Friday, January 11, 2019

My Year of Orchids: Exciting things in the garden

I put down my morning paper for lots of reasons. But the biggest reason is that more exciting things are going on in my garden. It’s the middle of winter here in St. Petersburg, Florida. The dew lies like a heavy blanket on orchids that I have hanging on branches and in baskets. I imagine they are pretty happy in their mild, benign winter-rest mode. There’s not too much wind, the day is slated to warm up nicely, and we are in for a few days of mild rain. The world looks good. The plants are fresh and green and perky, and the wetness on their leaves (and on my car) tells me the roots are well hydrated as well.

I moved here in July and pretty much from the first day I wanted to record what was going on in my garden. There was a lot of basic cleaning up the garden that had to happen first, including a full day of two crews trimming palm fronds and some huge branches that had grown over the roof. First things first.

The orchids came along within the first couple of months, so part of my “year of orchids” is already over. But all these are stories waiting to be told. Before I go any further I should tell you this. From the very start I looked at my orchids and as an experiment. Not a torture experiment (I hoped) but one that, with close observation, would allow me to reverse my inevitable mistakes. There were plenty of those to come.

Incidentally or not I was trained as a botanist, specializing in a different group of epiphytes, lichens. So when I started growing orchids, while I didn’t have any idea how they behaved, I did have the innate curiosity of a scientist, somebody who studies things that grow on top of others: epiphytes.

So almost all my orchids are growing as epiphytes in trees or on twigs. A few, including some rescues that looked dead when we moved here, but which have showered me with flowers, reside in baskets. If you’re looking for orchid growing tips, especially indoors, you may be coming to the wrong place. I’m trying to watch these beautiful creatures as they grow in nature. I want to see how they adapt in the rigors of the wild, with birds landing on them and leaving poop on their leaves, where direct sun may burn them, and where, attached to their trees, I cannot bring them in when the weather gets chilly.

But cold is relative. We moved down here from Cambridge, Massachusetts, finally escaping some of the nastiest weather Mother Nature cooks up. I used to cross the BU Bridge every day for work, either by foot or by bicycle on my way to teach at Boston University. The Charles River froze every winter. The bridge, which belonged neither to Cambridge nor Boston, was neglected by both communities and went untreated most of the time. It was slippery at best, sometimes impassible to foot traffic. I used to tell my students, “one of these days the bridge will get extra icy, I’ll slip into the river, and your prayers will be answered.”

It’s about 55° here this morning in St. Petersburg. Back in Boston, while the temps sometimes climb into the 50s even in December, it won’t be until well into May that we can count on temperatures above freezing. So I can start by saying from a subjective standpoint living in St. Petersburg is an utter delight. I love the heat.

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