How I help my kids blossom (and avoid root rot)

A recent obsession with orchids led me to a few truths about raising children

On the first day of the new school year, I dragged my tired, groaning kids out to a plant nursery in the late evening. Never mind that they were ready to keel over from a day of excitement and lack of sleep. I'd been bitten by the orchid bug, and I wanted - needed! - to buy more blooms to add to my burgeoning corridor garden.

"Is this nice?" I asked my seven-year-old son, Lucien, pointing at a rather ostentatious pot of yellow dendrobiums.

"Nice. Nice," he said quickly. "Can just faster buy so we can go?"

"Want a Venus flytrap? Pitcher plant?" I asked Julian, my 10-year-old, to keep him trudging along next to me.

"No," Julian replied. "They will just die. They will all just die."

I rolled my eyes.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Ohhhkay. Mister Positive.

Back home, I tried to regale them with orchid facts.

"Check out my vanilla plant. Did you know it's an orchid, too?" I said, busying myself with spray bottle, misting the aerial roots of the Vanilla planifolia, a leafy green vine (for now).

"Huh," said Julian, before resuming his indoor cricket game with his brother.

Their lack of interest was not surprising. For too long, our family had suffered from a distinct bout of black fingers. The green capsicum seeds we sowed in an urban farming kit sprouted, but were almost immediately all pecked up by horrible crows in the neighbourhood. A delicate flowering bulb we picked up on a whim, as well as a couple of saplings Julian brought home from science class, withered outside our door.

Even the terrariums we made went brown from neglect after a while. We were so lazy that we managed to kill moss.

While other mums were hipster gardening goddesses, I was the kind who hollered once every few days, "Did anyone remember to water the plants?", before sending a sullen Julian out with an elephant-shaped sprinkling can.

But orchids were different.

It is testament to their hardy natures that I have managed to keep two orchids in the house for a couple of years. A few months ago, after visiting the National Orchid Garden with a good friend and our sons, I came across a Paphiopedilum maudiae orchid, commonly known as a lady's slipper orchid (paphiopedilum is derived from the Greek for "Aphrodite's sandal").

"Look at this one," I said. "It has a chin as long as Jay Leno's."

As a parent, I watch for telltale signs that something is not right, before hopefully adjusting the conditions accordingly and quickly. A lot is trial and error. It will also take time, and the orchid - I mean, kid - might not respond immediately. But we can all strive to be constant gardeners - prepared to change and, infinitely harder, resist the urge to cultivate to the point of interference.

Over the next few days, I began scouring nurseries and Gardens by the Bay gift shops in search of unusual-looking (to me) orchids. I found one with huge purple blooms, speckled with white, its roots dangling free from a basket like Davy Jones from the Pirates Of The Caribbean movies. It had a name as fanciful as its freckled galaxy of a face: Vanda Robert's Delight Ink Star. I treated it like a baby, showering its roots gently with warm water, and then carrying it carefully through the house to hang in a sunny, breezy spot, for it to dry. I also acquired an unidentified Cattleya with delicate, thin petals and a lip like a fairy's pink cigar, as well as another Dendrobium plant with orange-yellow flowers like a sunset.

I started spending more time with my orchids than my children. I drove to orchid farms in Choa Chu Kang and forgot the time, driving like a maniac back to pick them up from school. While the boys played in the living room, I sat at the dining table, fretting about my orchids' health. Too wet? Too dry? Root rot? Not enough sun? Sunburn? Water too hard? After the kids went to bed, I spent hours Googling orchid care methods, as well as scouring websites featuring exotic species. Once, I woke up at 3am to perform emergency repotting and root-amputation on an ailing moth orchid ("Aha! As I suspected! Years of growing in soggy spaghnum moss!").

"Why won't my orchids grow properly?" I moaned to my husband, at every first sign of a yellowing leaf or bud blast.

I stopped sleeping.

I looked at my family's faces and saw an assemblage of dorsal and lateral sepals.

It was nothing like the urban farming mothers I saw online. My children did not smile blissfully as they helped me propagate seedlings or artfully arrange greenhouses. They did not listen with heads cocked while I recited amazing trivia about the natural world or life cycles. They spent zero minutes admiring the tiny orchid collection that I painstakingly tended to.

I supposed I was the same at their age: ignoring my mother as she pottered about her garden, giving her the most perfunctory of grunts as she waxed lyrical about how well her cherry tree was growing. The young have no patience for ensuring the survival of anything else but themselves. As high-rise apartment dwellers, shopping mall organisms, air-conditioned genus, we do without the enveloping peace of trees, bees and other small creatures that depend on one another, and forget we are all inter-connected.

"Do you know that there is an orchid that depends on tiny crabs to fertilise its flowers?" I piped up, apropos of nothing, at the dinner table one evening.

The boys continued chewing their food, waiting patiently for me to be done with my monologue about orchids that mimicked bees, butterflies and so on to seduce them into pollinating them. Then they continued giggling over something else.

It struck me then that growing orchids was not dissimilar to rearing children. One could not force an orchid to grow or be something it didn't want to. In some cases, pampering an orchid and overwatering it was the fastest way to kill it. To make your orchid happy, once you have satisfied its needs and given it an optimum environment, leave it alone.

As a parent, I watch for telltale signs that something is not right, before hopefully adjusting the conditions accordingly and quickly. A lot is trial and error. It will also take time, and the orchid - I mean, kid - might not respond immediately. But we can all strive to be constant gardeners - prepared to change and, infinitely harder, resist the urge to cultivate to the point of interference.

I feel better these days about giving my kids some "benign neglect" - not every moment has to be an educational or productive one. They learn lots of things without me shoving it down their throats.

Perhaps, now that Julian is a pre-teen and both boys are increasingly independent, I am going through premature empty nest syndrome. When the boys finally fly the coop, you'll find me nurturing my Orchidaceae charges well into dotage.

•Clara Chow is the author of Dream Storeys (Ethos), and co-founder of WeAreAWebsite.com

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 09, 2017, with the headline 'How I help my kids blossom (and avoid root rot)'. Print Edition | Subscribe