My first orchid was a division of Paphiopedilum venustum. I knew nothing of orchid cultivation back then and having nobody to ask, I potted it in ordinary Levington’s potting compost. It produced a bud and flowered for Christmas 1978. I was so proud! It produced another bud the following Christmas, but by then, the leaves had deteriorated and shortly thereafter it died. It was January 1982 before I tried again. By now, I had subscribed to The Orchid Review, so at least this time I had something I could actually read about orchid cultivation. Literature on the subject was generally rather limited, and having never been to or seen an orchid nursery, I didn’t even know that such things existed. Of course, back then nobody had computers either, let alone Google and other search engines, so if I were indeed to grow orchids, where on earth could I buy them? Then one Sunday evening at a friend’s home, her father presented me with a small black-printed square of tatty newspaper, measuring no more than two inches across. It was a paper cutting of an advert for Burnham Nurseries. I promptly sent for a catalogue, browsed over it for hours on end over the course of a couple of days, and then finally took the plunge and purchased a collection of Paphiopedilum species and a mixed collection of easy-to-grow orchids, some of which were already in bud. The latter contained Coelogyne cristata, Maxillaria praestans, Lycaste virginalis (now L. skinneri), Oncidium ornithorhynchum and Vuylstekeara Monica ‘Burnham’. Although I didn’t do too well with the paphs, all the others flowered in due course, but it took until about the winter of 1999 before the Coelogyne flowered, probably out of protest than for any other reason. Illness had meant that I was unable to look after my collection and so it got neglected and quickly went downhill. When the greenhouse heating eventually failed and my other plants were all but dead, C. cristata began flowering. Since then, with my health recovered and the heaters working, I haven’t had a single flower from it!
I still remember with horror the day when the greenhouse paraffin heater began to smoke while I was at work, and I came home to a thoroughly blackened and very hot greenhouse and deposits of soot all over the plants. It took several years to get some of them clean again, but some have survived to this day. Needless to say, as means of heating greenhouses became more available and affordable to amateur growers, I progressed from paraffin to gas, and eventually to electricity. Gas greenhouse heaters produced their fair share of problems too – incomplete combustion of propane resulted in hydrocarbons that may have, as with paraffin, been the cause of premature dropping of flower buds and leaves. I remember in those early days a friend commenting that my dendrobiums looked dead. I confidently replied that cool-growing cane dendrobiums require a winter-rest to flower, and were just dormant. You’ve guessed it – he was right, they were! A case of the Emperor’s New Clothes? Maybe! I now know better. Other notable incidents include the time when over a period of days the glass panes, one by one, began to pop – the reason, the roots of a nearby tree had caused parts of the aluminium frame to buckle, or again many years later, the roof panes, for no apparent reason started smashing – the reason, dislodged mortar from the chimney stack. Needless to say, both tree and chimney had to go.
However, not all was doom and gloom. Despite all these tragedies, not least those caused by pests, the hobby still offered sufficient reward to maintain my interest and soon, almost fortnightly, parcels of plants would arrive from Burnham Nurseries, Wyld Court Orchids and Thatched Cottage Orchids. I well remember the time I first visited the two latter nurseries – there was something exciting about rummaging through the plants at Wyld Court, the main greenhouse with its leaky roof and mossy staging certainly conjured up visions of the jungle, and we were its intrepid explorers. It was here that I first became acquainted with a large, black, triangular flower – that of Dracula vampira, suspended just above my head. How I still reminisce about the journey home. By the time we had reached South Wales, the car was full of the heady perfume of Laelia gouldiana and Zygopetalum maculatum, and we had almost been anaesthetised by this heavenly fragrance. Soon later, trips to Burnham Nurseries and that of Bob and Paddy Dadd began, as well as to orchid shows at Newbury, Reading and latterly, Malvern.
During the whole of this time, I had no contact with any other orchid grower. I knew of no local growers! Then, one orchid supplier who was visiting the area decided that rather than posting me my order, he would deliver it himself. That evening, he told me of another grower who lived only 2 miles from my home. We got together, and eventually, with some other newly discovered enthusiasts, established the South Wales Orchid Society, through which we both made valuable contacts and many new friends. Now, some thirty or more years later I am chairman of the Orchid Study Group.
For many years I have had 2 greenhouses. My first which measures 6ft X 8ft was an 18th birthday present and is an intermediate greenhouse (15 oC), whereas the larger, measuring 8 X 12ft, is cool to lower end of intermediate (10-12 oC). In addition, one of the bay windows of my home contains a large number of Cattleya species and hybrids, and the old lean-to, a number of orchids that need a cold winter spell such as Coelogyne cristata and Dendrobium kingianum. Between the greenhouses, bay window and lean-to, I grow a very large range of orchids, mainly species, perhaps 300 or so, and the passion continues to grow.
