Growing Orchids

Discover tips for raising low-maintenance hardy orchids.
Cypripedium calceolus

Cypripedium calceolus

Cypripedium calceolus

Photo by: Image courtesy of the Chicago Botanic Garden

Image courtesy of the Chicago Botanic Garden

Cypripedium calceolus

Give your garden the gift of terrestrial orchids. Growing orchids in the garden is an easy, low-maintenance project. The trickiest part of growing orchids is getting the soil right. Watering orchids outdoors is a snap, even if you decide to grow a hardy bloomer in an orchid pot. Orchid fertilizer is mostly unnecessary, since the hardy species have very small appetites. Learn more about growing orchids—the hardy kind.  

Hardy or terrestrial orchids are a type of native plant and generally boast the low-maintenance personality you’d find in other natives. Most hardy orchids thrive in conditions similar to a woodland setting, the forest’s edge or dappled sunlight. A few prefer grassland-type areas, but growing most hardy orchids means starting with a lightly shaded spot.  

Good companion plants for hardy orchids are hosta, bleeding heart, trillium, solomon’s seal and astilbe. As you consider creating an orchid garden area, know that if you’re tending these other traditional shade perennials, you’ll probably be able to tackle growing orchids successfully.  

Terrestrial orchids often grow in leaf litter, mossy clumps, humusy soil or boggy settings, which means they don’t crave a heavy garden soil. For most orchids, the ideal rooting environment should provide plenty of drainage and yet retain moisture. Aim for the consistency of a well-wrung sponge. You can provide this type of rooting environment simply by mixing compost with your native soil. This blend serves as an ideal orchid potting mix in the garden.  

Compost can also act as orchid fertilizer, as long as your soil isn’t highly deficient in nutrients. Take a soil test to be sure. Many folks with orchid gardens mix compost into soil at planting time and add a light layer around plants each year to serve as orchid fertilizer.  

Hardy orchids can be pricey. Expect to pay anywhere from $12 to over $100 per plant. When planting orchids, handle plants gently. Roots break easily, so prepare a planting hole that offers ample elbow room for you to spread out roots. Tuck the orchid into soil so that the growing point is at or slightly below soil level. Don’t bury it deeply, or you risk having crown rot destroy the plant.  

When growing orchids in the garden, the main pest is usually slugs or snails. Don’t let these critters overrun your plants. Also keep an eye out for weeds. Orchids are shallow rooted, so you want to pull weeds carefully. Sometimes it helps to hold the orchid in place with one hand while pulling weeds with the other. Never use a hoe or other weeding tool when growing orchids. It’s just too easy to damage the fragile roots.  

If you’re growing orchids in a zone that’s too cold for a particular hardy species, consider planting it in an orchid pot that you can place outdoors in summers and bring inside before frosty weather settles in. Some hardy orchids need a period of cold weather to grow and flower properly. Do your homework to ensure that you’re providing the right type of winter growing conditions.

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