It snowed last night — really snowed — for the first time this year. Today the snow lies in fluffy white pillows on the detritus of last year’s garden. There is a new lightness in the air and in the eyes of the people you meet. The suspended time, that dark time between October 31 and snow time, is over. Now, when the sun shines, it will have help from the snow to dazzle our eyes and lift our spirits. With snow on the ground, we can get on with the business of Christmas and, with that behind us at last, we can look forward to ever-lengthening days until spring.
As lovely and peaceful as winter is, we still need our plant fixes.
Last week I talked about shinrin-yoku, forest bathing, and its wonderful benefits. We can get some of those benefits simply by adding some houseplants to our homes and our offices. I am always surrounded by plants; my bedroom is filled with green, so is the kitchen where a rosemary standard is blocking the sunniest window and an orchid is about to bloom again.
Rosemary and orchids can be daunting plants to nurture indoors, but it gets easier if you know what they need. I have killed both in the past through my misunderstanding. Guilt drives me to take better care of these poor prisoners that have only my careless hand to guarantee their safety through the short days of winter.
The orchid is a very forgiving plant if you understand it, though most are drowned by over solicitous caregivers who translate their vision of “life in the jungle” into the idea that a preference for humidity means these plants need a lot of water. New orchid owners often intuit that because orchids are tropical they also need a lot of heat and sunlight. The truth lies in knowing where the particular plant originates — some do grow in the dessert, some in rain forests. We need to begin by trying to emulate natural conditions.
Most of the orchids we buy here are Dendrobiums or Phalaenopsis. Both types sold here are from forests in Asia; dendrobiums come from as far north as Japan to New Guinea, Australia, New Zealand and South East Asia and phalaenopsis from the tropical regions of Asia. They both send up long, slender stems and put out magnificent sprays of lovely flowers. The phalaenopsis flowers look like small moths to some people and these plants are often called “moth orchids”. The dendrobium flowers look like little butterflies perching on a wire. Both can both bloom for months under the right conditions, but generally bloom six to eight weeks.
You will usually find dendrobiums in very small pots, totally out of proportion to the length of the stems and the large spray of flowers. Don’t fret — they like it like that, but when the roots start popping out all over, it’s time for a move to larger quarters. This can be complicated and should be the topic of another day.
Contrary to our intuition, orchids need to almost dry out between watering — the potting medium should be dry to the touch at the surface but just a little humid if you explore further.
You can help meet humidity needs, if your house is very dry in winter, by setting the plants on a tray of pebbles filled with water.
Orchids like bright light but not direct sunlight, although a couple of hours of morning sun in an east-facing window will be enjoyed. Dendrobiums like it cool. Temperatures should be kept between 12 C and 15 C at night and 18 C and 24 C during the day. Placing the plant on an east-facing windowsill should do the trick of lowering the temperature overnight as the air will be cooler by the window.
Most growers advise feeding weekly at one-quarter strength (although I never feed mine) and, if you live in northern climes, don’t feed from late fall until the days lengthen in mid-February. Remember, without enough light plants can’t use the fertilizer anyway and deadly salts can build up in the potting medium.
Orchid roots needs a lot of air, which is why they are sold in slotted pots. Water at the sink and let tepid water run right through and see that they are thoroughly drained.
Phalaenopsis are the most common of the orchids sold here. Their flowers have a more rounded form than the dendrobiums, but otherwise they are superficially very much alike. Their care is very similar to that of dendrobiums, although phalaenopsis can take marginally warmer temperatures to 28 C in the daytime, but out of the sun. Phalaenopsis does not grow from a pseudo bulb or a rhizome as does the dendrobium.
The flower spike emerges from between the leaves and, when blooming is over, you can cut the spike back to just about a half inch above a node to encourage a branching spike to grow. Phalaenopsis will naturally send out air roots when it’s happy. You can keep it even happier by misting thee roots to hydrate them. Or you can just water the plant in the sink being sure to let it drain well.
These orchids grow on trees in nature and the way we grow them is actually upside down, so they will need staking.
Moving on to the subject of rosemary, lack of sunlight is the biggest issue for the northern gardener in overwintering these plants. They need five to six hours of very bright light a day. A southern or south east window is best unless you have grow lights.
A rosemary that appears to be drying out and losing its needles towards the end of winter is probably slowly suffocating from lack of sunlight and a subsequent inability to photosynthesize. No amount of watering will cure it.
As for water, less is more, but don’t let rosemary dry out completely. Rosemary is a Mediterranean plant, and it needs good drainage, but it does need water — it rains in winter where they come from. A terra cotta planter is a better choice for them than plastic or ceramic, because terra cotta breathes, and Rosemary are accustomed to light, airy soil. If using terra cotta you do have to be more vigilant when it comes to water. Rosemary also expects it to cool down in winter. It can withstand temperatures as low as 10 C if the plant gets enough light, but a cool location next to a window works well, too.
You can fertilize as the days get longer using a liquid fertilizer according to package directions.
I once kept a rosemary for four seasons and wanted to weep when it died. I had thoughtlessly moved it from its sunny window.
Much as I love winter, the sunless days can be hard to take. Thankfully, those dreary days are few once you get past December. A way to combat symptoms of SAD, though, is through interaction with plants. The tender care you give those such as orchids and rosemary throughout winter is therapeutic for the person as well as the plant.
Still, I long for the outdoors. There is an aspen wood near my house that calls to me and shinrin-yoku works in all seasons. Being frozen doesn’t stop the trees from sending out health giving chemicals — not that we even know what all the chemicals are. Researchers in Sierra Nevada found 120 chemical compounds in the mountain forest they examined but could only identify 70 of them.
It is only 4:30 in the afternoon as I look out the already darkening window to see the patient blue spruces holding light drifts of snow in their branches which are still turned skyward in a kind of welcome to winter. The scene in the pre-twilight is serene and peaceful. The odd snowflake flutters to the ground.
It beckons. It beckons.