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Specializing in colorful, water-conserving gardens

Specializing in colorful, water-conserving gardens

The Easiest Orchids


Cymbidium orchid

Orchids may appear to be exotic beauties, too fragile to survive anywhere but in some faraway jungle or in an expert’s greenhouse.

But fortunately that’s not the case for at least a few orchids that will thrive on the Central Coast. According to Larry Vierheilig, a Nipomo orchid hobbyist who has been growing orchids for 58 years, both phalaenopsis and oncidium orchids can be treated like ordinary houseplants, while cymbidiums flourish outdoors.

The trick to growing these orchids well is to choose healthy plants, then provide the proper doses of the same necessities — light, water and nutrients — that all plants require.

What to Look For

Phalaenopsis orchid

Healthy roots and leaves are key. Most orchids are epiphytes, which means that they cling to other plants or rocks and pull moisture and nutrients out of the air, rather than the soil. Their roots are easy to inspect, since they’re usually exposed in nursery pots.

Phalaenopsis, or moth orchids, bear large, rounded flowers that look somewhat like moths hovering along gracefully arching stems. Vierheilig said their round roots should feel plump and spongy. Their leaves should be firm and dark green.

Oncidiums bear upright sprays of dainty, speckled flowers. Their fine, hairy roots should be white, while their flower spikes should be sturdy and their leaves light green.

Oncidium sphacelatum

“The pseudobulbs, the little bulb things on the bottom where the leaves come out, should be firm and filled out,” Vierheilig said. “There shouldn’t be any wrinkling or pleating because that means they have not been watered properly.”

Cymbidiums bear tall, waxy spikes of large, traditional corsage flowers. Their roots and pseudobulbs should be firm and plump as well. Their long, strappy leaves should be slightly darker than light green, and their buds and flowers should line up uniformly along the flower spike, Vierheilig added.


Phalaenopsis orchid

At home, phalaenopsis and oncidiums need the same treatment: bright, morning light.

“If you have an east-facing window, just plain morning sun and no curtains,” Vierheilig said. “Place the plants about a foot back. They can get direct light, if it’s morning light. That would be ideal.”

Outdoors, cymbidiums tolerate direct morning light as well, but prefer bright, indirect sun or a little shade for most of the day.

Cymbidium orchid

“If you hold your hand several inches above a leaf, you would see a dark shadow on the leaf. It wouldn’t be like it would be in full sunlight, but somewhat a gray shadow,” Vierheilig said. “If you have a tree that has a somewhat open canopy, or you get little sparkles of sunlight through, or dappling on the ground, that’s great.”

But don’t plant your cymbidiums in the ground. They’ll rot. Instead, keep them in a pot that has plenty of holes to allow air to circulate through the roots and water to easily drain out.

Watering and Fertilizer

Oncidium orchid

Repress any overwhelming urges to water your phalaenopsis, oncidiums or cymbidiums daily, or even weekly. And letting them sit in water is the kiss of death. Despite what you might think, these orchids do not need frequent irrigation. Instead, they like just a modicum of moisture.

“There’s an art to staying slightly moist,” Vierheilig said. “If I’m uncertain if a plant needs watering, I take a bamboo skewer and insert it down into the medium to the bottom of the pot. I wait about 10 minutes, then ease it back out and feel it. If it feels moist, I don’t water. If it feels like maybe a hint of moisture at the very end of it, then it’s time to give the plant a thorough watering.”

Vierheilig places his greenhouse orchids, one by one, in containers slightly larger than the pots that the orchids are growing in, then pours in water from a reverse osmosis system mixed with fertilizer. The orchids sit in the solution for 10 to 20 minutes. Once the planting medium is good and soaked, he pulls out the plants and lets them drain.

Cymbidium orchid

Vierheilig uses reverse osmosis to avoid subjecting his plants to hard water. He said distilled water or rainwater achieves the same result. If you go with regular tap water, he suggests every fourth watering to set the plants in your kitchen sink and run lukewarm tap water through them to leach out any salts that have built up.

As for fertilizer, he recommends applying one-quarter the recommended strength of any balanced, general-purpose product, such as a triple 15, triple 16 or triple 20, every time you water.

“You can use that year-round. You don’t have to switch between bloom and root and growth fertilizer,” he said. “But when you read the label, buy the one that has the least amount of nitrogen coming from urea. Urea takes bacteria to break down so the plants can use it. In a bark mix, there’s not a lot of bacteria. In a sphagnum moss, there’s even less.”

Bark or Moss?

Phalaenopsis orchid

Fir bark has been the dominant planting medium for years. It retains moisture while allowing ample air pockets for the roots. But many mass producers have shifted to sphagnum moss, and Vierheilig doesn’t like it.

