Growing Orchids

Growing Orchids

With over 25,000 species to date, many more expected to be identified, and easily this many hybrids which are now becoming available as casual house plants, it is difficult to generalize about orchid culture. An excellent introduction to culture by Tony Capon of the Kingston Orchid Society appears here with his kind permission and is a good guide for those beginning to develop the hobby of growing orchids. It is assumed that more advanced growers should review these notes as a check on their culture practices and that they will pursue their interest in particular species and hybrids with a search engine such as Google or the links provided in the links section on our home page.

Growers who are interested in growing orchids from seeds should consider joining the Flasking Group which meets by arrangement in the Alexander Parker Orchid Laboratory in the headquarters building of the Royal Botanical Gardens. Orchid plants are now more generally available in local garden centers, but the best selection, especially of species, will be found at the local orchid shows (see our calendar) or at our regular meetings.

Growers interested in bringing orchids from abroad should be careful to acquire the necessary documentation from CITES (Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) at http://www.cites.ca and Pytosanitary Certificate from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency athttp://inspection.gc.ca.

We acknowledge with thanks the permission of the Kingston Orchid Society and especially Tony Capon for contributing the following introduction to orchid growing.

BEGINNERS

by Tony Capon

aecapon@cogeco.ca

I think I was first asked to write this series of articles because I can write as a beginner to other beginners. I bought my first orchid around 1992 at a meeting of the Kingston Orchid Society. (Of course, it was a phalaenopsis!) At that time I knew nothing whatever about growing orchids, in fact nothing about any indoor plants except the occasional African violet! I now have about 30 orchids, which is the most I can comfortably handle. So what I would like to do is share with you my journey of learning and experience. On this first Beginners Page I thought I would just deal with some general principles I’ve learned along the way. Then in following articles we will look at some of the specifics of orchid growing one by one.

1. There are no set rules

This is probably the biggest single lesson I’ve learned about orchid growing. Well, obviously, I don’t mean you can treat your orchids absolutely any way you like and still expect them to thrive and bloom. There are still some basic right ways and wrong ways of doing things, as with any other job or hobby. But you can’t just work by some established checklist and imagine you are going to succeed every time.  We have some very experienced growers in our Orchid Society, but if you ask a question of one of them and five minutes later put the same question to another you will probably get two different answers! Oh, don’t misunderstand me. Asking questions of more experienced growers is one of the very best ways to learn. But don’t assume that the answers you get are the last word on any subject.

The same is true even of authoritative books on orchids. They very often contradict each other! This can be very frustrating till you get used to it. But you will never find a book that packages neatly all you ever need to know. This is because every orchid plant is different, every growing situation is different, every grower’s style is different. (One thing that follows from this is that nothing you read on these pages should be taken as the final word on anything!) What often pass for rules are simply guidelines or suggestions. File them away in your mind with the information that’s already there, add them to lessons learned by trial and error, and sooner or later a pattern will emerge and you’ll begin to build up a picture. And that will be your personal style. That’s what I’ve done anyway.

2. Learning is fun

Don’t be discouraged by what I’ve just written. Learning to grow orchids is an adventure and fun, not a daunting task. You learn as you go. You make a mistake, or something doesn’t work, and you say Oops! and you don’t do it again. (Or you try not to.) You try out something new and it works and you say Eureka! and you add it to your style. Learn from everywhere you can. Read books. Go to shows. Visit other people’s homes and see what they are doing. Ask questions. But don’t imitate anyone or bow down to anyone as The Final Authority.

Don’t be afraid to act on your gut feelings. If it turns out you’re wrong, have a good laugh. The Orchid Society is like a friendly school. We have speakers, and I think I’ve learned something from every one of them. The same is true of the Orchid News. We’re all learners, even though some may be further along than others. We chat to each other and question each other and look at each other’s plants, and suddenly we find “Hey, I can do this!”

3. Be prepared for failures

Sometimes you’re going to make a booboo, or even blow it really badly. That’s no excuse for quitting. I’ve had buds develop on plants I’ve never been able to flower, only to have them drop off at the last moment without opening. I’ve even buried quite a few plants in the compost bin after nursing them to their deaths. Do what you do in life if you fall down. Pick yourself up and keep going.

There’s no such thing as final failure in orchid growing. So never give up. 

