Sunday, March 04, 2012
You Can Grow That!: Cymbidium Orchids
Garden writer and blogger C.L. Fornari has had the brilliant idea of initiating You Can Grow That! Day. The idea is that on the 4th of each month, garden bloggers will put up a post about a plant they want to encourage people to grow. What I like about this idea is that all of us have a secret list of plants that we really want to grow but think we won't be able to. But gardening really should be a fearless endeavor, and in that spirit, here is my first You Can Grow That! post:
My grandmother grew the most beautiful cymbidium orchids I've ever seen. In the late winter and early spring she'd bring us enormous sprays of orchids in shades of green and yellow and purple. I know now that she grew them under conditions that most professional growers would not approve of, but surprisingly she managed to give those orchids exactly what they needed.
Unlike many of the other orchids most people are familiar with, cymbidiums are semi-terrestrial, meaning they are happier in well-draining, loamy soil rather than in plain bark chips like the tree-dwelling orchids. A good mixture is loose potting soil mixed with perlite, small bark chips, and peat (for acidity).
Cymbidiums like bright filtered light (full sun in winter is acceptable). They can can grow well outside and are naturally suited to cold weather but must be protected from both frosts in the winter and full sun in the summer. Keep the plants moist but you can allow them to become a little drier between waterings when blooming. Apply a weak solution of a liquid balanced fertilizer every one to two weeks. The leaves should be a bright apple green; if they are darker, cut back a bit on the feedings.
Flower spikes will appear in the winter and last for several weeks. When the flowers are spent, cut the spike off at the base.
You shouldn't need to repot your cymbidium orchids until the pot has become very crowded or the potting mix has deteriorated. They like to be somewhat pot-bound so you shouldn't have to divide them for several years. When you do, take out the dried-up bulbs, but leave the green leafless bulbs attached. Those green bulbs won't flower for several years and the plant will meanwhile use the bulbs for water storage.
So that's the professional wisdom on growing cymbidiums. Now I'll tell you how my grandmother did it. She planted her orchids right in the ground where they got full sun in the morning but were somewhat shaded in the afternoon. And everyday, she threw her used coffee grounds on the soil around them. With Alameda's sandy, fast-draining soil and moderate temperatures and the coffee keeping the pH level at a nice slightly acidic level, she managed to give those orchids the perfect home.
I've kept one cymbidium in a pot on my deck for the past few years and I've just bought another one. As soon as the blooms are spent, I'm going to plant them in the same bed where I'm growing some fuchsias and a big papyrus. And from then on I'll be caring for them grandma-style.
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