By: Cristina Eyler
This month’s Orchid Gem is someone who is a very familiar person to the Phipps Conservatory: Deborah (Debbie) Roth! She has been a Master Gardener there for six years and does seeding and propagation of a variety of herbs and flowers for them once a week. This wonderful lady with the greenest of green thumbs originally grew up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, but moved to Savannah, GA after she and her husband, Dennis, retired. It was in Savannah where Debbie first became a Master Gardener. Savannah was also the place she received her first orchids.
As with a lot of us, Debbie was gifted a few phalaenopsis and she tried to keep them alive, but several of them had died. One of her funniest mistakes happened with these first orchids. “I knew they didn’t grow in soil, so I thought they just absorbed the moisture from the air and didn’t need water. Plus, whenever I would water them, the water would just drain right out! Inevitably, the leaves shriveled from dehydration and they died.”
Eventually, Debbie tried something a little different. “I put one of the orchids outside on the way to the garbage in Savannah because I thought it was dead, but it rebloomed! It was a Phal and loved the shade and humidity in that spot!” From that moment on, she was hooked on orchids. Upon moving back to Pittsburgh, Debbie discovered the Orchid Society of Western Pennsylvania and in March 2018, she joined the Society at the Orchid Show.
“I thought the orchids were so beautiful. I love coming to the meetings and learning so many new things about caring for these orchids. The members are so good about sharing their knowledge with others. Even if I’m not interested in the particular talk or mini-class topic, I still attend because other useful information always comes up.” Debbie has learned a tremendous amount in a short amount of time. “I really appreciate the Orchid Society members and their knowledge. They are fantastic!” She would love to be able to come to more meetings, but she has been a dedicated Bridge player for the past two and a half years and weekend game events can sometimes conflict.
Now, Debbie’s collection consists of twenty-four orchids. The collection consists of mainly phalaenopsis, but she also has three dendrobiums, two oncidiums, one cattleya (“It was a present and I don’t know anything about it!”), and one brand new tolumnia. “I don’t have a greenhouse, but I have windowsills. I also have a card table with a light over it so I can fit in a few more orchids. Of course, there isn’t any temperature or humidity control.” Her husband has expressed a desire to get her a greenhouse, but she has been resistant to that idea. “I just know if I have a greenhouse then I won’t have time for anything else!”
Currently, Debbie also does a lot of outdoor gardening. She is a Master Gardener, after all! She currently has a sunny garden, a shade garden, and a sun/shade garden. “The outdoor garden has perennials everywhere, but dahlias mainly in the sunny spot.” The soil was different in Savannah, so when she moved back to Pittsburgh and the different climate, she had to learn a few new tricks and tips which is part of what led her to start volunteering at Phipps.
Debbie is also a retired speech-language pathologist. She used to work in elementary schools helping the students. “I became interested in speech-language pathology when I took an introductory class in college. It sounded interesting to me and I wanted to help people.” Eventually, Debbie came to earn her Masters Degree in this field.
Along with all this talent, Debbie can also add sailing to the list. She and Dennis had owned a thirty-seven-foot sailboat. For several years they spent five months during the winter living aboard. They would sail from Annapolis all the way to the Caribbean. “We had to know a little bit about everything because we would be out on the water all on our own.” They were their own utility company providing electricity, refrigeration, making water, in charge of plumbing problems, navigating, and maintaining just about everything that went wrong! Debbie’s favorite parts of sailing were sailing at night and meeting other cruisers.
Debbie and her husband also have a son and a daughter who each have children of their own. Their son has two boys and her daughter has two girls!