 4. Give yourself a pat on the back

By buying a plant in bud or already in flower any fool can show off beautiful blooms. If you bring the same orchid to flower a second time, you’re doing something right. Give yourself a pat on the back. Bask in the glory! Say to yourself, “Now I’m an orchid grower!” I’ll never forget the first time it happened to me. (Wow, did I learn how wrong I was!) After the very general comments on my first page, I want to move on to some more specific advice on aspects of orchid growing. This time I have two topics for you, both based on my own experience.

I’ve found that the single most important factor in growing orchids, and especially in getting them to flower, is light.  If your orchids are not flowering, look to your light! A general rule of thumb is that most orchids enjoy the brightest light that you can conveniently give them, other than direct sunlight.  When I first started growing orchids, I had a plant stand against my kitchen patio door, facing south. With two levels of shelves, I could accommodate about 10 orchids. In summer I had to move them back a bit, to get them out of direct midday sun.

Generally speaking, they flowered all right. Then we built a 9 ft. by 9 ft. all-season (insulated) sunroom out from the same door.  It wasn’t unduly expensive, and I’m sure that the entire cost has added itself to the value of the house. There are windows on three sides, a solid roof (not glass), and a patio door to our deck. I have no shades or drapes. I now have about 30 different orchids, and they are on two levels of shelves against the east windows. They get some morning sun, and a lot of bounced light, but no direct midday or afternoon sun. I find that some of my orchids can in fact take a certain amount of full sun. These are Cattleya, Oncidium and Encyclia. (There may be others. I think many Dendrobium fit here too.) I put these plants in the front rank against the window, and they thrive. Plants of mine that need a bit more protection from the sun are Paphiopedilum, Phragmipedium, Lycaste and Brassavola, and these go in the second rank. The third rank is plants that sunburn easily, and these are Phalaenopsis and Brassia. 

If you are using a west window, you will need to be more careful than facing east, because afternoon sun is stronger. For a south window, you will definitely need sheers or drapes to protect your plants from direct midday sun. The most dangerous time is late summer and early fall, because the sun is still very strong but is already lower and comes further into the room. Take care! An indication as to whether plants are receiving the right amount of light is leaf colour. If leaves are pale green to yellow, or blotchy, the light is too strong. If they are very dark green, the light is insufficient. You want to aim for a healthy medium green. Some orchids put out new growth in one direction only, and these should be kept with that side always towards the light. Examples are Brassias and many Cattleyas, Phrags and Paphs. As a guide, I find it helpful to keep the label on the side furthest away from the light. Orchids which put out new growth all round, such as Oncidium, Encyclia, and some Paphs, should be rotated periodically, to give more even growth. Monopodial (single-stemmed) orchids like Phalaenopsis also benefit from being rotated. I give a quarter turn each week. But no orchid should ever be rotated once a flower spike or bud has appeared. It should be allowed to flower towards the light. If a plant coming into flower is moved around, or has light coming at it from behind or from one side, the spike and flowers will try to swerve in that direction, resulting in very poor presentation. I have had no personal experience of growing orchids under lights, but I do believe that four fluorescent tubes are generally necessary, placed no more than about a foot above the tops of the plants. They may need to be supplemented by two incandescent bulbs as well. If you’re interested, I suggest you get advice from books or from members who do this. 

Labels and records

Be very careful to maintain a label for each plant. If you divide a plant, copy the label for the second plant. You may enjoy an unlabelled flowering plant, but for any serious orchid grower it has ceased to exist! And you yourself are not a serious grower if you tolerate absence of labels or sloppy labelling. Note that many plants sold in supermarkets or home stores just have labels like “Phalaenopsis”. If I were you, I wouldn’t touch them. The rules are: Genus names are capitalized, e.g. Cattleya. Species names are in lower case, e.g. Cattleya skinneri. A named hybrid is capitalized, e.g. Paph. Rosy Dawn. A specific cultivar is capitalized and enclosed in single quotes, e.g. Brassia Rex ‘Sakata’. Hybrid crosses are joined by a lower case x. Most growers record the month and year of re-potting on the back of the label, e.g. 5/02. Be sure to keep a careful record for each plant of such information as date of acquisition, dates of re-potting and type of medium used, dates of flowering, number of spikes, branches and flowers produced, rest periods, problems encountered and dealt with, and any other items of interest. Some growers keep an index card or loose leaf page for each plant. A general diary noting which plants are in flower on a week-to-week basis can also be useful. You may use whatever method suits you best, but the main thing is always to keep good records. You will find them increasingly useful and important as time goes on. 

