Sunday, March 22, 2015

Deer, Harvesters are Main Enemies of Native Orchids

WEST HARTFORD, Conn. - When people consider deer problems, they think in terms of the garden: hostas, daylilies, trilliums and roses may fall victim to the deer palette.

But Donald J. Leopold, PhD,  author of Native Plants of the Northeast, said deer are also affecting the biodiversity of northeastern forests, particularly native orchid populations. Deer enjoy the taste of lady slippers - one type of native orchid - and for a plant that takes between 10 and 15 years to flower, an entire population can be decimated in a few years.

Pink Lady's Slipper. Photo credit:
National Park Service, public domain.
"Sometimes only 10 percent of the [pink lady's slipper] population gets pollinated. So 90 percent of the flowers don't do anything," he said.

When deer eat the flowers, they will keep the plant from reproducing sexually year after year for many years, he said during a recent lecture for the Connecticut Hardy Plant Society. Leopold is a distinguished teaching professor and chair at the College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York.

The deer population has reached high levels in the last 20 years, something Leopold attributed to loss of habitat and fewer hunting licenses being procured.

For the pink lady's slipper to grow, the seeds have to be connected to a fungus, and the plant remains underground for five to 10 years as a protocorm, or a stubby bunch of roots with no leaves. This is not a group of plants that takes well to harvesting (when people steal plants from the wild) or to deer, he said.

Many native orchids need specific growing conditions to thrive, and damaged plants may take many years to recover. Some never do. To protect rare orchid colonies, fencing is used to keep deer away.

Gardeners Should Only Grow Lab-Propragated Orchids 
Every native orchid in New York - no matter how common or rare they are - is protected by state law, he said. Picking orchid flowers, removing seeds or digging up the plants on state land can lead to prosecution.

"If you see these, don't go out and dig these," he emphasized.

To view native orchids in the wild, the Bruce Peninsula in Canada is the main destination for orchid pilgrimages. There are large pockets of native orchids that can be found in New York, Vermont and western Connecticut as well. Western Connecticut, especially, contains extraordinary fens, or peat lands with lots of calcium, he said. "If you see one [variety] in a certain place, there should be others," he said. In addition, "cedar swamps are some of the best places to see orchids."

Yellow Lady's Slipper Photo credit: National Park Service, public domain.
"Some people regard the showy lady's slipper as the most beautiful North American wildflower," said Leopold. The pouch on the flower can be light pink, cherry red or pure white, he said. The Eshqua Bog in Hartland, Vt., has a large collection which typically blooms in late June. "You should be able to see [these flowers]. Put it on your bucket list," he said.

It is possible to purchase lady slippers from reputable nurseries, but they usually come at a hefty price. For example, White Flower Farm offers showy lady's slippers and yellow lady's slippers for $129 each. However, if you are willing to wait a few years for the plant to flower, Spangle Creek Labs offers seedlings at more reasonable prices and Itasca Ladyslipper Farm sells mature plants propagated from Spangle Creek Lab seeds. The Vermont Ladyslipper Company, Ltd. also sells lab-propagated plants.

The key - no matter where you purchase them - is to make sure they have been lab propagated, which ensures they were not taken from the wild. Reputable companies should be happy to explain how they do so.

Pink lady's slipper can be the most difficult native orchid to grow, Leopold said. It's particular about acidic, sandy soil. High fertility levels often hurt these plants because they are adapted to lower levels. Fertilization will often kill the fungi which will then then kill the orchid. "If you are really good at gardening, this is the ultimate challenge," he said.

The yellow lady's slipper, however, is slightly easier to grow. It will grow in shade but will disappear in full shade. It grows best in humus-rich soil and flowers in May.

For the best luck in growing lady's slippers in the garden, Leopold recommends the Kentucky Lady's Slipper, which is native to the eastern United States. He grows his at the edge of a blue spruce, where it gets a lot of morning sunlight.

"I fertilize it, I mulch it, I baby it and it's rewarding me by almost every year doubling in size." It likes loamy soil with lots of mulch, not sandy or acidic soil. It responds well to organic amendments. It is for sale at Garden in the Woods.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

A Look Inside NYBG's Orchid Show

BRONX, N.Y. - The Orchid Show at New York Botanical Garden is a visual delight. With 100 "chandeliers" bursting with a kaleidoscope of magenta purples, sweet cream yellows and hot pinks, this year's orchid blossoms not only steal the show on the ground but also in the air.

