Sunday, October 31, 2021

Orchid Growing Tips The Internet Will Never Tell You

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published November 1, 2021] ©2021

There are two kinds of people in the world.  Those who can cultivate orchids, and those who can’t.  I learned this indisputable fact after writing a recent column about killing what was likely my 25th orchid. 

I heard from plenty of other self-professed “orchid murderers” (including the editor of this paper). So I was frankly astonished to learn that there are actually people who don’t regard an orchid as The Gift from Hell.  Their orchids actually flourish.  I was almost tempted to actually buy one just to try out all the good tips these folks shared.  Operative word here is “almost.” 

Interesting, more than one person insisted the problem was that I was “trying too hard.”  Orchids, apparently, survive on benign neglect.  So all those instructions I downloaded from the internet about its precise sun placement, about misting them if the humidity level of my house wasn’t just perfect, about assessing each orchid’s personal picky water needs, about using pricey orchid fertilizer, all apparently led to my orchid’s premature death.

And that’s another thing.  Readers informed me that my orchid didn’t actually die. Well, yet.  It just lost all its blooms. It’s normal for all the blooms to fall off when they move to a new environment [my house], according to a reader.

OK, but a large flowerless stem sticking 18 inches in the air in semi-perpetuity isn’t exactly my idea of d├ęcor. I’d definitely need to pitch it before the grandkids could show up and say, “Is this supposed to be a plant?” Who needs the bad press?

So, I queried readers back, if it isn’t dead, how long until it produces more blooms? 

The answers varied from: “a few weeks/months,” “could take a year,” “never” and “how long have you got?”  I need a definition of “never” so I know when I can officially give up.

Other sage advice:

Forget the orchid food.  It kills.  Your orchid will thrive, even bloom, on your neglect better than it will on attention.  

It’s all about the light.  You need a window with lots of nice non-direct light. (Alas, I don’t have one. It’s my number one excuse for all those orchid deaths. My house is a cave.)

But the most unexpected advice was this:

Three ice cubes a week is the only moisture an orchid needs. If you forget, that's okay too. 

Another reader swears by just one ice cube per week.  But she also talks to her plant which may make up for the other two cubes.

As previously, mentioned, there was more than one reader who agreed with me that an orchid is basically a hostile gift. 

Have you ever written about gifts that require maintenance? I have a severe dislike for gifts that I have to take care of forever. An orchid is in that category, and any other plant, for that matter. Why not just give flowers that I can toss at the end of the week? Don’t give me a bag of scone mix either - now I have to bake?? To me these “gifts” are not gifts!

I guess hostile is in the eyes of the beholder although I think we’d all agree that giving the grandchildren a drum set for Christmas is indisputably in that category. I myself might be OK with the scone mix so long as I only had to add water.

I did hear one really touching orchid story that the writer has given me permission to share. When she and her husband recently moved here from Texas, they paid $200 to the movers to get their orchid to San Diego alive.

Jaded person that I am, I imagined that these movers pitched the plant in the first dumpster out of town then stopped at Vons flower section on Girard when they arrived and picked up a new one for $15.  I mean, they really do all look alike. Net gain $185 and zero hassle. Who would ever know?

Upon further query, I learned that the back story was that the orchid had been a gift to the wife after her father unexpectedly passed away from Covid last December. It obviously had special significance which had been conveyed to the movers, who had it riding on the front seat of a Penske truck and even allotted it hotel space in El Paso. My correspondent added:

I will confess that every gosh darn flower fell off of once it arrived at its new home.  I put it in a sunny window, gave each "stalk" an ice cube once a week and …it's alive again.  So, I'm thinking you simply didn't give your orchid enough time to re-acclimate to its new environment! 

This has been quite an education. But even better that all the excellent tips I received, now I have a list of people to whom I can re-gift any future orchids I might receive.  That was worth the column alone.

Turns out that three ice cubes a week is all it takes
(but not going to personally test it)
(Reader sent photo)



Sunday, October 17, 2021

Embracing A New World Of Mandatory Composting

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published October 18, 2021] © 2021

It's going to be a whole new trash world on January 1 when California residents will be required to recycle food waste. Yup, all those chicken bones, shrimp tails, coffee grounds, moldy lunch meat, vegetable peelings, and greasy fast-food papers. Even those scrambled eggs your picky toddler wouldn't eat.