Water

A lot of the advice commonly given about watering orchids is more complicated than I can handle, even with no more than 30 orchids! For example, we are told that some orchids should be kept very wet, others allowed to dry out almost completely. We should poke little sticks into the medium to see how dry it is, or we should weigh the pots in our hands to see how much water is in them. And we should water differently according to whether a plant is actively growing or flowering or repotted or resting. I’m afraid I’m a hard task-master for my orchids, and with a few exceptions they all get the same treatment!

I water all my orchids once a week, usually on Saturday mornings. I keep my orchids on trays, and they are brought into the kitchen one tray at a time. Each plant is watered from the top over a sink with a thin-spouted indoor watering can, and water is added evenly until it starts to drip out of the bottom of the pot. I try not to get water on the leaves of any orchid, particularly not in the crown of the plant or on the leaves of any new shoot. Some plants get crown or leaf rot very easily, notably Phals, Paphs and Phrags. This is one reason for watering early in the day, to give any splashes of water time to dry out before evening. Don’t allow your plants to stand in water. There are a few orchids that I do try to give a little extra water to in the middle of the week. Brassias are the main ones, especially when they are making new growth, because if they are not given water regularly enough the new leaves often become crinkled. Phrags generally benefit from some extra water, too, and I sometimes give a little extra to plants that are growing very actively or coming into flower, especially during the summer months. But do be careful not to over-water, or you may encounter root rot. Often, giving this extra water to a plant depends on my gut feelings about it! The best water to use for orchids is undoubtedly clean rain water. If you live in a house you might use the same system that I do: I have two garbage cans with lids which I keep in my garage, and two household pails in the house, and I have three downspouts that I can use to fill them. I keep them topped up at every good rainfall. I let it rain steadily for about an hour before collecting water, to clean pollution out of the air and dirt off my roof. Pails in the house should be kept covered; water exposed to the light tends to develop algae and turn green! I use the oldest water first, and always at room temperature. I bring the water I am going to use into a warm room at least 24 hours before using it. In winter, cans from the garage need at least a week to thaw out! All containers should be thoroughly scrubbed every time they are emptied. The next best thing to rain water (at least in my area) is tap water. It gives good results, but it should be drawn off a day or two ahead of time and allowed to stand so that chlorine can evaporate. I have no experience with well water, though I imagine it would be fine. I don’t use distilled water (such as from dehumidifiers), and I think that artificially softened water would be the worst. I’m told that Paphs like a slightly alkaline water, and I know some people sprinkle a little dolomite lime on the surface of the medium before watering to correct excessive acidity. I personally don’t do this, and all my orchids seem to do well with the water they are given. I plan to write about fertilizer on my next page, but while on the subject of watering let me describe for you my schedule. I give fertilizer to my orchids in their water on the first and third Saturdays of each month, and just plain water on the second and fourth. (If there’s a fifth Saturday, they get water.) The last Saturday of each month is the one when I flush out all my orchids, which means giving roughly double the normal amount of clean water to flush out any accumulated salts from fertilizer, and to start the new month with a clean medium. If you are short of rain water, this would be the week to use tap water. My suggestion to you would be to establish some such regular routine as I’ve described, then see how much variation in watering patterns between plants you have the time and inclination to manage. A word about vacations: I find that if I water very thoroughly the day before I go away, and even leave a little water in each saucer or tray (never do this at any other time!), and water immediately when I get back, all my orchids can survive a two-week vacation without showing any signs of distress. This may not be true of some less common orchids or very small seedlings, but I don’t have any. For much longer than two weeks you will probably need to have someone come in and water for you.