To read the interview with Karen Daubmann of the NYBG, click here.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Looking at an Orchid Shows How to Grow it

HADLEY, Mass. - The key to successfully growing orchids is understanding what they are.

Orchids are epiphytes, a plant that grows non-parasitically on another plant, such as tree, and gets its moisture and nutrients from the rain, air and the debris around it.

"Most of the orchids we are growing are growing on trees in the tropics," explained Jim Grogan, master gardener and greenhouse technician at Mount Holyoke College. Orchids need to be given conditions that make them feel like they are in their home environment, he said during a recent lecture at Hadley Garden Center.

"Orchids are really easy if you know what to do, but they are not low-maintenance plants. If you want to grow orchids, you have to be committed to attending to them regularly," he said.

Grogan has been caring for almost 500 orchids at Talcott Greenhouse for the last four years. He is also tropical ecologist.

Orchids are the most diverse plant family on the planet, containing more than 30,000 species.

"If you are a tropical orchid [in the rainy season] high in the crown of a tree, you are going to get soaking wet. And then the sun will come out and you're going to dry out," he said. "So orchids want to be soaked, and then they want to dry out. That's really the key to understanding how to treat orchids."*

For orchids, the most important part is the roots. "If you have happy roots on the orchid, you will have a vigorous plant," he said."We don't put orchids in soil ... because the soil will stay wet and roots will rot," he said. Special bark medium mixes are ideal for growing orchids and can be found in plant nurseries.

What makes an orchid unique is that its female and male reproductive parts are fused into a column inside the lip which is highly specialized for insect pollination, said Grogan. The insects takes the pollen away and inserts it into another flower. The flower also has a set of three sepals and three petals. "One petal is almost always modified into a lip," he said. This is what catches our eye, and attracts pollinators, he said.

"I don't grow anything that won't flower," he said. "The flower for me is who the plant is in the end."

Leaves, Stems Contain Clues for Watering
Orchids will usually bloom at the same time every year. "Most of the orchids that people grow in their homes are from seasonal tropical environments where the flowering season is now: January, February and March. So that's why you're going to have so many orchids in flower for shows," Grogan said.

"If you have some idea about basically what their conditions are like in their home environments, than that gives you the idea of how to treat orchids in your home," he said. For example, consider the available light in the home and the average temperature.

Just looking at an orchid can tell you how to grow it, he said. The orchids Grogan brought with him to his lecture had different leaves and stems which make them adaptable for either dry or moist conditions.

Of the many varieties of orchids grown in the world, here are six of the common species available:

Phalaenopsis are the most commonly purchased orchids.
Phalaenopsis, or Moth Orchids
"Most of everything we buy is a hybrid raised by the millions by large factories in Florida, Hawaii and Taiwan," said Grogan. These factory conditions make orchids perform better for consumers. They are usually affordably priced, very hardy and vigorous, he said. Most orchids purchased from big box stores are phalaenopsis orchids planted in sphagnum moss, which aids in shipping long distances.

However, the sphagnum moss is not ideal potting material for these epiphytes. Grogan recommends replanting phalaenopsis orchids into a medium consisting of tree bark, sponge rock and charcoal, which aids in quick drainage for the plant. In addition, the orchids should be repotted into orchid pots, which have slits or holes on the sides of the pots and aid in rapid water drainage. "Take the plant to the kitchen sink and spray the whole plant and roots," he said. Then let the plant dry out. Grogan recommended watering them every four to five days this way.

Usually the leaves of the phalaenopsis are thick and succulent with very few white roots. This orchid is a rainforest plant that grows on trees, on the bases of trees or afixed to trees. Phalaenopsis are low-light plants, and prefer morning light.

Grogan recommends fertilizing weakly (1 tsp to a gallon) every 10 days during the spring to fall; in the winter time, every couple of weeks. He said a 10-10-10 fertilizer is fine to use.

"Move orchids outside during the summertime. They love being outside," he said. "I leave them outside almost until it frosts." To rebloom, the orchid needs cooler night temperatures. The early fall temperature drop in the evenings will initiate flower spikes, he said. After the flower blooms, he recommended cutting off the old spikes so they do not drain resources from the plant.

