I bought a phalaenopsis orchid and my friend was horrified when she saw me water it with two ice cubes. Did I do the wrong thing?

Phalaenopsis orchids and most of the orchids we treasure are from tropical areas. Tropical areas obviously never have ice water coming down on their orchids. Orchids there are watered just like orchids are being watered now outside: they are bathed in warm rain water.

Somewhere along the line someone decided it would be easier for people unfamiliar with orchids to be able to take solid water (ice) and just put that on so they wouldn’t be afraid of over or under watering. I understand. Orchids can seem mysterious with their roots coming out of the pots in search of water. And the online information can seem so complex that you come away more confused than you started. But ice cubes are not the answer. Some of you will reply that your orchids are fine, however, tolerance is not fine.

Ice is stressful on tropical plants. Instead of an ice cube, the best way to water an orchid is to run it under warm water. Or to pour warm water with orchid fertilizer onto the plant. The roots will turn green and plump after they absorb the water. The water running through also flushes out excess salts from the fertilizers, which is good for the plant. It might seem like a chore, but your orchids would love a weekly trip to the sink.

Make sure your plant is never left standing in water longer than 10 minutes. It’s OK for orchids to be potbound, in fact they like it. Most orchid lovers add quarter-strength fertilizer to their watering every time or every other time, and many of my friends who are orchid fanciers leave their orchids outside under trees at this time of the year. The plants love the humidity and the warmth.

Can we grow fall-blooming asters here?

We can grow at least one kind of fall aster that I know of for sure — I say that because I have it growing in my yard. Mind you, I had a couple of false starts when I bought the wrong kinds. It used to be more difficult to find them.

The kind I’ve had the most success with is Ampelaster carolinianus, or Carolina climbing aster. It forms a mound and is a strong grower. In October, it is covered with a mass of lilac-blue flowers popular with all the pollinators. It hasn’t seemed to care about our beastly weather this summer. No extra care has been extended to it because it has continued to grow vigorously throughout the summer, and the buds are already forming.

We also have Stoke’s asters, which come in a variety of colors and bloom throughout the growing season. They are a popular flower in the South and often found in garden flower sales.

There are quite a few wildflowers that answer to the aster name. They are often large (6-10 feet tall) and usually seen out in fields and right of ways where space is not at a premium.

What’s the thing about Epsom salts? I keep reading about using it in articles online like it was the cure for all my garden’s ailments.

Wouldn’t that be lovely? It’s inexpensive and available everywhere.

Epsom salts are named for a bitter saline spring in Surrey, England. It’s a naturally occurring mineral salt, a compound of magnesium and sulfate, according the Cleveland Clinic. People have been using it since it was discovered in the 1600s. At some point it gravitated from self-care to garden care.

It can benefit roses and tomatoes, peppers and other plants, but what I haven’t seen in these glowing online reports is that too much can also damage plants. Honestly, university researchers aren’t impressed with the results when they have tested it in field trials. But some gardeners swear by it.

Magnesium, the primary ingredient in the Epsom salts, is a required plant nutrient, helping in cell wall and fruit and flower development. In acid soils, the availability of magnesium is reduced and either foliar applications or a chelated magnesium product for soil applications will be more effective under such conditions. We have both acid and alkaline soils in Duval and surrounding counties. If you don’t know what the pH of your soil is, it’s time you had a soil test done so that you know what you are working with. Soil tests for pH are free at the county extension office for Duval county residents and some of the other surrounding county extension offices.

How can you tell how much magnesium you have in your soil? You can have you soil tested for $7 at the University of Florida Extension Soils Testing Laboratory.

You will probably be safe adding a tablespoon of Epsom salts to a gallon of water and applying some of that solution to plants that need it once or twice a year, but testing will help guide the appropriate application rates. Many gardeners apply Epsom salt solutions as a foliar spray, but applying this on hot summer days can cause leaf scorching. In addition, regular application risks adding too much magnesium which can lock up other nutrients or cause toxicity issues to your plants.

Unfortunately, it’s not a magic problem solver.

Becky Wern is a Master Gardener Volunteer with the Duval County Extension Service and the University of Florida/IFAS. For gardening questions, call the Duval County Extension Office at (904) 255-7450 from 9 a.m. to noon and 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. and ask for a Master Gardener Volunteer.