If I were I to start all over again or advise a newcomer to orchid growing, what would my top tips be?
- Purchase as large a greenhouse as space and your pocket can afford – as your interest grows, so will your collection. However, remember that the larger the greenhouse, the more it will cost to heat, but also the easier it will be to maintain a constant temperature, since a small greenhouse is liable to cool more quickly. Calculate the costs of greenhouse, building foundations, assembling it, heater, insulation, staging etc before you begin. Avoid using wood in constructing your greenhouse – it will rot in time under the warm damp conditions that you will need to create to keep your orchids healthy. Likewise, avoid using wrought iron (e.g. for staging) as it will rust and possibly come crashing down, together with your plants. Ideally, purchase a lean-to type greenhouse as this will allow you to attach panels of galvanized mesh to the back wall and use it for hanging mounted plants when building your ‘epiphyte wall’. Purchase or have staging made out of stainless steel.
- Avoid placing the greenhouse close to trees, as their roots may undermine the foundations, or branches may become detached, and felling trees and replacing glass can be expensive. Also avoid an excessively sunny, shady or exposed site. Too much sun causes leaf scorch, too little will discourage flowering and high winds in exposed sites can be very destructive to greenhouses.
- Avoid the temptation of thinking you can grow all manner of orchids. If you have only one greenhouse, you simply can’t! Orchids may be cool-growing, intermediate-growing or warm-growing. Some need a cooler, dryer period to induce flowering. They are highly evolved plants adapted in many cases to particular environments / climates, and in some cases to specific micro-niches and micro-climates. Select a temperature regime and restrict yourself to plants that are suited to the conditions you can provide, thereby avoiding a lot of heartache and expensive losses. Alternatively, select a group of orchids that interests you and tailor your conditions specifically to suit them and those other orchids that will do well under those conditions.
- READ!, READ!, READ! The more you know about your plants, the more successful you will be at growing them and the more you will enjoy them
- Resist the urge to feed your orchids regularly. I lost many of my plants like this. I now apply a weak solution of fertilizer once or twice a year. Some orchids, such as cymbidiums, however, are heavy feeders and can be fed more often.
- Use an electric heater rather than gas or paraffin. I know that some orchid growers do very well with paraffin greenhouse heaters, but they are able to do little except keep the greenhouse just above freezing, which isn’t very conducive for orchids, and of course there’s always the danger of a sooty wick and the havoc that it can cause. Similarly, incomplete combustion of gas can cause flower- and leaf-drop. Electricity is much cleaner, more convenient and is not accompanied by these problems. Nevertheless, a faulty heater or prolonged power-cut in the middle of winter could still spell disaster, so make sure you keep a spare, one that preferably runs on an alternative fuel. Even paraffin heaters are useful for a short period when there’s a general power-cut! Insulate your greenhouse to cut down on energy consumption.
- Get to know other orchid growers. They are a great source of information of the type not readily available in books or on the internet. For example, I once ordered a rather nice, but expensive Cattleya hybrid from the USA. It took a very long time to arrive and when I opened the box my heart sank. Of its seven leaves, four were brown and had become detached and the remaining three leaves extremely desiccated. The normally plump pseudobulbs were completely flat and dry to such an extent that they had become twisted. If ever there was a candidate for the compost heap, this was it. Suddenly, however, I remembered a tip someone had given me many years before and so I submerged the entire plant in a bucket of dilute sugar solution and left it for a whole week, possibly a bit longer. I then potted it in very damp compost and covered it with a polythene bag. Over the next week, I gradually removed the bag so that it became acclimatized to room conditions. Eventually, the plant began to improve, though it took the best part of six months and although this occurred almost a decade ago, I still have it. Furthermore, by joining an orchid society, you have access to other enthusiasts who not only freely give advice, tips and divisions of their plants, but may also be able to loan you a heater when yours has failed, look after your plants when you are away or too sick to tend to their needs and provide you with extra pairs of hands should you ever need to evacuate a damaged greenhouse or simply move plants to a new home.
- Finally make provision that your collection is cared for when you are no longer around.
Orchid growing isn’t something that should be entered into lightly as heating bills and indeed individual plants can be quite costly. Nevertheless, it is a hobby that never becomes stale or boring and once bitten by the bug, unlike many other past-times, is one that is likely to last a lifetime and delight you with the spectacular forms and colours of your blooms, not to mention the joys of spending an hour or two in a fragrance-laden warm greenhouse on a sharp frosty morning. I commend it to you all.