Fertilizer

Once again I have to say that if I tried to do everything that the orchid books tell me to do with regard to fertilizing my orchids, my head would be spinning and my wallet about empty! I will give you the same advice as I did about watering – set yourself a simple routine which you use for all your orchids, then vary this for particular plants as you have the time and inclination. Have fun experimenting! Try different fertilizers and timetables and see what works best for you. Remember one important fact: orchid potting medium contains few or no nutrients, and nutrients contained in whatever water you use are quite inadequate for plant health and growth.You are in fact growing hydroponically. So careful fertilizing is essential. I will tell you my own routine. Virtually all fertilizers are described by three numbers (such as 10-15-20). The first number refers to the amount of nitrogen, especially important for leaf and plant growth. The second number is phosphorus, essential for root growth and for flowering. The third number is potassium or potash, needed for plant vigour and photosynthesis. Always read labels carefully, and don’t forget the need for trace elements, especially minerals. I use what I suppose is the commonest and cheapest commercial fertilizer, known as Plant Prod. It is a soluble product, obtainable just about everywhere. It contains the three main essential nutrients in a variety of configurations, plus a wide range of minerals and trace elements.  As I mentioned last month, I fertilize my orchids with their water on the first and third weeks of each month, and on the fourth or last week of the month I flush out the medium very thoroughly with plain water. I probably tend to give more fertilizer than most growers, using the strength recommended on the label rather than a more diluted solution. I don’t think this does any harm, so long as I flush thoroughly once a month. If you prefer, you may use a weaker solution more frequently. The first week, I use a balanced fertilizer, which in my case is 20-20-20. The second week I give water. The third week I give a flowering fertilizer, which is 15-30-15. I know it breaks the rules, but I usually give this to all my orchids, regardless of whether or not they are coming into bloom, on the theory that it can’t do them any harm. (I find that my plants make their own decisions about when they wish to flower, and more often than not they surprise me.) My guess is that they will store up whatever fertilizer I give them until they need it! Then the fourth week I flush. If you want to be more selective, you can vary the use or the amount of fertilizer you give to orchids in particular circumstances, such as those recently re-potted, those resting, those coming into bloom, those already in bloom, and so on. For instance, I do actually have a second watering can which I fill with plain water and use on plants I feel don’t need fertilizer that particular week. Of course, the fertilizers I’ve referred to are chemical fertilizers. For those of you who prefer an organic fertilizer, I hear good reports of Wilson’s fish-base all purpose liquid fertilizer. It is rated 6-6-6, so you will have to use it more often or more strongly than my 20-20-20, and flush less frequently but just as thoroughly. 

 Humidity and air circulation

It is accepted wisdom that orchids flourish best in air conditions of above-average humidity. This makes sense when one considers that most of the orchids we grow came originally from wet tropical areas. But how can we provide high humidity in the dry air conditions which prevail in most of our homes, at least during the winter months? (By the way, it’s worth investing in a cheap hygrometer, which measures air humidity, obtainable from Canadian Tire and other hardware stores.) Some people recommend placing the orchid pots on trays of pebbles filled with water up to the base of the pots, combined with daily misting with water from a spray bottle. If that works for you, far be it from me to discourage you, although I do feel a little doubtful that this will result in a sort of humid bubble in a dry room, especially if the air is moving as it should be. Furthermore, it sounds like hard work, which I dislike. Another disadvantage is that I can’t help thinking it will make tall orchids awfully tippy!

I think my way is better. I bought a very small silent fan – it is actually a recycled computer fan. It is permanently connected throughout the winter months, and blows across two trays, one behind the other, which I keep filled with tap water. This simple arrangement puts several litres of water into the atmosphere each week, and even in a room kept open to the rest of the house the humidity stays up in the 70 to 80 per cent range. There is no need for misting. I actually have a second identical fan, with its own separate switch, parallel to the first fan, and I switch it on when air conditions are extremely dry. It blows across the same trays of water. In my opinion, this is cheaper and far less trouble than a room humidifier or other devices for providing humidity, and it has the added advantage of maintaining air circulation – also highly desirable for orchids. 

