Heedless of snowflakes swirling outside, orchids of all shapes and sizes stretch their leaves and stalks to the skylights overhead. Basking in the humid, climate-controlled air, they dance gracefully in the artificial breeze.
Phil Weiss' Ashland greenhouse is home to about 350 orchids, representing dozens of species from rambling vines that won't bloom until they reach 15 feet in length, to compact specimens with even tinier blossoms admired only through a magnifying glass. Some orchids, like Vanilla, produce intoxicating aromas while others, pollinated in their native habitat by carrion flies, emit the noxious stench of rotting meat.
"The ones that I like best are the ones that are blooming right now," says Weiss. "Spring and fall really are the showiest seasons."
An orchid enthusiast for more than 30 years, Weiss designed his 250-square-foot greenhouse and furnished it with a heater, cooler, humidifier, air filter, water system and lights to cultivate his beloved blossoms. Then he designed a 1,500-square-foot, two-bedroom, two-bathroom home around the greenhouse. The 6-year-old hillside home is distinctly modern with sharp angles, metallic accents and expansive, unadorned windows framing views of Grizzly Peak.
The Cascade foothills are the focal point of Weiss' wraparound deck, railed in glass panels capped with aluminum. Inside, stainless-steel, restaurant-grade appliances anchor the open kitchen. Among its fixtures are a six-burner BlueStar range, massive Frigidaire side-by-side refrigerator-freezer, Fisher & Paykel DishDrawers, black, granite countertops and black-walnut flooring. Weiss' concession to lighting fixtures — recessed cans fill most of the house — are stainless-steel pendants on either side of the range hood and silver-toned stairway sconces sculpted as bundles of twigs.
"I've always been partial to very modern architecture, and I wanted to try my hand at it," says Weiss, explaining that he drew up the plans with help from some local draftsmen.
A geologic survey of the Liberty Street property led to some "fairly" heavy engineering of the three-story house with two-car garage sunken into the hillside, says Weiss. The visible result is hefty, steel beams bracing the upper story on a concrete pad that descends 15 feet into the earth.
"The house is stacked at a 45-degree angle," says Weiss. "The 45-degree angle is a theme throughout the house."
The structure's orientation on the lot provides south-facing sun for Weiss' greenhouse. Configurations of other rooms — notably Weiss' 250-square-foot shower with corner bathtub — take advantage of both views and privacy.
Skylights that compose the greenhouse's slanted roof are triple-walled polycarbonate with air pockets to conserve heat. Walls are cement board to resist rotting in 70-percent humidity. Outfitted with a central drain, the floor is covered in a heavy membrane that allows for easy cleaning.
"This isn't really required for the average grower," says Weiss, a past president of Rogue Valley Orchid Society.
But since winning the American Orchid Society's first-class certificate in 2010, a nationwide honor, Weiss is hardly an average grower. Preferring leisure time with his orchids, the 61-year-old freed himself from homeowner upkeep with a no-maintenance yard of ornamental grasses, mosses and thorny shrubs, as well as metal roofing on the house, stucco siding and powder-coated railings. Propagating his plants by dividing, Weiss obtains new varieties in trade with other growers, who are becoming fewer locally as old age forces them out of the hobby.
To spur interest in novice growers, Weiss insists on the resilience of orchids, most of which need little more than reliable exposure to light — preferably in east-facing windows — 70-degree air and enough water to keep their potting medium moist without immersing their roots. Unlike plants that take nutrients from soil, orchids thrive in looser, fast-draining material: fir bark mixed with pearlite, shredded coconut fiber, sphagnum moss, clay pellets or even pure charcoal (not briquettes). Myriad house plants, says Weiss, are great company for orchids, which revel in respiration from other types of foliage.
"Keep it away from the heat vents," he says.
If it isn't hot, a gentle breeze inhibits fungal growth on orchids, says Weiss, who runs at least three fans in his greenhouse around the clock. An evaporative cooler kicks on when six fans and automatic-opening windows can't keep temperatures below 85 degrees.
"They like a lot of air movement," says Weiss, explaining that exposure to a breeze strengthens orchids and makes for robust flowers. "There's always some movement in the plants."