Wednesday, April 24, 2019

My Year of Orchids: Some surprises

I was away for a good three weeks. During that time care was spotty, in the hands of a friend I think angrily or maybe just impatiently sprayed jets of water at my babies, dislodging not a few. I was home then for a short five days and then back north to see my kids in Boston. My fingers were crossed for the orchids’ self maintenance. My hopes were not high. 

Yesterday I sprayed and spritzed but somehow time felt short. Why couldn’t I do more than glance at each orchid? Maybe it was the many epiphytes that had fallen to the ground. A sudden downdraft during last Friday’s thunderstorm or my slightly rough friend? 

Today a closer look revealed these wonders. One. Sobralia sporting three new vegetative shoots. I think she will be fine. Two. Encyclia tampensis with 5, 6, 7 spikes. Yes this is Tampa Bay but still. A nice promise if the lubber grasshoppers don’t find the spikes first. Three. Bulbophyllum fascinator. Doing something weird from several of the pseudobulbs. It’s not vegetative because I’ve seen that before. Maybe it’s what my friend said us “impossible,” making a Bulbophyllum bloom. Well. She jealously cursed me last fall, in her doe voice, “gosh I hope we don’t get a frost.” Get the picture?

Also a vigorously spiking Tolumnia sylvestris, which came to me last July in spike and ready to bloom. A nice message, now almost a year later, that things are going right. 

Thursday, February 28, 2019

My Year of Orchids: Keep it easy

Simple. Keep it easy. Easy. Keep it simple. Nice and easy. Nice and simple. 

We tend to fuss and fume over our orchids. But let’s  face it. They’re big kids and they can take care of themselves. I started mine in trees in the blazing heat of July. Probably did everything wrong. “Tried” to kill them. But they lived, thrived, grew, flowered. They prospered just as they would do in nature. 

The orchids (and my other epiphytes too, I’m sure) are equipped with all kinds of defenses that help them thrive in their floating, unattached state. They have evolved and utilize creative metabolic properties that help them maintain their water balance. They produce and transmit sneaky mysterious pheromones that draw partners from outside the plant kingdom (insects, fungi, and bacteria to make a few). In a word, our orchids are well equipped to fend for themselves out there. And let’s face it. Some of the time they’re probably fending off their human stewards (us) along with our good but perhaps misguided intentions. 

So with a few days of blessed rain ahead, where I know they’ll get what they need, followed by a ten day break with my friend Victor in Maine (we won’t see many orchids!), this is the pep talk I’ve given myself. Hope I can take care of self as well as the orchids do!

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

My Year of Orchids: Things don’t always go the way you expect you expect them to

Janet famously said the other day “things don’t always go the way you expect them to.” It was her usual understatement for a twist of fate in her gardening world. In a word: her raised beds were going from being a giant stack of soil pancakes to a short stack of one or two flapjacks. 

Not to mention the lettuce she lovingly tended was not tough but hard as a rock. Too much sun. Too much heat. But we agree that all this gardening activity, not the first time we’ve undertaken it but surely the first time in the climate of St. Petersburg, is a big experiment. 

Speaking of which. I don’t have any RIPs yet but a few of the orchids I put in the tree last July have seen better days. A good idea I think not to name names for now because resurrection can happen. Last time I looked there were healthy roots so I assume some meristem cells can get activated and start the process of plant regeneration. But for now things look just this side of grim.

We read, we study, we care for, and we coddle our plants. But sometimes it’s the wrong plant at the wrong place at the wrong time. A good chance to step back, consider the enterprise so far, and keep a watchful eye on how everyone is doing.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

My Year of Orchids: A clay orchid holder

My inspiration came from the orchids I rescued when we first moved here. They were pushed way back in the shade in decrepit wooden slat baskets. Must have been there for at least the two years the previous owners were absent. Their roots were extensive, hugging the wood and seeking out every corner where moisture might accumulate. In the broken down baskets were equally broken down clay flower pots. The orchid roots were focused there. They ran all over the pots coating them in a thick mat here, a muscular long root there. They enveloped the pots, layered themselves on the pots, searched the pots, made themselves part of the pots.