“That’s not the easiest thing to grow them in, not for the beginner. It’s easy to keep it too moist. Then if it does dry out, it’s really hard to get it wet again,” he explained. “If I get one of those, after it’s bloomed, I usually pot it in a fir bark-perlite mix. It’s easier to judge whether it’s dry, moist or whatever. Plus, orchid roots like air. You get little air down there in that moss medium.”

It’s time to repot if roots are crowding out the top or squeezing through drain holes in the bottom. Wait until your orchid has finished flowering and new roots have begun to appear. Match the texture of the bark to the size of the roots: fine-textured oncidiums get fine-textured bark; coarse-textured phalaenopsis and cymbidiums get coarse-textured bark. Vierheilig mixes in perlite because the bark tends to break down with repeated watering.

Odds and Ends

Phalaenopsis orchid

With the most perfect of care, some Phalaenopsis orchids hold their flowers for four to five months on the Central Coast, Vierheilig said. He advises cutting off the spent flowering spikes completely. While some folks trim them to the first node below where the bud started, to force another spike, he believes that the technique weakens the plant.

While you can buy a greenhouse-grown Phalaenopsis in bloom just about any time of year, the natural bloom time is spring. To initiate flower spikes, the plants need two months of cool, night-time temperatures with swings of 20 to 25 degrees between nights and days, Vierheilig said.

“Take them outside in the shade at night, when it drops down to 50-ish. I bring mine back and forth every night. People are going to say, ‘Oh brother, I don’t want to do that.’ But if you want a nice flower spike with a lot of flowers, you have to put out a lot of effort there.”

Oncidium Solstice 'Sunny Delight'

Oncidiums like a dry rest after they finish blooming, Vierheilig said. Cut down their spent spikes, then stop watering for a couple of months.

“After that, ease back into a normal watering schedule, where it’s always slightly moist. They can get waterlogged very easily. You really want to watch the watering on those.”

Cymbidiums take a shorter rest after blooming, Vierheilig added. “But don’t let the medium stay dry for weeks on end.”

Cymbidiums also tolerate fairly cold night-time temperatures. However, if a freeze is expected, Vierheilig advises moving them into your garage or house.

Orchid Show This Weekend

What to expect.

Hundreds of blooming orchids will be on display at the 16th annual Central Coast Orchid Show & Sale, “Orchid Road Trip,” on Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., at the South County Regional Center in Arroyo Grande, 800 W. Branch St.

Orchid experts will answer questions, hold potting demonstrations and lead tours of the show. Vendors will sell orchid plants, books and supplies. Ellie’s SLO Down Cafe will offer coffee and lunch.

A preview reception on Friday, 6:30 – 9:30 p.m., will benefit the 5Cities Homeless Coalition.

For information about the show, call 929-5749 or visit For information about the preview evening, call 481-3991 or 929-5749 or visit

Seeds of Wisdom

Rotate your windowsill orchids every few weeks. Otherwise, since the light is coming in from only one direction, the plants may begin to lean.

Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.

Mind the Gap: Planting Between Pavers


Creeping thyme

Gaps between stepping stones can be among the most awkward spaces in the garden. The same goes for those narrow channels of dirt between loosely set flagstones or large pavers that compose rustic patios.

Too often, the gaps are neglected and a catchall for weeds. But it’s just as easy to fill the cracks with creeping plants. These little guys will travel the gaps, don’t mind being stepped on and may even smell good in the process. They can also choke out weeds for good.

Full Sun

Creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum or Thymus praecox) is a perfect fit for hot, sunny paths in Central Coast gardens. The petite perennial herb comes in many variations, all of which bear tiny, rounded fragrant leaves in shades of dark green, lime green, and even gold with a white edging. Creeping thyme is tough. It will grow in difficult soils, from sandy to heavy clay, and it tolerates inconsistent watering.

Elfin thyme on the right is flat as a pancake, compared with mother-of-thyme on the left.

A dwarf version is Elfin thyme (Thymus serpyllum ‘Elfin’), which bears leaves so small that one is hardly discernable from the next. Elfin’s foliage and occasional lavender flowers stay phenomenally flat.

That’s something to be aware of, with the various thymes. While most varieties form low-growing mats, some, such as Victor Reiter, bear summertime flower spikes that grow tall enough to stub toes. The taller spikes are pretty along the edges of paths or patios, but pose tripping hazards when planted in the midst of foot traffic.

Dymondia, flanked by gold coin and Silver Dragon grass.

Also, thyme’s rosy pink and lavender flowers attract honeybees. While that’s great for enhancing pollination in your garden, you might not want to plant it in within a primary patio or pathway next to your front door.

Dymondia (Dymondia margaretae) is a good alternative. It is extremely flat, and bears slender, oval leaves that are green on top and gray underneath. A slight upward curl on the edges of each leaf provides a frosted, two-tone look.

