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Let Inga Tell You: Confessions of an orchid slayer

Before-and-after photos show Inga's gift orchid on Day 1 (left) and Day 37.
(Inga)

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 percent death rate with orchids.”

Miss Manners (Judith Martin, the 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 where orchids live 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 the skylights in every room of our little house where 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 percent. Orchids do best in environments with 40-60 percent humidity. [Mist? Seriously?]

Fertilize the orchids once per month while they’re flowering. Use a balanced liquid 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 … 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 wasn’t thriving, I’d give its pathetic final two leaves one last chance by transplanting it in my backyard. 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 hangers near these windows. Macrame was all the rage when we bought our house in 1973, and I actually managed to create, via the preponderance of Sunset magazine manuals (the YouTube of their time), 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 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.

Inga’s lighthearted looks at life appear regularly in the La Jolla Light. Reach her at inga47@san.rr.com. ◆