Tuesday 27 March 2018

Orchids earn their keep but don’t expect miracles

My pals ‘phals’  
I talk about how how to grow phalaenopsis and end in a panic when I discover scale insect at home

Expect two months of flower from a single spike
I feel a guilty twinge when Peter admires Brenda's lovely orchids when she only bought them last week. 
Now let’s get this straight, no longer does Brenda water and feed her orchids. She has a man who does that. (And we don’t argue that way). Once a blue moon she goes over them removing dead leaves and flowers and sticking sticks in. She frequently scolds me over spilt water and is always first to spot any glistening honeydew from a sneaky scale insect before I rub it away.
Despite this uneven division of labour our conservatory always boasts several lovely orchids in full flower and has done so continuously for nye on eighteen years (other than that time when in January we went to Madeira and failed to leave the heat on).

In recent years I have learnt much from Robert Pavlis, blogger and orchid grower extraordinaire
I claim our orchids die slowly! They arrive on our tables as pristine young plants if someone else buys them or otherwise as healthy dishevelled specimens with dead flowers bought at half price. They invariably like us and usually thrive. If we don’t don’t get three cycles of flowering we feel we have been cheated. Sometimes we get more. But they don’t last for ever, my longest is four years. Our conservatory is not quite perfect for orchids but as a living and dining area suits us very well.

Brenda's display
I understand ‘real’ house plants are suddenly trendy. I have always claimed that if I stayed out of date long enough I would be at the forefront of gardening innovation and this is yet another example. I welcome the fact that young people are wanting to actually grow plants in their apartments and do not regard ‘house plants’ as an extension of cut flowers and destined to die.

I write about ‘bog standard’ orchids today. These are mainly phalaenopsis or one of numerous multiple hybrids between them and similar genera.’Phals’ are sold everywhere, at garden centres, do-it-yourself stores, florists and in your regular supermarket. There are now a wonderful range of hybrids sufficiently robust to survive the perils of marketing and which last several months in the average home.

Phalaenopsis have undergone an image transformation. Fifty years ago they were very expensive exotic prima donnas only grown in very warm greenhouses and beyond the financial reach of the average person. Now as a result of central heating, double glazing  and advancement of modern commercial production they are the cheapest and easiest orchids to grow.
The good news is that these orchids will last several years in the home given luck, skill and attention. When well grown they are superb!

Key points about phalaenopsis cultivation
Light and temperature

Most homes will have positions where phalaenopsis hybrids will grow. You just need to find them. They enjoy direct sunshine but not too much of it unless you gradually acclimatise them. Better a few hours in the morning or late in the day. Too many hours of full Summer midday sun can be detrimental. In contrast they love the sunniest of places in Winter. 
We are lucky with our conservatory. Our plants grow about a foot behind sparkling clean east facing glass windows (no curtains) and enjoy full morning light until about noon when as a result of an adjacent extension there is no direct sunshine for the rest of the day.
Ideally phalaeonopsis like the same warm uniform indoor conditions that we do. It’s the fluctuations and drafts that gets us. Orchid’s main vulnerabilities are very low night temperatures or turning off the heat in Winter when you go away!
Fortunately Brenda subscribes to the modern idea that to leave the heat on at night is the best way to manage your heating system.

You are more likely to kill your phals with too much water rather than too little. New gardeners please note too much water means watering too often or leaving your plants standing in water. It's not about the good practice of giving a thorough amount of water on a single occasion.

Thick water absorptive roots above and below ground
Although not recommended phalaenopsis can go months without water. The roots have a thick water absorptive grey or green epidermis of velamin cells. Nature has designed them to store water and withstand drought!
Water your phals when the roots get dry. Learn to recognise this from the feel of the compost or it’s weight! Just gently lift their pot out of the outer display container to judge its weight! You will soon learn and eventually you will just know with only an occasional check!

The best way to water is to soak them in the sink. I am afraid this is too hard work for me. 
If I am feeling righteous I bring a bowl of water to our display and individually dunk the inner plastic pots, splashing water over the rim to ensure all the roots are wetted. Ours are displayed in outer orchid ceramic pots which have a low standing rim. Surplus water just drains down into the ceramic. 

