Debbie Arrington

Tropical beauty sometimes thrives on the dry side

Certain orchids, such as Phaleonopsis (a.k.a. moth orchid), need the equivalent of just two or three ice cubes’ worth of water a week to keep them thriving. The spectacular species does need more water than cattleyas, but not much.
Certain orchids, such as Phaleonopsis (a.k.a. moth orchid), need the equivalent of just two or three ice cubes’ worth of water a week to keep them thriving. The spectacular species does need more water than cattleyas, but not much. Sacramento Bee file

Orchids belie their tropical reputation. They may look like they belong in a rain forest, dripping with dew in thick humidity. But actually, many of these exotic plants prefer life on the dry side.

That’s great news for California gardeners who are weighing the use of every drop. There’s nothing like an exquisite flower to take your mind off drought.

Thousands of orchids will be on display (with many available for sale) at this weekend’s 68th annual Sacramento Orchid Show and Sale at the Scottish Rite Temple. This gigantic local flower event showcases these unusual flowers while demystifying their care.

“Because of the good weather, we’ll have lots of orchids in bloom for the show,” said Sacramento’s Jose Rodriguez, who has been growing orchids for almost 20 years. “It’s cattleya season right now, and they look fantastic.”

Known as the queen of orchids, cattleyas are perhaps the most dramatic of these breathtaking flowers. While hobbyists may pamper them in greenhouses, they actually do OK with less water, not more.

“Cattleyas like to be on the dry side,” Rodriguez explained. “It’s best to let them totally dry out before you water. … Some people water them every day – and kill the orchid.”

Different species have different needs, Rodriguez explained. Moth orchids – the popular Phalaenopsis found in supermarkets everywhere – like a little more water than cattleyas, but not much.

“With Phalaenopsis, you want it on the dry side, but don’t let it dry out completely,” he said. “I recommend to give them a little water twice a week.”

For this biweekly irrigation, the amount of water in one ice cube – about 2 tablespoons – is enough for a small plant. At that rate, 1 gallon would last a moth orchid plant 64 weeks!

“The most important things to remember about orchids are water and fertilizer,” Rodriguez said. “Most people use too much of both. For fertilizer, use half of what’s recommended.”

Other orchids do like moist feet. Some slipper orchids, for example, grow wild in streams and creekbeds with their roots submerged. But these orchids also need excellent drainage or their roots can rot.

Growers place the water-loving orchids on trays or saucers filled with pebbles and add water to just below the bottom of the pots. That creates a little moist microclimate around the plant while using a minimum of water.

For more tips, check out the free demonstrations and workshops at the orchid show. Said Rodriquez, “We’ll have lots of orchid people there who can answer your questions.”

Greener Gardens

Wednesday is the 45th Earth Day and, boy, does Mother Earth need a hug right now. One upside of our continuing water/weather/climate crisis is a deeper appreciation of what we can do to help. It starts with making your own landscape a little more earth- and river-friendly.

That’s the focus of three upcoming garden tours. Two are under the banner: “Greener Gardens.”

“It’s our time,” said water-wise landscape expert Soleil Tranquilli. “Dire water predictions are upon us, and Greener Gardens is here to help.”

Next Saturday, the Elk Grove Greener Gardens project – a group of local landscape professionals, organizations, businesses, conservationists and community members – spotlights river-friendly and native gardens. From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., a free DIY Expo will be held at Miwok Park, 9344 Village Tree Drive, Elk Grove. Patrons can learn how to convert their irrigation to drip, remove lawn, transition to more drought-tolerant landscaping, install rain barrels and other ways to start saving water now.

Experts will be on hand to answer questions and make coping with the drought a little less scary.

From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., patrons can take the free self-guided tour of local landscapes that have made the switch from lawn to “greener” alternatives. Find out more at

Docents will be on hand at each garden to help explain the conversions and why they save water while helping wildlife.

“All the plants will be labeled, too,” Tranquilli said.

Can’t make it to Elk Grove? Roseville Greener Gardens will host its DIY Expo on May 16 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Roseville Utility Exploration Center, 1501 Pleasant Grove Blvd., Roseville.

Sign up online (at or call (916) 746-1550 in advance to take a tour of eco-friendly and water-wise gardens in Roseville; suggested donation is $5 per family.

In between those two tours is another opportunity to see and learn. Woodland hosts its fourth annual Water-Wise Landscape Tour on May 2. That free event will include a question-and-answer session with homeowners sharing their personal experiences and water-saving wisdom.

Starting at the Woodland Community Center, this tour features backyard conversions as well as front yard makeovers. For more details, click on

Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington. Read her Seeds columns at


Where: Scottish Rite Temple, 6151 H St., Sacramento

When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday

Admission: $7


See thousands of exotic plants and take some home, too. Enjoy demonstrations, door prizes, vendors and more.


Sunday morning, Sacramento Bee garden columnist Debbie Arrington joins radio host Farmer Fred Hoffman on his two shows: “KFBK Garden Show” on 1530-AM/93.1-FM KFBK from 8 to 10 a.m., followed by “Get Growing” on Talk 650 KSTE from 10 a.m. to noon.