*Grogan explained that since there are so many orchids in the world, that there are exceptions to growing them. These are the most common ways.

Looking at an Orchid Shows How to Grow it - Continued

Cattleya orchid on display at Grogan's lecture.

Often found in Central and South America, cattleya orchids have a bulb at the base of the leaf which is thick and solid. The leaves are succulent, which makes it highly adaptable to being dry. Grogan said cattleya orchids are often from seasonally dry forests that have a dry season and rainy season - like cacti. "They are adapted to going weeks, if not months, without any water at all," he said. "But when it's wet, they want to be wet, almost on a daily basis."

"They want high light, coarse medium and lots of water in the summertime and lots of fertilizer," he said.  He waters them less in the wintertime but does not leave them completely dry.

The bright yellow flower is an example of an oncidium orchid. 

With thin and flexible leaves, they have flatter bulbs and are not as succulent as cattleyas. They need wetter conditions than cattleyas. "It means this is an orchid that grows in a wetter environment where it comes from and it needs more consistent moisture than the cattleya," Grogan said.

Grogan shows a dendribrium orchid during his
presentation at Hadley Garden Center.
Also known as cane orchids, dendrobriums originate in southeast Asia, Australia, Papaya and New Guinea. They come from seasonally dry environments. According to Grogan, during our (American) growing season, they need to be very wet with lots of hard lighting. But then they need to be dry for two to three months during our winter. If they get that treatment, they know to drop their leaves and set their flower buds, he said.

Cymbidium orchids are heavy feeders of fertilizer.

"These are cold growers and high-light orchids," Grogan said. "In the wintertime they want to be in a cool space, and they want to be wet almost all year round, so I water these pretty heavily, especially during the summertime during the growing season. You need a lot of fertilizer to make that many flowers."

An old world lady slipper from the Mount Holyoke College collection.
A new world lady slipper.

Lady Slipper
The lady slippers that most people grow in homes are old world, or Asian, lady slippers. They can be found in southeast Asia and southern China or the Himalayans. "It's not succulent. It's a ground orchid but it comes from a wetter environment and it doesn't have to store water and worry about being seasonally dry," he said. They need to be watered very regularly all year round.  These are low-light orchids.

The new world lady slipper orchids also want to be wet all the time but are high light orchids.

There are no holes on the side of their pots so the medium stays wetter longer, he said. They also want potting medium changed every year, he said.

Grogan recommended reading "Understanding Orchids" by William Cullina for more information on growing orchids. He also highly recommended "Any orchid you have a name of, you will find a photo of it's flowers. It's a really great resource. I use it all the time to check things."

Grogan's lecture was part of the free winter gardening clinic series held at Hadley Garden Center.

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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Gardener's March Calendar

Even though this photo is from two winters ago, it looks pretty close to
how the back garden is right now. Maybe just a little less snow. But just a little.

So ... I can't see the dirt.

Or the grass. Or really anything on the surface of the ground.

All I can see is about four foot snow drifts. Everywhere. And there's more snow on the way. So let's be honest - there won't be any peas planted on St. Patrick's Day in my neck of the woods. Maybe you are luckier than I am.

So I am adjusting the calendar a wee bit for this month.

Pea shoots.
- It's time to start more flower seeds indoors and under lights! Think New Guinea impatiens (or impatiens if you are in an area not affected by the blight), salvias, ageratum, calendula, sweet Williams, coleus, snapdragons, some cosmos and portulaca. I will start tomato and sweet pepper seeds during the last week of March. Perennials such as delphiniums, yarrow, foxgloves and carnations can still be started in mid-March as well. Sweet peas, grown just for their flowers, can also be started outdoors as soon as the ground can be worked since they enjoy cool weather.

-Vegetable seeds can also be started this month. During the last week of March I'll start my pepper, tomato and eggplant seeds under lights. Broccoli, leeks, cabbage, onions and celery can also be started. You can start lettuce seeds indoors as well, but I usually wait until they can be seeded outside. Sow peas as soon as the ground can be worked and it appears that winter has moved on, once and for all. Peas are less likely than other seeds to rot in cold, damp soil. It's also important to get them started early before the heat moves in. Peas produce in cool weather so to get the most yield, you need to beat the heat.

