Orchid Gallery’s Jeff Baldwin helps his customers’ orchids last from season to season
By James Dupree | Photography by John Michael Simpson
Jeff Baldwin, co-founder and sole operator of the Orchid Gallery, gathers a customer’s plants for pickup while his rescue dog Waffles curls up on her bed under a counter. Spots of red, yellow, orange and purple blossoms peek through the dense vegetation that fills this greenhouse, marking the beginning of the orchid’s blooming season. Behind Jeff is a table covered in an impressive arrangement of pink and white orchids rented for an event at Carolina Tiger Rescue.
“Orchids are the second largest group of flowering plants in the world,” Jeff says. “There are [more than] 20,000 species. Some would argue there are 40,000 species.” Many of those species, including hybrids, can be found in the nursery. “We have a Dendrobium that’s 140 years old,” he says. Another customer brought Jeff 20 ghost orchids from an orchid show in Miami. “All she wanted was for me to call her so she could see them bloom.”
In 1992, Jeff’s mother, Rita Baldwin, retired from a career teaching middle school English in Durham and bought an old horse farm off Hanks Chapel Road in Pittsboro. Rita built a small greenhouse the following year and began filling it with various plants, including 100 orchids from the widow of a collector in Florida. Meanwhile, Jeff was finishing his bachelor’s degree in natural resources at NC State University. “By the time I graduated [in 1997], I was into orchids, so I joined the Triangle Orchid Society,” Jeff says. Together, he and his mom built up the business and expanded their vast collection, which now totals 20,000 individual plants.
Soon after opening, customers took notice of the Baldwins’ beautiful collection of epiphytes. Desiring that same beauty, minus the diligent care required, customers asked if the Baldwins would babysit their orchids until blooming season. “We came up with a little fee and haven’t [increased] it since then,” Jeff says.
Thirty years later, orchid boarding has become Orchid Gallery’s most popular service. “The customers really helped form what the business was,” Jeff says. The duo expanded their growing site to cover a total of 10,000 square feet between two greenhouses in order to keep up with the increasing number of plants boarded over the years. Once the orchids complete their blooming season, clients bring their plants back to Jeff, where he cares for them through the early summer to late winter months, pruning, watering and repotting as needed. Customers are contacted between February and May to pick up their plants once blooms reemerge. “We try to keep it low maintenance [for the customer],” Jeff says. “They might have to water [the orchids] once or twice per month.”
Rita gradually moved away from the day-to-day activities of the business over the past few years, allowing Jeff to take full responsibility. “She helped out for over 20 years here,” he says. “Ever since her painting career started to blossom, she spends more of her time down in her [art] studio” inside a converted horse barn on the property. She enjoys using oil paints to capture impressionist landscapes and is regularly featured on the Chatham Artists Guild Studio Tour. Some of her work is available at Orchid Gallery and through the Pittsboro Gallery of Arts.
Jeff inherited Rita’s artistic talent for oil painting, but he’s had to focus his creativity on plant care, pruning and the styling of flower arrangements for customers. “While I would like to take a day off, there’s so much at stake,” he says. “If we lose power or one of the heaters or generators goes out, or [we have significant] weather changes. There’s just a lot involved.”
The pandemic brought new challenges in March 2020 during Jeff’s busiest time of the year. “We were a three- to five-employee business for about 20 years, and then everyone left,” Jeff says. “It was weird how the whole world shut down, but here it didn’t. It was hard. So many plants were coming into bloom.” With restaurants closing their doors and doctor’s offices limiting in-person visits, the orchid rental part of the business dropped to almost nothing within three weeks. “That’s when things were kind of scary,” Jeff says. But as people were hesitant to travel and continued to stay home during summer months, Jeff saw renewed business. “I’ve learned over the last few years how to do it all myself. I have one part-time employee now, and then it’s me and Waffles,” he says.
Jeff plans to continue managing Orchid Gallery for the foreseeable future. “I’ve been doing this for over half of my life,” he says. “I have two boys, Otto Pablo-Baldwin, , and Lucas Pablo-Baldwin, , so I’m slowly trying to ask them if this is something they want to do. If they don’t, then there might be an end date. Or I’ll find someone like myself and relieve myself of the work aspect. Nothing is set in stone.”