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Vol. 9(2), pp. 13-16The McAllen International Orchid Society JournalFebruary 2008

Orchid Culture--Plain Talk!

R J Ferry

The chances are your relationship with orchids started with one you bought or was given to you. If bought, a couple of Latin words should have been ringing inside your head: "Caveat emptor!" Buyer beware! Perhaps it was bought from some plant nursery. Don't kid yourself! Most plant nurseries don't actually grow orchids! They sell orchid plants, but they don't grow them! What's more, they know next to nothing about what they're selling, so it's up to you to know what you're buying, and this includes not only whether the plant is actually (named) what its label says it is, to whether it's worth the price tag it's wearing plus the added sales tax! Don't blindly rush into buying it just because it "looks so pretty" in the store! There's an old saying that all orchids are pretty, but many an attractive item available for sale is not worth its initial price, and--in the future--may cost you far more in money and headaches! Be cautious when and what you buy, and be careful where you buy it.

Bona fide orchid growers who sell orchids commercially are few and far between, and even many a veteran orchid grower is at a loss to tell you how to grow many orchid species. Many know just "what works for them," but have never taken the time to study why it does. What's more, many veteran orchid growers are sloppy about such basics as having the correct name tag on the plant. Misspelled names and outright wrong names are not uncommon on plants offered for sale. It's ultimately left up to you to know what you're buying! Study how the particular orchid species grows in nature. Your orchid culture successes can be measured by the degree to which you've really studied and applied what you've learned, and not all studying is done with books and magazines. Much is done by keeping your own notes, learning from discussions with other orchid growers, and from your own personal experiences!

With all the above in mind, let's return to a more typical scenario. Regardless how you acquired it, suddenly you have an orchid plant and it's bearing flowers. Where are you in the plant's cultural cycle, and what should you be doing with and for this plant?

First:

Don't be shy; gently remove the plant from its pot and take a brief look at the roots. Let's assume the roots look good, but they're pretty well packed into a pot that's too small. You can see that some of them have grown around and around inside the pot, and the chances are the potting mix is fairly moist (store employees love to water all plants equally!). Even if the potting mix and root growth looks good, ask yourself whether, considering your cultural conditions, this potting mix will work for you. For, example, it will materially affect your watering and fertilizing schedules if all your plants are potted in bark and this new one is in volcanic rock! Repotting may seem a bit drastic, but you may be very glad you did when you've discovered a potting mix of pure mush, or have captured and killed that one "lonesome" cockroach you found hiding in the potting mix of the plant you just bought!

What's next:

If you can't resist the temptation to water a newly potted plant, water it very slightly, and then don't water it again for at least four or five days,...six is even better. Remember, at below about 21-22° C. (about 75° F.), the plant does very little photosynthetic activity. Hence, very little in the way of water and minerals are going to be pulled up by the leaves from the roots which probably have been damaged at least a little bit by your repotting operation.

Location:

Either hang the plant or put it on a greenhouse bench and don't move it for at least a month! When you water it, do so gently so it's not jarred. Your object is to give the plant enough time not only to sprout new roots, but to give those roots enough time to get a grip within the mix. Not moving the plant for two or three months is even better. You can look at the pot to inspect it, but you don't have eyes in your fingers, so keep your hands off and let those new roots grow and get established! Obviously you don't want the plant to be blown about violently by winds or otherwise moved, so if it's hung somewhere under a tree, make certain it's not going to be violently blown about. During this month or two, you won't need to fertilize it. Don't let it become absolutely "dry as a bone," but err on the "slightly dry" rather than the "always wet" side.

Temperature:

Arbitrarily, we're going to insist the plant not be subjected to temperatures less than 5° C. (about 40° F.). Ideally, a temperature range between 21-32° C. (75 to 90° F.) is what you'll want. The temperature may even go to about 35° C. (95° F.), but remember one thing: the higher the temperature, the higher must also be the humidity! Cold and wet" and 'hot and dry" are great ways to kill an orchid plants! Add in another factor: you must have some air movement! That doesn't mean a gale wind, but you should be able to feel a breeze when standing close to these orchid plants. Forget about the old "water in a gravel tray under the pot" technique. Having the lower areas of the pot damp doesn't mean the foliage near the top of the plant is getting adequate humidity! Many a cactus growing next to a desert stream is eloquent testimony against that old myth.

Light:

Plants need sunlight to do the photosynthesis act, but this means no direct sunlight much after ten in the morning. Direct afternoon sunlight can give the plant a disastrous case of sunburn. Broken sunlight is best, and there should be more than just a couple of hours of it. Don't fool yourself that sunlight coming through a window pane is "filtered." Direct sunlight coming through a window pane can sunburn your orchid plant severely.

