Orchids are elegant, unique and delicate. And with long-lasting blooms ranging from the simple to the exotic, they’re prized and highly sought-after plants. But even though they’re prolific, they can be difficult to nurture and care for. At Pittsboro’s Orchid Gallery, which has been growing, distributing and babysitting orchids and similar flora for 26 years, the flower’s dramatic impact makes the effort worth it.
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PITTSBORO — Orchids are elegant, unique and delicate. And with long-lasting blooms ranging from the simple to the exotic, they’re prized and highly sought-after plants.
But even though they’re prolific, they can be difficult to nurture and care for.
At Pittsboro’s Orchid Gallery, which has been growing, distributing and babysitting orchids and similar flora for 26 years, the flower’s dramatic impact makes the effort worth it.
Jeff Baldwin and his mother, Rita, started the Orchid Gallery when the younger Baldwin was a junior in college, studying forestry at N.C. State. His mother, who had spent her entire career as an English teacher in Durham, decided she was done with teaching. She sold the family home and bought an old horse farm off Hanks Chapel Road.
“It was at a time when people just said ‘You gotta go to school, it doesn’t matter what for,’” Baldwin remembered. “But the last two years I was at State, this was operational.”
The pair built the first greenhouse soon after. Baldwin said early on, his mother placed a personal, small collection of 20 or so orchids in the greenhouse, quickly followed by a collection of about 100 she picked up from a widow of a collector in Florida.
They initially sold all sorts of house plants, including amaryllises and ferns. But as a customer base began building, some would see the orchids and begin asking questions and seeking advice.
“They would say ’I have this orchid and I don’t know what to do, I can’t get it to bloom,’” Baldwin said. “And before you knew it, we had a greenhouse full of plants that didn’t belong to us.”
The Orchid Gallery will definitely babysit your orchids. When they’re finished blooming, customers will bring them to Baldwin, who will tend to them, watering, fertilizing and giving them everything they need — and will contact you when they are ready to bloom again.
“It’s the customers that made the business,” Baldwin said.
Sometimes customers give Baldwin tropical plants he isn’t familiar with, but he quickly learns what they need. That was the case, he said, when he first received a sprout from an Hymalaen denrobium orchid. That plant has small flowers that bloom around Valentine’s Day, right when the plant comes out of dormancy. The blooms bud off of stems that hang prior to the growth of leaves.
“We do research,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t know what to do when we first get it.”
The Orchid Gallery does more than just grow, sell, and babysit individual plants. They also have a robust wholesale and rental arm.
For example, Baldwin supplies orchids to homes and businesses and then swaps them out every four weeks to keep blooms visible. He does this for many businesses, including the Carolina Inn and the Oak Leaf in Chapel Hill. He will also be supplying orchids for the Furniture Market in High Point this year.
“We really do anything that has to do with orchids,” Baldwin said. “We also give advice and re-potting services. Sometimes people accumulate orchids then don’t know what to do with them. We tell them what they’re doing right or wrong.”
February through May is the “busy” season for the Orchid Gallery because it’s a time when many orchids bloom. Baldwin and his staff stay busy harvesting and contacting people to pick up their plants.
On a recent day at the Orchid Gallery, customer after customer came into the greenhouse. Some were picking up plants that were ready to bloom. Some had question about why plants did one thing or another. One customer brought in two orchids that she had recently purchased which had leaves that were browning.
“Do you have it near a vent?” Baldwin asked. “The air, whether its heat or air conditioning will dry it out. This looks environmental.”
The customer, who was also dropping off spent orchids and picking up some in bloom, left with her orchids and guidance on helping them thrive.
And starting in June, the Orchid Gallery is a different kind of busy — plant busy. The majority of the time during the early summer months is spent trying to give the plants the environment they need to grow.
“The microclimates in the greenhouse are constantly changing,” Baldwin said. “We’re constantly moving fans and things around based on the climate they like.”
In the colder months, Baldwin uses propane to heat the greenhouses but also has a wood stove as a back up.
“It’s a seven-day-a-week job,” Baldwin said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Christmas or a birthday. When the plants need water, they need water.
“It’s aging me for sure,” he said. “But I love walking through here in the morning with a cup a coffee. I love being with the plants. It’s a challenge to see if you can get things to bloom better every year.”
Baldwin and his wife, Augustina, manage the Orchid Gallery now. Rita now focuses on creating fine art, having converted the horse barn into a studio. Baldwin is also an artist and is mentoring his two staff members, Grant Austin and Sam Miller-Finkel, to be able to take bigger role in the day-to-day of the shop so he can have time to focus on his art.
Austin is a plant person. About three years ago, he would come to the Orchid Gallery once a week with his young children. Baldwin asked him if he wanted a job. He started working one day a week then moved to two.
Then Austin had a devastating accident. While he was recuperating, his friend, Miller-Finkel, filled in. The accident provided a time for Austin and his wife to re-evaluate what they really wanted in life. When Austin healed, he returned to the Orchid Gallery full-time.
“When you can rely on people, it makes all the difference in the world,” Baldwin said, praising Austin and Miller-Finkel. “I feel like we have a really great crew. We’re at where we’ve been trying to get to for 25 years.”
There’s an element of care that exists at the Orchid Gallery that doesn’t happen with bulk orchids that you get from a grocery store. Baldwin never ships his orchids on wheels. They are delivered by plane and they pick them up themselves. That detail and care creates an almost Zen-like experience when you sit inside the greenhouse.
“We’re a destination spot,” Baldwin said. “I think a lot of people come here because it makes them feel good. We have a good clientele and a lot of people who are like family.”
The Orchid Gallery is open from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays at 2698 Hanks Chapel Rd. in Pittsboro.
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