The author’s wife, Valerie and an orchid cactus safely thriving in the enclosed front porch of their Highland Avenue home.

by Stan Cutler

We just found out that we live in “The Garden District” of Chestnut Hill. The title seems appropriate because the soil is rich, dark and easily worked. You would think we would have known its reputation when we bought the place 20 years ago because gardening and houseplant care are my wife Valerie’s passion; she’s a bit obsessed.  As it turns out, she’s one of many in our neighborhood with same obsession. Valerie is the horticulturalist; I am the digger and schlepper – the garden donkey. In weeks to come, I will be sharing some of her knowledge, trials and tribulations with you in this space. 

Our old Germantown house had a too-big yard with denser, clay soil that made growing things a struggle. Here, whatever Valerie plants seems to flourish. In some ways the soil is too good because it encourages her to plant more than a normal person can care for. She is not a normal person. She tends to her plants, in one way or another, every day of the year. In Fall and Spring, we have semi-annual houseplant migrations, inside to outside and back again, a couple of days of heavy lifting. She has well over a hundred houseplants, including dozens of orchid varieties. She cares for at least as many perennial species that live outside year-round.

The previous owners of our house enclosed the porch. At one point, in the 1940s, they had eight children bouncing around the place and had to find more space somehow. They were in the building trades and used additions to the house, a brick twin on Highland Avenue, as a combination of home improvement and apprenticeships for the kids. I think they hoped to convert the porch to a cozy little space for reading, a place where Dad could get away from the kids and listen to the radio in peace. I doubt that it worked out for them in the wintertime. The single-pane glass and wooden frames don’t keep the cold out, the air seeps in through the gaps.

Valerie has converted the porch into a greenhouse for the cool-weather plants. You’ve probably noticed it because of the sunlamps and greenery as you’ve traveled on our street. In the depths of winter, it looks like a jungle. She did it herself: hanging grow-lights, screwing eye hooks into the wooden ceiling. She keeps a dozen plants on the deck and another dozen in hanging pots. Every autumn, she takes out the handmade screens and closes the hinged windows. Before we bring in the plants from their summer homes in the backyard, she carefully squeezes strings of insulation into the gaps around the windows. She keeps two electric heaters on the porch and tries to maintain a nighttime temperature of fifty degrees. Every night, before we go to bed, she checks the thermometer and tweaks the dials on the little electric radiators.

If you pass the house in late April or early May, slow down to admire the orchid cactus flowers. They are amazing, seven inches across, in spectacular colors. Valerie has a scarlet one, an orange one and one that is creamy and yellow. That’s the one above her in the picture. During orchid cactus season, first thing every morning, she hurries onto the porch before she has her coffee to see which of her beauties opened overnight.

Each leaf has many flowers that it opens one at a time at night. Though the flowers only stay open for a day or so, because the plants time their display, there are usually several showing-off on the porch during any day of their season. The flowers are truly wondrous. Last summer, a scarlet variety called Rick Rack, hanging from a tree limb, delighted us by sending out flowers in July. All the other varieties are springtime bloomers.

The plants (disocactus ackermanii) are a kind of epiphytic cactus, not an orchid. Epiphytes live in trees, absorbing nutrients from fallen leaves and animal scat, using air roots to absorb rainwater. (Spanish Moss is an epiphyte.) They have waxy leaves with wavy edges that grow up to three feet long. Valerie plants several leaves in a single pot. The flowers bud out from the edges of the leaves.

In winter, they do well in our northwest-facing porch, hung close to a broad-spectrum grow light attached to the ceiling. The light is on a timer – changed to match the hours of daylight. In dead of winter, the lights are on for six and a half hours. Orchid cacti don’t like direct sunlight in summertime. When they are inside, Valerie waters hers at three-week intervals. During their flowering season she adds a low-nitrogen, high potassium plant food to their water, hoping to extend flowering for as long as possible. She likes a brand called Tiger Bloom.

They are easy to grow. You can start them from cuttings. Allow the cut ends to callous by sitting out for a week before sticking a half-dozen of them into cactus mix (light soil and grit) – not pure potting soil. Put the cuttings in a sunny window and leave them alone except for light watering.  They do best in hanging pots. They will test your patience because they take years before they feel hardy enough to flower – they must be root-bound in their pots.  Do not despair because they are well worth the wait.

Stan Cutler is a local novelist, gardener’s helper and volunteer for the Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library

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