so 20-20-20 or 14-14-14, at one-quarter the recommended labels.
Margaret: O.K, one-quarter. O.K.
Marc: So you’re feeding a dilute amount more often. So it’s almost like when you think about the way you eat, you’re not going to sit down for a feast once a day and then skip a meal the next day. You want to eat a little bit all the time. The same thing with orchids. Since orchids are tropical plants, they’re growing year round. And to provide a consistent and constant supply of food, you’ll get much more even and stronger growth out of that plant than you would if you gave it just some huge surplus of food once a month.
Margaret: So those are some of the basic care things. And especially, again, not only when it’s showing off its beautiful flowers, but we have to not neglect it when it’s not looking so showy.
Margaret: So we said that orchids are … some are terrestrial, some are epiphytic. But they’re also not created equal in terms of their growth habit that informs how we repot, either, are they? And that was very interesting for me is to see two versions of repotting an orchid. Because sometimes they do need to be moved on to a new…
Marc: Absolutely. When orchids are happy, they can be quite vigorous not only in their growth but their root production.
Marc: When looking at the diversity of the orchid family, orchids are the most diverse flowering plant family. There are over 30,000 naturally occurring species.
Marc: So all of this diversity also means that there’s a couple of different growth habits. There are some orchids that are called monopodial, meaning one foot. And most commonly, we know this as our Phalaenopsis,…
Marc: ... where you have this one spot where the roots are produced and the plant slowly climbs upward at one point, producing new leaves from the center growth.
The other type of orchid would be what’s called sympodial. And it has a creeping rhizome, much like an iris would in the garden, in which you have this horizontal stem that grows along the surface of the soil producing roots, but it also branches. And you’ll see these sort have chains of what are called pseudobulbs, these swollen water-storage organs along the stems. That would include many of your Dendrobium, your Oncidium, and your Cattleya. So those types of orchids, because they have that horizontal rhizome, kind of will always march in a direction.
Marc: And they have a bad habit of kind of making an escape for it over the edge of the pot over a couple of years.
Margaret: Up and over here, yes. [Laughter.] By the way, a lot of my rhizomatous begonias are up and over the edge at the moment, too. Oops!
Marc: Exactly. The same type of problem where you can see them slowly making their way across the windowsill.
But when you’re potting orchids, obviously with a monopodial orchid that grows only upward, you can center that plant in the pot [below]. But for an orchid that has a creeping rhizome, you want to place it off-center. That way that rhizome has a number of years before it makes it over the edge of that pot,…
Margaret: Oh yes, O.K.
Marc: … giving that plant an opportunity to fill out that container. Because if you put it too close to the edge, it would be a year or two before it’s over the side and the roots are exposed to the air. So you want to make sure, when you’re repotting a creeping type of orchid, that the plant is placed with the new growth towards the center, giving it ample time and space to fill out the container before you have to repot it again.
Margaret: Yes. But I found that very interesting because I never, silly me, I’d never thought of that as, first of all, look and see which type it is, you know?
Marc: Well, and with anything, you want to approach it with some knowledge. Like you’d do if you were making a recipe in the kitchen. I always recommend to people, “You read the recipe first and then attempt it, rather than get halfway through and realize you’re down the wrong path.”
But with the growing of these orchids and the repotting, I think one of the biggest fears that people have is repotting. And I’m trying to take some of the fear out of that because often what happens is that fear causes a delay. And that delay often time results in a problem with the roots of the plant.
And it’s better to sort of dive in, kind of take that deep breath. And what we wanted to make sure is that that photo guide showed that information, to reduce some of that fear, to make sure your plants are always moving in a forward direction and not trying to recover a plant because you delayed and repotted. [One key step that is otherwise neglected, below, is trimming off soft, hollow old roots while repotting, before placing the groomed plant in fresh medium.]
Margaret: So in the book, in “Orchid Modern,” you kind of offer us, as I said in the introduction, sort of the DIY version of some of the mastery that you apply in displaying the orchids in a major scale in the Orchid Show every year. And so, for instance, I can’t remember what they’re called ,but instead of in a pot some of the orchids are in these sort of moss balls.
Marc: The kokedama [photo, top of page].
Margaret: Right. They could be hanging.
Marc: The traditional Japanese hanging sort of off moss spheres.
Margaret: Yes, and like centerpieces. And they’re mounted in pieces of wood, and sculptures that are with wood and wired into hollowed tree branches, and all kinds of things that really aren’t that hard but make it so much more special. And so I guess the easiest gateway project is really we could grow a terrarium of orchids, right?
Marc: Absolutely. And looking at the approach to this book, there are lots of books that are written about growing orchids and a million different recipes and varieties listed, which we do have some of that. But of course with orchids, to me, sometimes the beauty is incorporating them into your living spaces in creative ways.
So rather than just sort of a line of little soldiers on a windowsill, some creative ways to sort of incorporate and appreciate the beauty of these plants in simple ways, and kind of have fun with it, even if you have a small amount of space and just room for a couple of orchids, sort of growing and displaying them creatively.
Because in some ways, orchids have this reputation of, and some people say, ugly out of bloom. I think the opposite, but that’s just me. But just to make sure that the plants not only are displayed beautifully, it helps the flowers last, but of course, to me, increase the enjoyment and the versatility of a spectacular group of plants.
Margaret: Yes. Again, maybe the easiest way to do this is to group some or combine some with other terrarium-appropriate plants within a glass box or container, some vessel.