Concept-wise, Senate Bill 1383, the legislation behind this change, is a fantastically good idea. Currently, almost 41% of the city's waste composition is methane-producing organic material, apparently a far bigger contribution to global warming than carbon dioxide. 

Increasing the win, this organic waste could be converted to fertilizer, compressed natural gas for vehicles, or uses not yet imagined. 

As with all such drastic changes, even ones that are well-intentioned, I anticipate some serious problems in the transition.

A major issue, of course, will be compliance. 

Persons or businesses failing to comply could be slapped with "fines."  By whom? And how? As with the Water Police a few years ago (asking residents to rat out their neighbors for running sprinklers on other than their designated days or times), I think this one is problematical.  Will County Food Waste vigilantes be wandering around on trash day sniffing Hefty bags for whiffs of pizza crusts?  Or worse, slicing the bags open? Will public shaming with the offending food waste - presumably left on the bin lid along with a citation - become a thing?

Apparently, part of this plan is that all the people who don't yet have city-issued green waste bins (that would be my area) will be issued them.  The organic food waste would go in there - no plastic bags - along with the yard waste. 

Part of what worries me is that those city-issued bins of all colors (black for trash, blue for recyclables, green for greenery) are no match for city trash trucks. I'm on my fourth black at this point and it didn't take them two pick-ups to split the lid. The trash trucks literally hurl those things to the ground.  On my street, you'd be hard put to find a black bin that isn't duct-taped together.  I have this fantasy that the trash guys entertain themselves by seeing who can splinter the most bins in a given trash day.  ("Good one, George! You got the wheels totally off that one!")

I'm trying to even imagine the rat problem if we have food waste sitting in fractured green bins. Rats can squish themselves into a half-inch high space.  (I know of what I speak.) They wouldn't even have to try if half the lid is gone. I can feel the local rodentials celebrating already.

The other issue that I don't think the state has quite worked out is what do do with all that food waste between consumption and trash pickup, even if those currently-picked-up twice-a-week greenery bins are picked up once a week.  Remember, no plastic bags. Warm climate. A little research found that it will be recommended that residents wrap their food waste in newspapers or paper grocery bags and keep it in their refrigerator or freezer until trash day. No offense, but this suggestion was clearly made by a guy.  (In point of fact, it was.)

The idea of keeping a paper grocery bag in my fridge full of food waste frankly makes me gag. Your best hope is that your teenager will eat it. They're fortunately pretty non-discriminating.

It would especially make me gag when I pulled the bag out of the fridge on trash day and the bottom fell out because all of that food waste was wet. It is for this reason that the plastic bag industry has been so successful.

I have read that the city may help this somewhat by issuing countertop food containers to put waste in between trash pickups. The picture I saw of it means I'd have to dispense with my blender and my mini-Cuisinart on my limited counter space. Definitely sounds better than the fridge solution but even then, how do its aromatic contents get from there to the green bin?

I actually have first-hand experience with food waste. When my older son Rory was in fifth grade, he accidentally threw out his $200 dental appliance with his lunch bag. As a divorced working mom living paycheck to paycheck, I most definitely could not afford a new one. I took off an afternoon from work, and with the school's permission, worked my way through the school's dumpster, opening bag after bag of the detritus of that day's lunch. Let me tell you, I can attest that a lot of food is wasted in this country. None of the kids ate the fruit. Most didn't eat the bread crusts. And by the way, I did find the dental appliance. But I have never recovered from the experience.

Come 2022, there is going to have to be a crash course for everyone on What Goes In What Bin. Because as of January 1, there can be no food in the blue or black bins; no glass or plastic in the green or black; no dog poop, diapers or plastic bags in green or blue.

There will be a quiz. 

                                           Our trash bins are barely holding together

                                            Wouldn't be too hard for rats to get into these bins 

Monday, October 4, 2021

Confessions Of An Orchid Slayer

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published October 4, 2021] ©2021

They don’t call me Orchid Death for nothing.