- Herb seeds that take longer to grow, such as chamomile, thyme, parsley and sage, can be started now. (Parsley seeds can be soaked for a few hours to enhance germination.)

- Sow bread poppy seeds in an area (where the snow has melted) where they will be undisturbed in early spring. Do not scatter on top of the snow. Wait until you can see the frozen ground. (I've accidentally pulled them out in the past because I didn't recognize what they looked like, so make sure you mark them.)

- Finish pruning fruit trees by mid-March. Make sure you don't leave stumps along the trunk where the branches are cut off, and aim for nice, clean cuts. This helps prevent infection in the tree. You can take your fruit tree prunings and put them in a vase of water to force flowers indoors. Or, you can dry pear and apple sticks, which make great rabbit treats.

Pruning paniculata hydrangeas is a good garden chore for the first warm day of spring when gardeners need an excuse to be outside. "You take about a third of the plant off to increase branches in the growing season," said Chris Valley in a hydrangea talk last summer. When pruning, make sure the cuts are uniform so the entire plant grows at the same rate. "After five years, take out the main branches to reinvigorate the plant and spur new growth."

- Wisteria can be pruned, but don't cut off the flower buds. I grow Amethyst Falls, which is a less invasive version of wisteria. If the shape of the plant is fine, you can leave it.

- Remove older leaves of hellebores so new growth can fill in. (If you can find your hellebores, that is. Another item I will be waiting on!)
Iris reticulata is one of the first minor bulbs to bloom in the spring. 

- Roses can be pruned when the forsythia begins to bloom.

- The earliest of spring bulbs, such as winter aconite and snowdrops, will start appearing soon. Buy bulb fertilizer now so they can be fertilized when new growth begins to appear.

- Once the snow melts, you can start thinking about cutting back perennials so that new growth can emerge as the weather gets warmer. I usually hold off on doing this until the ground is safe to walk on: if it's too wet, you can compact and damage the soil.

- Clean out old nests in birdhouses to encourage use this year.

- Raspberries need thinning in order to grow well. If a stem had fruit last year, cut it out. If it's thinner than a pencil, cut that out as well. Raspberries produce fruit on new stems. Everything left can be shortened about 12 inches as well. This is also a good time to check that the supports for raspberries are in good shape. Last year I used twine and 6 foot poles to keep everything contained, only to find in mid-summer that a solitary wasp was cutting through the twine and letting everything loose. I plan to put in a more permanent support this year, like this model I found through Pinterest.

Hoping the snow melts soon so the season can truly begin! Onward!

I live in Central Connecticut and garden in Zone 6b.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Look Up - and Warm Up - at Annual NYBG Orchid Show

Photo credit: Doug Gordon, The New York Botanical Garden

The New York Botanical Garden is flipping its orchid show upside down.

With 100 "chandeliers" bursting with a kaleidoscope of magenta purples, sweet cream yellows and hot pinks, this year's orchid blossoms not only steal the show on the ground but also in the air.

"You will probably get a stiff neck from looking up high," said Karen Daubmann, associate vice president for exhibitions and public engagement for The New York Botanical Garden. "There's one really huge chandelier - the rest are plays on chandeliers - there's all sorts of things up in the air when we would typically just be planting the ground plane."

Photo credit: Doug Gordon, The New York Botanical Garden
For the first time in this 13th annual show, the design theme will run throughout the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. "We would often times have orchids hanging in the trees in those other houses, but this year we are doing hanging chandeliers, hanging baskets and hanging orchids all the way through," she said.

A giant star-shaped chandelier overflowing with hundreds of orchids is the centerpiece of this year's show. Pools of water mix with bright, natural light to reflect the cascading blossoms from above.

Daubmann said the show offers a tropical weekend getaway in the Bronx.

"This is the worst winter I can recall.  I don't ever remember being in 5 degrees. I don't remember mountains of snow and ice," she said. "Our pathways are clear, our conservatory is hot. If you don't remember what it feels like to have humidity on your skin and in your hair, this is the place to be. It's beautiful and it's nice to just immerse yourself in such a summery and tropical environment."

Extensive Collection, Orchid-Inspired Poems Highlight Tour
Orchids are the largest family of flowering plants, which includes more than 30,000 species. They range from miniatures with flowers less than 1/16 of an inch in diameter to giants more than 25 feet tall with flower spikes 10 feet long. They can be found on every continent except Antarctica.

