Starting With Orchids

The orchid name conjures up a reputation for exotic beauty that few other varieties of plants come even close to enjoying. Included in the family are some 25,000 species and over 100,000 hybrids, comprising some of the most prized, valuable and beautiful of all the world’s ornamental flowers. Although some of them remain prohibitive expensive to buy and incredibly difficult to cultivate, advances in commercial growing and the wide development of less fussy hybrid varieties have now brought orchid-growing within the reach of anyone who wants to try. Getting started is easier than you might think.

Choosing Your First Orchid

As a general rule, specialist nurseries are the best place to find your first orchid, even if it costs you a little more. Look on it as an investment – as much for the benefit their years of experience can bring as for the plant itself, since a good nursery will be able to guide you towards the right plant for you, based on your interests, experience and available growing conditions. Some orchids do have particularly restrictive requirements, but others, especially the hybrid forms, have been specifically bred to make cultivation easier, so it’s well worth taking the time – and all the advice you can – to make the right choice.

Greenhouse Candidates

The type of greenhouse you have plays a big part in the selection process. Although there are species which come from cooler regions of the world, many of the popular kinds are native to warmer – and in some cases, much warmer – climes than ours, which obviously has a bearing on the amount of supplementary heating they will need. A few good candidates to consider include:

  • Cool greenhouse (minimum winter temperature 10C) – Brassia, Cymbidium, Dendrobium (especially D. nobile), Oncidium Phaphiopedilium (especially P. callosum).
  • Warm greenhouse (minimum winter temperature 14C) – Cattleya, Odontoglossum and a wide range of Phaphiopedilium species.
  • Hot greenhouse (minimum winter temperature 18C) – a wide range of tropical/sub-tropical species, including the ever-popular Phalaenopsis and Vanda.

General Care

Different varieties often have their own particular needs, and aspiring orchid growers ignore them at their peril, but aside of individual demands, there are a few general care factors which apply to the family as a whole.

Getting the watering right is arguably the single most important thing in growing orchids successfully. The compost should be damp, but not waterlogged, which usually means watering evenly twice a week, and reducing to perhaps once a fortnight in the winter. To maintain adequate humidity throughout the plant’s active growth period, mist the greenhouse if you have the necessary equipment or otherwise dampen the paths and staging early in the morning, before the temperature begins to climb.

Good ventilation is important for many species, especially the “cooler” types such as Brassia, Cymbidium, Dendrobium and Phaphiopedilium, but they will not tolerate cold draughts. When the weather is inclined to be chilly, it can often be better to use a small fan to make sure the air keeps moving, rather than opening up the vents and risking over-cooling the plants.

Like many greenhouse plants, with very few exceptions, orchids appreciate a bit of shade from the full effect of the sun to protect their tender new growth from being scorched; any of the usual solutions – from white wash to roller blinds – will work perfectly well.

Growth and Resting

Orchids’ life cycles alternate between phases of active growth and periods of resting, where all growth stops. As you might expect from a group composed of 75 different genera of plants, the details vary depending on the variety; while some kinds rest for months at a time, others begin growing again in a matter of weeks and from the orchid grower’s perspective, this obviously affects watering and feeding requirements. Although it’s vital to know the proper regime to follow for your particular plant, as a general rule, orchids which lose their leaves at rest should not be watered until they begin growing again, while those which retain them, should only be watered minimally.

During the growth phases, most orchids will appreciate being fed on a monthly basis with a weak solution of good indoor plant fertiliser – but don’t over-do it, they’re not particularly greedy feeders as a rule.

Orchids are one group of plants that really prove the point that you really need to do your research if you’re going to grow them successfully, but it’s certainly worth the effort. Whatever variety you choose, give it the right conditions and you should be in for a treat – but be warned, if you get bitten by the bug, orchid growing can become awfully addictive!

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