And one of the first house plants, I remembered when I saw in the book, that I tried to grow, you mentioned them earlier: Because I love variegated things, and it was this dark-leafed jewel orchid. Do you say Ludisia?
Marc: Ludisia discolor, yes. [Above, growing in a terrarium.]
Margaret: Ludisia discolor, yes. And it has red veins and leaves. Oh, I wanted that plant so much. And of course I didn’t do very well with it because I knew nothing about it. Right? You know what I mean? I brought it home.
Marc: [Laughter.] It wouldn’t be the first plant that I’d try.
Margaret: No, no, of course. But that’s one that we could try in a terrarium, isn’t it?
Marc: Absolutely. Believe it or not, it’s one of the best orchids for terrarium conditions. And as you realized, those velvet leaves with those red veins are absolutely seductive and irresistible. And what I love about that orchid is it loves being enclosed in a terrarium. It grows in low-light conditions and it’s very easy to grow just with that simple environmental change.
One of the biggest challenges in our homes, of course, is providing humidity for orchids. Orchids love higher than average humidity, 50 to 65 percent humidity, which is sometimes a challenge in a heated home in winter. But in a terrarium conditions, it may not be growing the plants year round. But to help display those plants, provide that added humidity so you can not only help the flowers last longer, but also enjoy them to their full potential.
Whether you’re placing blooming plants in a terrarium with other plants like ferns and marantas and other wonderful things, or creating a beautiful little jewel box of a terrarium with different varieties of jewel orchids, it really creates an easier-to-care environment for these plants in a very simple way. So you don’t have to sit there and diligently get out your mister and spritz them three and four times a day just to keep that humidity up. But by simply enclosing them in a beautiful container, whatever you choose, the plants will grow and thrive, and in the case of jewel orchids, grow and multiply for years to come.
Margaret: And so it has a lid as well?
Margaret: And do we crack it open a little bit?
Marc: Just a little bit of ventilation is always recommended, especially if the terrarium is exposed to any sunlight. Because just like your car in the sun or a greenhouse, the temperature can build up pretty quickly in the terrarium. So you do want to make sure there is some kind of natural ventilation to prevent the plants from overheating in their little glass home.
Margaret: O.K. I have this very precious old, as in very old, fish tank, a little fish tank. It might be only 5 gallons or something. I was thinking, “Ooh, I think I know what that’s going to be.”
Marc: It would be perfect for it.
Margaret: And it’s very vintage-looking, and it’s been sitting empty for a long time. And I think I know what’s going to go in it. [Laughter.]
Marc: And you don’t have to have anything fancy. I know people who have grown gorgeous jewel orchids in giant mayonnaise jars. Just something that can hold that added humidity. Whatever your creativity or your aesthetic applies to, you can find something to grow some gorgeous little orchids in.
Margaret: I wanted to say, besides the terrarium, which seems to me to be the easiest one of the more creative uses, is there another project that you would say is my next step if I want to get a little wild and crazy? [Laughter.]
Marc: Well, one of the ones that I actually really like is just using orchids in a decorative way, either on the orchid wreath or the centerpiece…
Marc: … in which you can, for an event or a special occasion, or even if you just want to have something beautiful to look at, something like the orchid wreaths for instance, it’s just a matter of having those orchids placed in a way that is unexpected, rather than just putting them in a pot in the center of the table. Sort of incorporating other elements in there, in a very simple way, to build what we always call the dish garden or a centerpiece. Either hanging on a wreath or on a tabletop is a really beautiful and creative way to not only display some of your prize plants but to really create a statement piece for an event or gathering in your home.
Margaret: Yes, I mean I loved some of those. And the idea that if they went out of bloom that you might still have that sort of infrastructure that you could then put different orchids in. If you really got attached to it and wanted it to be a more regular thing, you could swap out the orchids also, right?
Marc: And I’ve seen the orchid wreaths done in a beautiful way for the summer, outdoors, to where the plants have wonderful natural humidity available to them. And it was a really striking garden element that was unexpected on a person’s patio. So the idea of orchids just being indoors and always… The thing is, you can actually even incorporate them into outdoor spaces if your conditions are right. Not exactly in winter in Northeast.
Marc: The idea of incorporating orchids, because in reality many people might not have a windowsill to garden on. You don’t have a place or a sill, and since orchids grow as epiphytes, there are some creative ways in the book to display orchids in many ways in a vertical surface, beyond that of a green wall. Sort of ways to garden in the spaces where you never thought you could.
Margaret: Well, the book is “Orchid Modern: Living and Designing with the World’s Most Elegant Houseplants.” And I love it. It’s so beautiful. And again, that you were able to sort of translate, Marc, your showmanship that you do on this large scale and bring it down to a level where I could try some of it, I think that was so smart. So “good on you,” as they say in the other part of the world. [Laughter.]
Marc: Thank you thank you. Look, everybody who knows me knows I love to share my passion about orchids.
enter to win a copy of ‘orchid modern’
I’LL BUY A COPY OF Marc Hachadourian’s “Orchid Modern: Living and Designing with the World’s Most Elegant Houseplants” for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page:
When was the last time you repotted an orchid (or do you just skip it and hope for the best)? Any other orchid confessions are likewise most welcome. Let’s get all the confessions of neglect out in the open, and mend our ways together!
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “Count me in” and I will, but an answer is even better. I know you have an orchid story to share! I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, September 3, 2019. Good luck to all.
(Photos from “Orchid Modern” by Claire Rosen, used with permission. Author photo by Chris Kozarich.)
prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 10th year in March 2019. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the August 26, 2019 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).