The New York Botanical Garden has 6,085 orchids in its permanent collection.

"We have a really extensive orchid collection on site and we use many of those in the show, but we also buy in extra orchids to beef it up," said Daubmann. "I love the really fragrant orchids and really rare orchids, and I love when I can tell people the story behind them."

Selected poems by award-winning poet Deborah Landau are also on display throughout the show. The poetry - inspired by orchids - will be on display throughout the landscape and accompanied by a free cell phone audio tour. People are really drawn to the poetry in the landscape, said Daubmann.

"We work with great curators who do audio stops along with the poetry, so you can dial in and they  tell you about the poem and why its sited in that particular spot and why they picked it," she said. "It's really nice to hear someone's thoughts about poetry, and what they think about it and why it works."

Photo credit: Doug Gordon, The New York Botanical Garden
Cell phone tours have evolved over the years at the garden, according to Daubmann. "This year we have quite a focus on 'how-to.' So, 'how to grow orchids,' 'how to repot orchids,' 'how to get orchids to reflower' - you can dial in and hear the information from the curators," she said.

"So many people have questions about orchids. They are sort of a mysterious plant because people really want to grow them, and to know them, and to be successful with them, but sometimes they are the plant that people struggle with the most," she said. Daubmann said she hopes people will find success in growing orchids after attending this year's show.

In addition, the garden has added evening hours for Orchid Evenings, which Daubmann calls romantic date nights.

"A lot of people who work can't necessarily get to the garden between 10 in the morning and 6 at night. So we've added a lot of evening hours and people can come have a cocktail and enjoy live music and see the orchid show in a different way all lit up."

To take home a part of the show, the Shop in the Garden will be offering many special orchids for sale, including hard-to-find specimens for connoisseurs and easy-to-grow varieties for beginners. Daubmann said there is a lot of expertise available in the shop to help make your orchid purchase successful.

Cameras are welcome in the show. "People often bring cameras and take pictures and really enjoy being in a warm, humid environment," she said. "It's the perfect time of year to see orchids because they are so colorful, and often times very fragrant, and its a nice tropical environment."

Tickets are available for purchase in advance or at the door. For a list of available programs, including musical performances, dance lessons and orchid demonstrations, click here.

The show runs from February 28 through April 19, 2015.

To view my photos from the show, click here.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Time to Prune Fruit Trees

Today the temperature made it into the 40s and I seized the opportunity to head outside and prune my pear trees.

Pear (and apple) trees can be pruned in late winter, usually after the coldest part of the season has passed. This year I waited longer than usual because Connecticut has experienced long stretches of temperatures ranging from 1-20 degrees Fahrenheit in February.

Many reasons to prune a fruit tree.
Pruning Pears

I prune out branches that will allow for more air and light to reach the center of the tree. This helps for better fruit production. You want enough space between branches for this, so any branches too close together need to be pruned (see "not enough space between branches" above). Any branches that cross each other are also pruned. Sometimes I remove one and keep the other, depending on where they are in the tree (see "crossing branch" in the graphic above).

It's important to prune to the collar of the tree when pruning a branch off. Don't cut in the middle. Don't leave a stub.

The easiest pruning one can do is removing water sprouts from the tree. These are branches that grow straight up and would not be strong enough to support fruit (see "water sprout" above). They are easy to identify and help give a timid gardener more confidence when pruning the tree. I removed many of these today.

Competing leaders (shown above) is when there are too many branches at the top of the tree. Usually one bad cut in the tree's past will make this a problem.

If the tree has suckers, which are straggly branches growing at the base of the tree, remove those. They take away energy from the tree. Awkward growing branches that dip too low should be pruned out as well.

Of course, anything that is broken or damaged should be removed, not just in late winter, but any time of year. Make sure your tools are sharp and use an alcohol wipe to disinfect the blades when moving from tree to tree.

After I'm finished pruning my pear trees, I take the branches to the garage and dry them for a few months. When they have dried I trim them down into 3 to 6 inch pieces and give them to my house rabbits as a treat. I do not apply any pesticides to my trees, which makes them safe rabbit treats. (Apple twigs and branches are also safe rabbit treats.)