It was my first lesson in orchid root ecology and it made sense. The porous, untreated surface of an old flower pot was an excellent medium for orchid roots. The slatted baskets, the pots, and the orchids were as one. There was no chance I’d be able to separate them. Just enjoy. 

I had worked with clay extensively a few years back. When my teaching job at Boston University got unbearable thanks to a vicious dean and a destructive chairman, I found solace next door in the Fine Arts building where I went to work pouring energy into clay sculpture. My enthusiasm morphed into a monthlong fellowship at the Medalta clay residency in Medicine Hat, Alberta. That experience is a story in itself but let’s just say for now. I produced loads of work, most of which I just threw away at the end of the residency. 

I experimented with extruding clay through my hands so I came up with a rough surface that reflected my process. I shaped the long thick (or thin) bands of extruded clay around objects like a plastic bag filled with styrofoam packing peanuts. When the clay dried I would cut a hole in the bag and pull the peanuts out one by one. Careful work like this saved many unfired pieces from an early demise. The challenge was getting bigger pieces into the kiln without breaking. I could employ the fired pieces as individual sculptures or pile them together for larger pieces. It was fun and I was happy with the results.

So here I am in St. Petersburg and Janet was worried I wasn’t getting out of the house (garden) enough. She packed me up like a first day kindergartener and sent me to the adult pottery class at Bay Vista park a few steps from our house. People were working on trays and bowls and tiles and pretty things. I went to work on ceramic orchid holders.

Here again, thin hand-extruded pieces surrounding a ball of newspaper, which will burn off in the kiln. The result: a rough asymmetrical clay ball somewhat bigger than your fist. It is more air than substance maybe just like me. You stick it on any branch, plop in the orchid, maybe with a few bits of sphagnum or potting medium (or styrofoam peanuts!), water, and wait for those roots to run their course along the soft, porous bisque-fired clay. My goal is for the piece to disintegrate over the years as Mother Nature does her job and the expanding orchid finds its way to the living branch.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

My Year of Orchids: Full moon

The full moon is pouring in from the east across Tampa Bay. It fills the orchid grotto and lights up Rhyncholaelia (Brassavola) glauca. It’s a waxy flower. Looks like many tried and aborted on this same plant but here it is in its magnificent presence. My friend Minh tells me to try smelling it at night so with the moon and all, this is night.

I go into that naturally artificially lit place and I find the flower that Janet had arranged this morning so we might find it when entering the grotto space. Why. Why am I so spatially challenged?!

That flower is a rush. Can I breathe in deeply enough to apprehend the scent? Can I make it enough my air to register and finesse into my brain cortex? That indescribable thing invaded my whole garden and it sits there in the moonlight. Wow this is beyond luxury. This is an organic fuel that takes us to another place.

Boring maybe but as a boy I was taken to the Lincoln Park Conservatory in Chicago. I smelled an orchid in that humid warmth and I never came back. Or. I came back now can I say half a century , fully half a century later in search of the phial of aromatic dance that fluorescence gave me then?

My Year of Orchids: Serious stuff

Or is it play? The young orchids in the trees are a demanding bunch. The days get longer. The afternoons get hotter. You know you have to do something to keep them going. We were at the beach at 7:30 this morning collecting seaweed for the garden and for my garbage pail full of smelly fertilizer water. The empty long beach at Ft. De Soto, the gentle crash of waves, the flight of hundreds of shore birds. Amazing. And the delicious feel and smell of the fresh seaweed. So many kinds. Delicate, pearl-like, fragrant and mixed with sand and tiny shells. We filled up a couple of big bags and bid the seashore a fond farewell for the day.