Dymondia occasionally bears tiny, flat yellow daisy flowers. But its best attributes are its tidy appearance, uniform height and low watering needs.

Sun or Some Shade

These creepers are content with full sun to partial shade along the coast. Inland, all prefer some protection from the hot, mid-day sun.

Many of the flattest stonecrops (Sedum) form prostrate mats of succulent stems, and will cooperatively traverse the gaps between stones.

Goldmoss sedum (Sedum acre) is a dainty succulent perennial that bears lime-green leaves and yellow, springtime flowers. Its trailing stems send out new roots as it ventures out. Pinch it back if it attempts to bust loose. Dragon’s Blood sedum (Sedum spurium ‘Dragon’s Blood’) trails as well, with small, succulent leaves that are a dark, purple-red.

Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) is a fluffy, moderate-water perennial that presents a meadowy appearance. Its dime-sized, white and yellow daisy flowers rise above apple-green, ferny leaves that are soft to walk on. It’s reasonably fragrant, although the more intensely aromatic chamomile tea is made from the flowers of Matricaria recutita, an annual species that reaches 2 feet tall.

Pink cranesbill

Cranesbill (Erodium reichardii) grows in low, tidy clumps of dark-green, heart-shaped, overlapping leaves. Its cup-shaped flowers bloom in pink or white most of the year.

In clay soil, cranesbill starts to decline after a few years. In loam or sandy soil, it is much longer lived. Cranesbill requires regular water and is fine with overhead irrigation.

Jewel mint of Corsica (Mentha requienii) also requires regular water. It forms an inch-high mat of miniature green leaves that look like moss, yet are highly aromatic. Think toothpaste or ice cream when you step on it.

A number of other sun-to-shade creepers, including dichondra, green carpet, blue star creeper, Irish moss and baby’s tears, are far thirstier. While they tolerate full sun along the coast, they won’t dry out as fast in filtered shade.


Dichondra (Dichondra micrantha) bears lime-green leaves that look like a string of dainty lily pads. It was a popular lawn “grass” in the 1960s and 70s. But vast expanses require a huge investment in water, fertilizer and care.

Instead, it is better suited to slipping between stepping stones or edging a pond. Keep it barely wet enough to grow well and stay low. With too much water or fertilizer, it can become invasive.

Green carpet (Herniaria glabra) forms a fluffy, spring-green mass literally smothered in tiny leaves. It spreads via trailing stems as well, but it’s not difficult to control. Green carpet rarely blooms — and when it does, the flowers are so small that they’re easy to miss. Instead, it provides a punch of color in winter, when its leaves turn dark red with colder temperatures.

Blue star creeper

Blue star creeper (xPratia pedunculata, Isotoma or Laurentia) bears starry, pale-blue flowers atop a bed of very flat, light-green leaves. It blooms most heavily from spring through summer, with flowers appearing occasionally during the rest of the year.

Irish moss (Sagina subulata) is not a moss, technically speaking. But it sure looks like one, forming a dense carpet of miniature, velvety leaves.

It’s often sold in flats. Use kitchen scissors to cut it into strips or irregular shapes that you might need to fill between your stepping stones.


In full shade, Corsican sandwort (Arenaria balearica) forms a dense mat of slender, green leaves. Masses of simple, wildflower-like white flowers bloom from spring through summer. This sandwort grows best where the soil stays damp but not boggy. Good drainage is key.

Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) bears larger leaves than many creepers. Its fragrant leaves are also more distinct, appearing evenly spaced around square stems to form circular tiers of foliage. Small, white flowers bloom from late spring through the end of summer, then go to seed. An army of volunteers may follow. Pluck them early, to prevent them from spreading everywhere.

Planting Tips

Irish moss

Tiny, new plants tucked between stepping stones face challenges that plants romping through the garden don’t.

First, the little ones need room — and soil — to grow.

Stepping stones or loose flagstone patios are often set on compacted soil, compacted base or several inches of sand.

You’ll need to make sure there’s enough loose, fertile soil between the stones, preferably at least half a foot deep, for roots to grow.

Also, the gaps between the stones should be at least a few inches wide.

A dymondia patio.

Next, decide how you’ll irrigate the plants.

This might be by burying soaker hose a couple of inches below the surface; lining the path with pop-up micro-sprayers; adjusting nearby sprinklers so that their overspray covers the plants; or planning to water by hand.

If you’re planting from flats, pull or cut apart 2 to 3-inch wide chunks that contain several plants and their roots. Space the chunks 6 to 9 inches apart in the ground.

Cover the bare spots with topper or some other light, organic material that will help retain surface moisture until the plants fill in.

Seeds of Wisdom

Gaps between stepping stones should be at least 3 inches wide and up to 6 inches deep to provide sufficient room for creeping plants to take root.

Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.

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