YORK, Maine — It’s not unusual for someone to see a gorgeous orchid at the grocery store or big box garden center and be drawn to bring it home. Yet four months later, it’s shed its blossoms, the leaves are getting brown around the edges and it’s looking pretty sickly.
Cape Neddick resident Dave Dewey says: Don’t throw it out.
Dewey — also known as The York Orchid Guy — will be glad to take your orphan and give it the TLC it needs to survive and thrive. And if you want, he’ll even give you periodic updates on the plant’s progress.
“They’re like little kids and dogs. You give them the right environment, and they’ll thrive. All they want to do is be happy,” he said.
Orchid happiness is not likely found in the average home, though, just because they need a particular kind of attention, he said. They live in bark mulch, not soil, because they breathe not through their leaves but through their root system.
“And they’re extremely finicky,” he said, needing warm days and a temperature at least 10 degrees cooler at night. “I can control that. In a house, you can’t.”
He also invented, Rube Goldberg style, a mister for the plants involving a $10 fogger in an old bowl suspended above the plants by a holder made out of part of an old tomato cage.
He said he knows the kind of attention he lavishes on his plants is typically outside the realm of possibility or time for most people.
“I’m looking for the person who knows the plant is doomed but who can’t bear to toss it,” he said. “Bring it to me.”
Dewey came by his passion only recently, when he received an orchid from his wife Jackie for their anniversary last September.
He and Jackie have made it a point to travel over the years to the historic homes owned by the organization Historic New England, and he said he’d always been awed by the orchids growing in the greenhouses of some of the larger estates.
“I always enjoyed seeing them,” he said. “How can you not enjoy them? They’re gorgeous.”
A contractor by profession, when the couple moved to York 10 years ago, Dewey hung out his shingle as a handyman, The Get it Done Guy. While that work has kept him very busy, he’s looking to retire this year.
“My wife said, ‘What are you going to do in retirement?’ I don’t golf, I don’t fish. I told her, ‘I really think I’d like to grow orchids,’” he said.
That plant given to him in September is still blooming in the middle of February, with new buds already showing. And now it is the company of 20 other orchids, eight of them from local people who wanted to find good homes for the plants.
“I said, ‘I’m going to go broke if I spend $20 an orchid,’” he said, but he definitely wants to grow his collection. Around Christmas, he wrote a little blurb on the York Community Dialogue Facebook group, which started his orphan collection.
Now that Valentine’s Day is past, he said, he’ll wait until April or May when the blooms on the orchid gifts die off, and hopefully get a few more.
He said he will provide progress reports to those who bring their bedraggled specimens to him. Each plant has a label, matched to an Excel spreadsheet with the names and email addresses.
“My goal is to stay in touch with them,” he said. And if the plant is beyond saving, at least he and the former owner know he tried.
“I get them from garden centers, too,” he said. “I saw some that were clearly dying, and had been marked down to $5. I went up to the manager and said, ‘Five dollars seems like a lot for these. I’ll give you $2 a piece.’ It worked.”
And come this spring, the orchids will move out of the space set aside in the dining room into a new greenhouse he built in the backyard.
Definitely some Venus flytraps will join them because of their bug-catching ability, and he’ll add some Boston Ferns for the moisture. And maybe he’ll invite in praying mantises for the bugs the flytraps doesn’t capture — maybe.
“They get pretty big,” he said.
Who knows where his newfound passion will lead? There are 25,000 native species of orchids, and another 150,000 hybrids, making it the largest species in the world, he said.
He’s already been to the New Hampshire Orchid Show, where he saw growers selling plants for as much as $1,000.
“It’s like going to a casino,” said Jackie. “You have to walk in with so much money and not spend any more.”
And a planned trip to Ireland takes on greater significance now that he discovered 30 species grow there alone.
He is also hoping to meet other orchid enthusiasts. The only orchid societies in Maine are in Gorham and Bangor, and in New Hampshire, in Bedford, he said. There are none that he can find in the Seacoast region.
“I’d like to start a York orchid society. We could meet at the library once a month, exchange keikis (babies), share ideas. We could even bring in speakers,“ he said.
“I’ve definitely caught the bug. There’s no question,” he said standing in his empty greenhouse. “When I first built this, I wondered how I was going to fill it up. Now I stand in here and think, ‘How do I expand this?’”
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