Nasties

Wouldn’t it be nice if the whole of nature loved us and nothing nasty ever happened? But, unfortunately, in orchid growing as in everything else in life, the nasties are going to be busy and we have to learn to cope with them. There’s an abundance of information and advice out there. Your orchid society library has any number of books on orchid culture, and every one of them will have a section on Pests and Diseases. Read them – and grieve. I can only tell you of my experience as a beginner, and give a few bits of home-spun advice. First let me say that by quite simple means pests and diseases can generally be brought under control. You will never win the war to the point where you can relax your vigilance, but you can show them who’s boss and make them quite unhappy. Rule number one is to check every plant regularly for problems. My wife Elizabeth is my pest control officer, and she checks every plant every week after it has been watered. It has to get past her eagle eye before it can be returned to its place. We fight two main ongoing battles: one against mealies and the other against scale. While we have reasonably good success in keeping clear of mealy bug, scale insect is a great deal more difficult to eliminate, and we nearly always find a few individuals in our routine checks. To fight these pests, have available a box of tissues, Q-tips, 70% isopropyl alcohol (not 90% which is too strong), and a small dish to pour it into (aluminum pie dishes are ideal and can be thrown away). In addition, we have developed two types of spray which you can make up yourself as described below. It is handy to have a way of marking plants that need ongoing attention. We use coloured cocktail sticks stuck into the growing medium – green for scale, red for mealy. Mealy-bugs are small white furry creatures that are experts at concealment. They lurk in cracks in plants. They breed and grow in wilting material around pseudobulbs and sheaths. A way to deal with them when a plant becomes infected is first to remove any that you can see with a Q-tip dipped in alcohol. Then spray the plant and potting medium thoroughly three times at weekly intervals. An orchid society member gave us the following recipe which we have found very effective. Soak 1 teaspoon of cayenne pepper overnight in 2½ cups water. Filter this carefully through a paper towel or fine cheesecloth into a 1 litre spray bottle. If you do not filter thoroughly the residual cayenne will clog the bottle spray. Add to the bottle 1 tablespoon flea and tick shampoo (obtainable in pet stores) and 2 tablespoons insecticidal soap (obtainable in plant stores). Fill to 1 litre with 70% isopropyl alcohol, and shake thoroughly. Scale is a tiny insect with a hard shell. Mature scale are fairly obvious as circular pale brown slightly domed spots, but young scale are almost invisible as tiny creamy streaks, often in the furrows of pseudobulbs. One of the earliest symptoms is a sticky patch on a leaf. Scale can move around like crazy. They love the underside of leaves, they climb spikes and they fasten themselves on flowers. A way to deal with scale is to wipe the leaves of susceptible plants regularly with tissue soaked in alcohol. Use a Q-tip dipped in alcohol to dislodge visible scale and to probe into crevices, particularly the fine furrows in pseudobulbs. If you observe a significant infestation on a plant, spray at weekly intervals for three weeks, including all surfaces and the surface of the growing medium. Here is a recipe which also came from one of our members. Almost fill a 1 litre spray bottle with half water and half 70% isopropyl alcohol. Add ½ teaspoon insecticidal plant soap, and shake thoroughly.

This mixture has been effective for us in keeping scale down to a minimum. The proportion of insecticidal soap could be increased a little if you continue to have a problem. The sprays which I have described here are two mixtures which we have personally found effective, and which do no harm to our plants. For alternatives, you could ask around. More powerful commercial sprays are available if you have a problem you can’t control. Read the labels carefully before using them. Aphids are harmless except that under certain conditions they can spread bacteria and viruses. They can easily be washed off by a weak solution of soap and water. Spider mites should be dealt with the same way. Turning to diseases, the worst one I’ve encountered is crown rot. It is caused by excessive or careless watering, or by setting the plant too low in the growing medium. The base of the plant, or the growing point or new shoot, turns black. The rot spreads rapidly till it consumes the  whole plant. I’ve never found any remedy for it (sorry about that). If you’re very lucky, you may be able to cut away the infected area and save the plant, but in most cases you must read the burial service. Leaf rot is less serious, and can usually be contained by cutting away all infected leaf areas, with a good margin all round. A dusting of cinnamon is recommended on all cut surfaces to reduce the risk of infection. There are many kinds of blemish that appear on plants, and there are many different causes, as simple as sunburn or as serious as a virus. There is no simple way to know where the problem is coming from. The best remedy for bad leaf blemishes is to cut off the offending leaf. If you have a problem that you can’t diagnose or treat, bring the plant (in a plastic bag, please) to the orchid doctor at a meeting of the society. In any case where disease is suspected, it is wise to segregate the plant to avoid any spread. 