At home Janet took care of her raised beds and I tooled over to Yi Wen’s place to look after her garden. The orchids there have been more carefully placed now and some of them are in the most charming miniature landscapes with funny old containers and companion plants. It’s like an old fussy cartoon from Punch Magazine, all doo dahs and curlicues. A couple of heavenly smelling orchids, my mind always with a huge question mark above as I try to decipher the aromas. What do these scents do to pollinators I wonder. Guess I’ll have to go back for more tomorrow and maybe I can beg a little bit of the brown flowered one off her when she gets back. Watering her dozens of orchids is a decently big job. Spraying by hand, dragging her hose around the garden, and fishing out water from her containers. Don’t forget the potted plants and of course give the bird bath a good rinsing out. Could spend the whole day there. But...

Gotta get back to my place and take care of what needs tending. Using the smelly water for the bananas, who are seeming to want more and more these days besides they are still dripping from the morning dew. That moisture gives way in an instant to a searing hot heat. They need water to hit their roots before the stress sets in.

Then the dunking of willing slatted baskets of orchids into the smelly water. And the pouring on of smelly water into the ready pots of begonias and ferns in the shade garden. And don’t forget the little tiny soil dwelling jewel orchids that like their environment moist and rich. Then out into the sun to start misting.

Special attention today to the gesneriads I bought at the State Fair and snipped and gingerly planted with sphagnum in nooks and crannies and as companions to some of the orchids. They need attention to survive but they look like they are doing nicely after the early morning fog.

Yesterday the succulents were fed smelly water and I filled up the bromeliads’ tanks. Both the epiphyte bromeliads and the ones in the ground. They look strong and today they need no attention.

So it leaves just the orchids to be misted and misted and misted until they drip and then the water flows off them in a stream. This is how to teach them to grow and there’s no short cut. After you mist walk away but come back in five minutes with some more and then do it again. Mist until they flow and keep their surroundings moist and wet the wood they’re on and make it a stream, even though this means you’ll have to fill up the sprayer and pump it again and again and again and again.

It’s 1PM and the gardening is done. It’s a sort of hard work but janet rightly calls it my playground. I did it today with loud and crazy Tamil music in my earphones to keep me entertained beyond just the fun of the garden. A place of serious work but more a place of play.

Friday, February 22, 2019

My Year of Orchids: Roots must be for storage too

I’ve started to look at the orchids differently. Part of it is that they’re part of a larger community of epiphytes in my garden. They share the canopy with bromeliads, air plants, cacti, ferns, and gesneriads (cousins of the African violet). There are even epiphytic milkweed relatives called Hoya in my garden. I guess it’s been a busy few months collecting, planting and establishing.

Janet half jokingly admonished yesterday that my kids want to enroll me in Orchids anonymous. I laughed because by the time they find me a chapter it will have to be Epiphytes anonymous. These fascinating plants just get more and more fascinating.

So the question of roots as storage. It began with my Dendrobium anosum, which is developing flower buds all along the big cane. Interestingly they began to enlarge in earnest once the last few leaves at the tip died. I’m sure this is some kind of apical dominance situation, with the last leaves sending a hormonal message to hold off on flowering until they drop off. All a matter of resource management and coordination I guess.

It occurred to me that the cane is an important resource reservoir for the plant and I asked my friend Minh if the canes are perennial, which he confirmed. So canes in the case of Dendrobiums, instead of the pseudobulbs we’re used to considering as storage organs. It’s interesting to me that in all the individuals I have in the garden the pseudobulbs, as well as canes, are robust and plump. And on some very happy Dendrobiums I’ve seen the canes thicken to almost obscene proportions.

I took another look at some of my roots, the wanderers that hold tight to their woody substrate and grow pretty much in a straight line in the direction of water flow (either into or away from the orchid). They are also plump, especially in comparison with other roots of the same plant. It occurred to me that these might play several roles: not just as explorers but also establishers of territory, absorbers of water, and organs of storage for water, carbohydrates, and other resources the orchid plant needs. So storage as well as these other roles, and I have to mention that these wanderers act as a kind of sensory organ too, feeing out sources and the direction of water. More evidence of the “intelligence “ of orchids. Pretty cool!