I don’t even want to think of how many gift orchids have met their demise despite my genuinely diligent if fruitless efforts.

A friend recently showed up at my door for dinner bearing a gift orchid.  “Please,” I entreated, “take this plant back.  I have a 100% death rate with orchids.” 

Miss Manners (the Judith Martin etiquette columnist) would have been appalled. One should always accept gifts graciously even if they’ll cost you money to sustain them, have annoying personal needs, and are guaranteed to die a slow agonizing death right in front of you.

I have successfully grown a lot of house plants in my time.  Just not orchids.  What’s so sad is that I really try.  And when you look at the environment orchids live in in supermarket plant sections, is that so much better than my house?  Are they getting the love and attention and pricey orchid fertilizer that I provide?

One of my daughters-in-law is the karmic opposite of me when it comes to orchids.  She insists they’re incredibly easy.  The ones that flourish in her sunny front bay window practically have to be whacked back with a machete. 

But I think that’s the key word right there:  window, as in sunny front window.  We have no houseplant-suitable windows in our dark north-facing home. Just some morning sun in the kids’ old bedrooms that we can’t block access to with plant stands. The contractor who put in the skylights in every room of our little house that the roof slope would allow said he’d never worked in a darker house.  You almost expected to find bears hibernating.

Despite trying to decline my friend’s gift orchid, she was insistent. So I took this as a challenge to try nurturing an orchid one last time. 

I read up on the instructions again: 

The best way to take care of your orchid is to place it near a south- or east-facing window that receives strong, indirect light. [See "not happening," above.]

Water the orchids just before they go dry. It's important to water an orchid based on how much water it uses, rather than a certain number of days. [This plant is already starting to sound high maintenance.]

Mist orchids daily if the humidity level in your home is below 40%. Orchids do best in environments with 40-60% humidity. [Mist? Seriously?]

Fertilize the orchids once per month while they're flowering.  Use a balanced fertilizer such as 10-10-10. [So does Miracle Gro count?]

Actually, in my previous attempts to make an orchid flourish under my care, I have actually sprung for the pricey fertilizer formulated just for orchids.  It didn't help. The flowers wilted and fell off one by one...until there was simply nothing but an accusatory stem screaming "You killed me!" They can be very mean about it. 

In the past, if I've had a house plant that just wasn't thriving, I'd give its pathetic final two leaves one last chance by transplanting it in my back yard.  Most of them succumbed. For five years, however, I had a struggling Ficus house plant in my cave-like living room valiantly trying to hold on. I hated to just throw it in the trash (it had tried so hard), so I finally relocated it and its last leaf outside, wishing it luck.  It is now 25 feet tall and uprooting my back gate and destroying my irrigation system.  This $5 Ficus will probably put me back $2,000 in fence and sprinkler repairs.  Like my daughter-in-law’s successful orchid garden: location, location, location.

One of the ways I’ve gotten around a lack of plant platforms in front of sunny windows was to hang plants on macrame plant hangers near these windows.  Macrame was all the rage when we bought our house in 1973 and I actually managed to master, via the preponderance of Sunset Magazine manuals (the YouTube of their time), to create some fairly sophisticated jute and bead versions for my home.  My plants even did pretty well in them.

Ultimately the macrame craze, and the hangers themselves, ran their course.  I had young kids by that time and my knot-tying talents were now channeled into cub scout dens. While I had been quite successful creating intricate plant hangers, I could never master scouting knots, in spite of spending considerable time practicing the rabbit-goes-around-the-tree-and-through-the-hole method. (My rabbits always went around the wrong tree, got tangled up and hung themselves.)  I guess where there’s a will, there’s a knot.

 It took exactly 37 days to kill this orchid.  OK, I didn’t mist.  But I did find its sunniest spot and solicitously attempted to gauge its personal watering needs. I have to conclude that orchids and I were never meant to be. Do not even think of giving me one, ever again. Life is hard enough without plants making you feel bad.

                                                            Orchid, Day 1

                                                            Orchid, Day 37