Maureen Hirthler is an MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and a member of the Orchid Society of Greater Kansas City. She has been growing orchids for more than 15 years.

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Growing Orchids Indoors
by Maureen Hirthler    

David Bird with Paphiopedilum malipoense x hangianum, a rare hybrid of two species from Vietnam.

At Bird’s Botanicals in Kansas City, Mo., 6,000 orchids grow on stainless steel benches in a warm, bright and humid 10,000-square-foot greenhouse. Although the setting is tropical, there is no natural light, and the breezes are generated by industrial-sized fans. Bird’s Botanicals is 100 feet underground in the Interstate Underground Warehouse east of Interstate 435.

Owner David Bird says that the caves meet two requirements for orchid culture: high humidity and steady temperatures. “If I had a greenhouse this size, I’d have to live in it to monitor the conditions,” he says, referring to the Midwest’s hot 100 F summers with heavy, windy storms and the cold 10 F winters with unpredictable snow. “If the generator dies, I could lose everything.”

During a recent visit, Bird and I discussed his tips for growing orchids entirely indoors. The right plant in the right place is essential. Bird focuses on medium to low-light orchid species and hybrids such as Phalaenopsis, Paphiopedilium and Phragmipedium. “These are the best ones to grow indoors, with an eastern or southern exposure,” he says. “They like house temperatures: 70s F during the day and 60s F at night.” There should be at least a 10 F degree difference between day and night temperatures to promote blooming.

The Paphiopedilum malipoense x hangianum orchid is remarkable for its size and lacy red coloration.

This is a “bulldog” type Paphiopedilum. These have two times the number of chromosomes, making them genetically complex.

The next concern is humidity, especially when the air is artificially heated or cooled. Bird recommends humidity trays, which can be as simple as an aluminum cake pan filled with pebbles. There are also sturdy plastic trays available to purchase. “Fill them every day. They will create a humid microclimate around grouped plants. And don’t forget good air movement — a ceiling fan works.”

Inside Bird’s Botanicals, the reflective walls help to maintain the temperature. The display features Phalaenopsis, Phragmidium, Paphiopedillium, and Cattelya hybrids.

Neophyte orchid growers are often overly concerned with watering their plants. Bird has strong feelings on this issue. “Never use ice cubes. These are tropical plants that don’t like their roots cold.” He advises placing the plants in a sink and adding lukewarm water until the roots are thoroughly flushed. Let them rest for a few minutes, and then do it again. This is also the time to add a high-quality orchid food, at one-half the recommended concentration, for three out of four waterings. Watering should be done when the pots feel light, about every 10 days. “Underwatering is safer that overwatering, so don’t obsess,” says Bird.

Controlling the environment is especially important when raising miniature orchids such as Masdevallia and Pleurothallis. Bird discussed the adaptation of the Victorian-era Wardian case for these orchids. A tray of pebbles and sphagnum moss in the bottom of a 20-gallon long aquarium with LED lighting maintains an excellent environment. A 12-volt, 6-inch computer fan provides circulation, and a wireless thermo/humidistat monitors the conditions. Humidity and temperature vary consistently, and the length of “daylight” is controlled by a timer. “The more closely you can simulate the native environment of the orchid, the better your results will be,” says Bird.

This orchidarium is a climate-controlled home for miniature orchids.

Pests infrequently attack indoor orchids, but occasionally mealybugs, aphids and spider mites make an appearance. Infested plants should be isolated and treated with organic control measures. After the plant is thoroughly washed, rubbing alcohol on a cotton swab can be touched to scale colonies, or a solution of 1 teaspoon dish soap and 1 teaspoon vegetable oil in a quart spray bottle can be applied to the entire plant. Fungi and viruses are more difficult to eradicate, and often diseased plants need to be sacrificed to prevent the spread of disease.

On the day of my visit, Bird was busy repotting orchids. “Most orchids need repotting yearly,” he says. “The organic medium breaks down and doesn’t hold water as well.” Repotting should be done as soon as new green root tips are seen. All old bark and moss should be removed and dead roots excised with clean, sterilized scissors. I prefer Rand’s Aircone pots (, which are clear plastic pots with a center cone that helps to aerate the center of the root ball.” Bird has his own special potting mix, but most commercial mixes are adequate. Styrofoam peanuts or pebbles should be placed in the bottom of the pot and damp medium should be worked gently around the roots. A few good taps on the potting table will help settle the medium.

Bird is confident that anyone can successfully grow orchids indoors by following his suggestions. “Then you’ll be hooked — no one has just one orchid!”

Photo courtesy of Maureen Hirthler.


Posted: 12/30/13   RSS | Print


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