Attention to details:

You're going to have to keep four factors in mind, and they're all variables: temperature, moisture, humidity, and air movement. It's not a difficult thing to do, but it does require some thinking. Come to think of it, thinking can be the most difficult part of the entire operation. The individual content to be a sloppy orchid grower is one who's too lazy to think! A wet pot doesn't mean the plant's getting enough humidity, nor does high humidity mean the roots are getting enough water. High humidity is necessary with high temperatures, but with low temperatures, high humidity is generally bad. Too little or too much air movement is detrimental, and the same can be said of fertilizing or watering. These are all valid statements, but how they're pieced together, weighed against each other, and applied makes your orchid culture an art, not a cut-and-dried routine.

Long term care:

Fig. 1. A division of Pl#150876-1. Lc. Molly Tyler FCC/AOS. (showing long, weak, "leggy" growth from long-term insufficient fertilizing) Digital photo DSC_2185, 15 January, 2008.

Fig. 2. Prosthechaea cochleata. (showing leaf crinkling due to insufficient watering over an extended time period) Digital photo DSC_2186, 15 January, 2008.

A tiny plant needs less nutrition than a large one. It stands to reason that a Pleurothallis or Phalaenopsis needs less nutrition than a Schomburgkia or a Myrmecophylla. Large specimen-sized hybrid cattleyas (Lc. Molly Tyler, Blc. Malworth, etc.) need more fertilizing than a small Epicattleya hybrid. It's obvious that elephants need more food than mice, but that doesn't mean that a stronger fertilizing solution is better! "Stronger" can burn, and too much fertilizing can build up salts in the pot and be detrimental to plant growth, while too little makes for lax, weak growth (Fig. 1). Likewise, an insufficient supply of water can lead to leaves crinkling as they emerge from the pseudobulb (Fig. 2). The solution to these variables is to observe (not just "look at") your plants, and arrive at a watering schedule that leaches out any residual salts from the pot, but still allows the potting mix to become relatively dry in between watering. About every third or fourth watering, do so with fertilized water. Remember the old greenhouse dictum: water on the temperature rise! That usually means it should be done fairly early in the morning. The corollary to that dictum is that you want to give the plant sufficient time to be dried off by nightfall to help prevent the establishment and spread of fungi. However, if it's one of those overcast cloudy days, you may want to hold off on watering until it looks like a sunny one's in the offing. Again, how often to water for your particular conditions is a cultural problem, but here again, we're back to saying that each individual has to do some observing and thinking to solve problems that arise in their own personal ecological system.

Final Food for Thought:

The suggestions offered in this discussion apply equally well for any orchid species or hybrid, and orchids can be remarkably durable plants, but another aspect bears serious consideration. Orchid growers seem never to be content with just one plant, and ones who culture only one orchid genus are few and far between! More typically seen is a mix of hybrids and species, and various genera. The individual may have a few Dendrobium hybrids (southern Asia to Australia) cattleyas (South America), encyclias (probably Mexico), oncidiums (Mexico, Central America, South America), perhaps a few paphiopedilums (Burma, Thailand, India, and throughout southeast Asia to the Solomon Islands), and even a few vandaceous plants (India, Pakistan, Thailand, Burma, etc.). How many ecological systems is the individual attempting to cram into that orchid growing area? We've all heard an iron-headed grower say something like, "I give my plants my conditions and they have to acclimate to 'em!" Understand something: your orchids will not adjust to you! If your care is not somewhere reasonably within that envelope of conditions to which they have acclimated through the severe demands of thousands (even millions!) of years of natural selection, you will see some or all of your orchid plants die! What has to be met are the plant's needs, not your personal demands. Period!

The solution is simple: learn how the plant grows in nature; give the plant those conditions; and keep the plant free of predators and pests. Do these three things and you'll become known as a fantastic orchid grower! Remember though, for each hybrid you'll need to trace its ancestry back to the species and then try to determine the blend of conditions being demanded by the genetics of that man-made hybrid.

Along the way, you're going to have to shuck a many of the "common names" and learn the plant's correct (scientific) name so you can find it in the orchid literature. Common names are for very "common" people; the ones who are mentally too lazy to unlearn sloppy names and habits, and then learn(!) and remember (!), and use (!), valid names and good habits. It all seems to boil back to thinking, studying, and paying attention to your plants, doesn't it?

Copyright © 2008 R J Ferry