Temperature

Well, just relax, because this time the news is all good! (We need a break after all that stuff about nasties.) Unless you want to grow really exotic plants, you shouldn’t have a problem with temperature. But I can give you one or two bits of general advice. An important thing to keep in mind is that, in order to flower, most orchids need the greatest possible variation between day and night temperatures. This is hard to give in summer, which may be one reason why most orchids prefer to flower between fall and spring. The sun-porch where I grow all my orchids has its own heater and thermostat, and in winter I set it at 14°C at night. In the daytime, even in winter on bright days, the temperature normally goes up to 23/24°C of its own accord. If you can get a day/night spread of, say, 8 to 10°C you will be doing well; otherwise, do the best you can. Some orchids, especially  Phalaenopsis, cannot tolerate temperatures below 14/15°C without severe damage, so be careful, and don’t put them outside, even in high summer. Others, such as Cattleya, Paphiopedilum or Cymbidium, can quite happily go down to around 10/12°C or even lower. So, if you have more than one growing location and can vary the temperatures, go for it. There are some gorgeous orchids which need cooler temperatures than I can provide. The best known of these is Masdevallia. If you think you can provide the necessary coolness, consult the manuals or society members who grow them, and good luck. The results will be worth the trouble.

Re-potting

Most orchid-growing medium is basically bark in some form or other, sometimes with fibre and/or coarse perlite added. The purpose of the potting medium is not what you might think. It is not to provide nourishment for the plant. I guess there are two purposes. The first is to provide physical stability for the plant. The second purpose (and this is the unexpected one) is to let air get to the roots. Most orchid roots are in fact air roots, covered with a spongy material called velamen which absorbs moisture from the air. The air in the pot is kept moist by the moisture in the medium. So the biggest mistake you can make is to use a medium which is too fine and becomes saturated. The roots are deprived of air and smothered. R.I.P. Better to use a medium that is too coarse than too fine. Many orchid growers swear by some particular kind of exotic growing medium. But I myself find it doesn’t make much difference, so long as the medium is coarse enough. You can buy it at orchid shows or at most plant stores. Every book you read and every talk you hear tells you that you must soak the medium overnight before using it. If you’re a conformist, that’s what you will do. If you’re a bit of a rebel like me, you will use dry medium, give a thorough watering immediately after re-potting, a good dowsing halfway through the first week, and then treat the plant in the normal way along with all the others. First off, I could never plan to re-pot an orchid 24 hours in advance anyway, and second off, it’s much easier to bump down the medium round the roots if it’s dry. If a plant looks seriously unhappy, or if it is just not growing as it should, the first remedy to try is re-potting. But under normal conditions you shouldn’t need to re-pot an orchid more often than every two years. The best time to do it is after flowering and before new roots or shoots have started to grow. Here’s an outline of what to do. Get the plant out of its pot, causing as little damage to the roots as possible. Work all the old medium off the roots with your fingers and discard it. Break off any old pseudobulbs that have obviously reached the end of their working lives. Sympodial (multi-stemmed) orchids may often be divided at this point. It’s usually unwise to divide Cattleya or Paphiopedilum into more than two parts. Some others, such as Oncidium and Encyclia, may be divided into several smaller pieces, but make sure that each piece has good leaves and plenty of healthy roots. If possible, I prefer to carefully break divisions apart rather than cut them, as the break will occur at a more natural point. Dust the divisions with cinnamon to discourage infection. Trim the roots by snipping off parts that look dead or just tired. Roots that have grown out of the pot can be eased downwards. Use a clean sterile pot, definitely no bigger than is needed to accommodate the trimmed roots. A layer of styrofoam pellets (peanuts) in the bottom of the pot will help with drainage. Place the plant in the pot at the right level. Monopodial (single-stemmed) orchids and orchids that put out new growth on all sides should be centred. Those that grow in one direction only should have the oldest part hard against the side of the pot so that new growth can be made towards the centre. Work in the medium all round, bumping the pot from time to time to work it down among the roots, till the pot is filled to within an inch or so of the top. If the plant seems wobbly, you can stabilize it with a piece of stiff wire stretched across the medium and anchored to the pot on both sides. This can be removed once the roots have taken hold. Water thoroughly. For the first week or two, keep the plant in fairly subdued light. It’s helpful to write the date of re-potting (e.g. 5/02) on the back of the label. Don’t forget to label carefully each division as it is potted.

Happy growing!

Tony Capon