Tag Archives: orchids

in the greenhouse, or, the dictator's wife

greenhouse-euphorbia-outsideI was in the greenhouse Friday morning, watering some pots of seedlings. It seemed funny for a second, because outside the greenhouse it was raining. If I hadn’t gone in there with the hose that morning, the seedlings would have died in the desert for lack of water.

(Left, a Euphorbia characias ssp. wulfenii outside the greenhouse, blooming away in the rain.)

I used to grow and breed phalaenopsis orchids in the greenhouse. It was gonzo amounts of work to keep up with repotting hundreds of plants. And trying to concoct an environment that would fool the orchids into thinking that they were in the lowlands of the Philippines instead of the flats of Southern California wasn’t that easy either. In addition to all the work, the greenhouse was an energy pig, taking as much natural gas to heat as the entire house.

So, end of orchid obsession. End of heating the outdoors and wasting all that energy. (The New York Times has a recent piece on a couple who decided to build themselves a greenhouse. Their heater hasn’t arrived yet, but they’re already way over budget.)


Now that the tropical orchid episode of my life has ended the greenhouse is only heated by the sun via the greenhouse effect. At this time of year it’s handy to have a spot that will help give young plants a head start on spring. That’s pretty much how I use the greenhouse now.

greenhouseclutterAnd, um, yes, for a place to store garden clutter. Sort of a garden shed with windows…

greenhouselookinginFortunately the windows are an opaque fiberglass, so all the mess inside is obscured. Maybe even a little mysterious and poetic. Here are some potted plants as seen from the outside.

As I was watering the plants in my little artificial outdoor desert I thought back to the 1980s. One the stories from the news that has stuck in my brain all these years was a report on Michèle Bennett, the wife of Haiti’s dictator, Baby Doc Duvalier. The couple was bad news all around, and one of Michèle’s vices was that she’d refrigerate a part of the palace so that she and her friends could strut about in the fur coats that they collected. (Compared to her husband’s brutal ways, it all seems pretty minor, of course.)

Mink and fox and chinchilla coats in Haiti. About as rational as a greenhouse full of warm tropical orchids in San Diego, I thought.

I guess we all want a little of of what doesn’t come easily or naturally. But in an age of a growing awareness of the need to live greener it’s good to stand back and see what we really need.

an easy outdoor orchid

Orchids can be finicky creatures, especially when you try to grow species that aren’t adapted to your growing conditions. If you’re lucky enough to live in an area with infrequent freezing temperatures (the warm end of zone 9B or in zone 10 or higher), many of the reed-stemmed epidendrums can be as easy to grow as anything in the garden and can be as inexpensive as most other plants. But these also make easy houseplants if you have a nice south-facing window.

epidendrumtwocolorsIf they bear more than a passing resemblance to the flashy florist cattleya orchids it’s no coincidence–They’re closely related members of the Cattleya alliance of orchids.

The parent species for these plants originate in Central America, where they can sometimes be seen growing rampantly. Epidendrum radicans and E. ibaguense are tough and prolific, and will tolerate temperatures down to the high 20s.

To get the species themselves, you’ll have to go to an orchid nursery, but their hybrids can be had in many good garden centers or nurseries. Colors come in everything from the parent species’  orange and red, to pink, salmon, rose, purple, lavender and white. The plants bloom almost the year round and will grow two to five feet tall, depending on light and watering. They all make great starter orchids or good plants to use for landscaping.


Epidendrums are happiest in bright light, from dappled shade to several hours of full sun. They will survive in full sun, but the plants will be short, and the leaves may scorch on the hottest days. They’ll also grow in heavy shade, but the plants will grow tall, and you won’t see any flowers.

epidendrumplantThis is an example of plant that has been grown in fairly deep shade. The plant grows big, loose and floppy, and it only flowers on the stems that receive some direct sun.


Low to moderate garden water is a good starting point for these epidendrums. They will tolerate quite moist conditions, and they can be surprisingly drought tolerant. But they look best somewhere in between.


You can grown these in special orchid mixes if you like, but mine have been happy stuck into average-to-sandy garden dirt. Plants grown in orchid mixes will require more watering. Any loose potting mix would work well for plants in pots.


epidendrumkeikiFlowering stems, when they reach the end of their flowering life, usually produce new plants near their tips. Orchid growers call these keikis, Hawaiian for “babies.” These little plants will send out long white roots before long. Cut the rooted keikis off when the roots are two to four inches long and stick them where you’d like another plant, being careful not to break the brittle roots. The plants will often start blooming within a year. Additionally, epidendrums can be dug up and divided every few years.

If you get deeper into epidendrum species, you’ll also find species with brown, green and almost-blue flowers, some of them bicolors, some of them with outrageous spotting. If you have the collector gene in your DNA, you’ll find 1500 species to choose from. These specialty epidendrums don’t necessarily have the same lust for life and tolerance for cool temperatures as the common reedstems do, so be sure to do some research before sticking them in a garden bed with your perennials.