I first came across the work of Derek Powazek online about 10 years ago when I was working as a graphic designer in the interactive department of The Place That Shall Not Be Named. Derek’s retired online public complaints machine Kvetch.com was a touchstone to sanity for me, a place where I could find solace in the sane (and sometimes not-so-sane) ramblings of others slogging away in poorly managed cubicle communities across the globe or post my own discontent. You may have heard about Derek via one or more of the myriad of awesome projects he has spawned since including the recently relaunched Fray, SF Stories, and JPG magazine. The self-described Author, Designer, and Troublemaker is internet famous as the online storytelling guy; he loves to tell stories and is always coming up with new ways to get you to tell yours.
But over the years he has dropped hints of a behind-the-scenes interest in plants. When he recently posted a series of photos showing the assortment of gorgeous and incredibly healthy orchids he is not only keeping alive but prompting to bloom in his San Francisco apartment, I knew there was more there than a passing interest in a couple of houseplants named Fred. Derek graciously agreed to entertain my questions about his orchid interest and success.
Gayla: How did you become interested in growing orchids?
Derek: My dad. He’s got a small greenhouse, filled to the brim with orchids. He taught me everything I know, which, really, isn’t much. Dad’s a psychologist, and has spent his career working with terminal illness. He says that he raises plants because they don’t complain, and they die quietly.
I always thought that you needed a greenhouse to keep an orchid happy. But a few years ago, when Heather and I were getting married, we decided to have the rehearsal dinner in our apartment. So I bought a bunch of “in bud” orchids from Norman’s Orchids, figuring that I could keep them alive long enough to bloom when our families were here. I earned lots of “good son” points for having blooming orchids in the house.
Then a funny thing happened, they lived! Some have bloomed every year since, right around the time of our anniversary. And every time it makes me smile, remembering our apartment, filled to the brim with our crazy friends and family, about to start a whole new chapter. I like how plants reinforce the cycles of life.
Gayla: Do you grow any other plants, indoor or out? I seem to recall something about a plant named Fred.
Derek: I’ve always had houseplants. It’s something else I got from my dad, I guess. It’s just part of a happy house.
Some of them I rescued off of street-corners when they were abandoned, some were gifts, a few I bought. Most of them I’ve had longer than I’ve had anything else in my life: the dogs, the cat, my wife.
One of my favorites is an umbrella tree that I bought for $3.99 from a Long’s Drugs my freshman year in college. It’s touching the ceiling now, and that’s after several Paul Bunyan impersonations on my part. We’ve been together for 15 years.
When I was in college and had a dorm room full of plants, I gave them all names. Problem was, my memory for names has never been very good, so I kept forgetting them. Eventually, the only one I could remember was Fred, so now they’re all named Fred.
Gayla: How many orchids are you currently growing? What kinds?
Derek: I’ve got six at the moment. Three are from the wedding. Funny thing about orchids is, once people know you like them, you start to get more. The Miltonidium Issaku Nagata ‘Red Dove’ that’s on its second bloom right now was a gift from Judith. The pink Phalaenopsis is from my mom.
Gayla: How do you choose your plants? Spontaneous or research/suggestion?
Derek: In the beginning, I asked my dad what was hardest to kill, and just got that. Later I just took some risks and bought the ones that I just liked. One came from the hardware store up the street.
Gayla: Many of the orchids you are growing are not your average beginner level, corner shop varieties and yet you have managed to keep them alive AND prompt them to re-bloom. What would you say is the secret to your success?
I honestly have no idea. We live in a pretty foggy area in San Francisco, so it’s damp a lot. And we live on the top floor of the 3-story building, so the light is good. I rotate them through the bathroom, where it gets good and damp when we shower, and the rest of the house where the light is better. I water them once a week, and try not to forget to fertilize once in a while. And, mostly, I got lucky.
Gayla: Have you ever lost a plant?
Derek: Yes, definitely. But that’s the fun part about having a dad with a greenhouse. If an orchid looks like a goner, I can can always box him up and mail him to the Powazek Hospital for treatment. Dad’s brought several back from the dead.
I lost a batch of houseplants back in the 90s, but I’m pretty sure it’s because they didn’t like my girlfriend at the time. Plants are sometimes better judges of character than people.
Gayla: Now that you’ve had success with your current plants, do you have any further ambitions in the world of plants?
Derek: If I can keep those wedding orchids blooming for a few more years, I’ll be a perfectly happy man.