Selection of 'inner' orchid pots
Outer ceramic with low ridge. Any retained water should be below the inner pot
More often I just carefully water from a small can spout. I do occasionally check water is not accumulating in the ceramic.
A little water below root level in the ceramic is not a particularly bad thing but makes no significant contribution to humidity. Similarly spraying leaves with water is not only a waste of time but intermittent wetting and drying is not good for them. 
Orchids do like humidity - but in the house we don’t.

Much to my surprise I do not find myself needing to water much more often in Summer than in Winter. Under my own conditions I usually need to water about every two weeks.


Scatter on the surface and let subsequent waterings wash in
Slow growing plants such as orchids need little fertiliser to sustain them but the gardener should not  shy away from feeding. Mine get a pinch of YaraMila general fertiliser every six weeks and all year round. Do not waste your money buying special orchid fertiliser.

Orchids do need very open composts They can be quite simple based solely on bark chips or coconut husks. Many commercial packeted orchid composts are of dubious value inferior to an informal mixture made up by yourself. There is some merit in a thorough repotting every two years when all the numerous dead roots are removed. I have vivid memories watching orchid potting on a commercial nursery fifty years ago. The roots were being viciously torn apart with sticks!

Should you opt to repot your orchids every two years these are suitable ingredients
In my own wet garden I grow my own sphagnum moss

The curse of brown scale

The unsightly brown dead scales cover living nymphs. Living straw coloured nymphs are on the right
For us the only pest of any significance is brown scale. If you buy an infected plant throw it away! The ugly dead scale’s body protects numerous live nymphs ready to crawl all over. They excrete copious shiny honeydew. You cannot not recognise it. 
Look for the scales everywhere. Particularly insidious is on the flower spike when the honeydew fouls the leaves below and the sticky liquid sparkles in the sunshine.
It can be controlled by systemic insecticides, the kind marketed for houseplants but you still have the mess.

Roger clears up

I was once asked whether writing my blog lead to neglecting my plants. Quite the contrary it concentrates the mind! When I inspected my supposedly clean orchids after a year of no particular attention there was brown scale to be found. Fortunately the infection was light and sporadic. It is a year or two since I used Provado vine weevil killer as a control.
Brenda what have you been doing? The collection needed a make over. Together with my watering gear and a small hard-back sponge I scrubbed the leaves clean. I washed everywhere, fingernails are particularly good to scrape off the scales. Fortunately the green stalks were clean. 
You can’t get the staff, there were part cut back old stalks and dead leaves to be trimmed.

This might prove to be the worst advice I have ever given! Is there a danger I have spread tiny nymphs around? The water did have a tiny squirt of the soft soap I use to wash my hands. The leaves look shiny and pristine. I can always scrub them again.
It's now two weeks since I wrote these words, they are looking good and are welcoming the lengthening days and recent sunshine.
You can go to more authoritative advice from Robert Pavlis 

You can read about my other pals in our conservatory
Calamondin orange

Thursday 22 March 2018

Getting there…..my two million 'hits'

Just about made it
I planned on being insouciant ignoring this milestone and seeing if anyone noticed.

He knows nothing about conures either
When Cathi came round for our weekly winey repast - with our wretched coughs we missed pilates yet again - she as a journalist suggested I should not miss the opportunity of saying something about my progress. (She and Brenda are the fount of all knowledge).

I had half hoped that Cathi might have opted to post something herself recalling how she persuaded a shy and reluctant former horticultural lecturer to write something down. Perhaps even suggesting he had something worth saying or even explaining he is not the idiot he seems. Or just, although befuddled, well intended.

They say that a five year old’s perception of a fortnight is the same as a septuagenerian’s year. On that basis I started blogging twelve weeks ago and 401 posts have appeared out of the ether. In one way I have been blogging for ever. In another I started five minutes ago.

Before I get soil on my hands
I think readers might discern I am now addicted to blogging. Perhaps time flashes by because of my unchanged blogging routine. I rise before seven, wander into the ‘snug’ say good morning to Sparkle, open his cage, he pops on my hand, I release the curtains, turn up the thermostat and all precisely choreographed move into the kitchen. I switch on the kettle and make a pot of tea. 
Sparkle clucks in tune to my spoon and with Pavlovian precision does his big plop in the sink.
I sit down at my computer, check any e-mails, look up the suitability of the weather for gardening and check my figures. Or perhaps I check my figures first!
It is then pure pleasure to start blogging. I give myself an hour or if carried away somewhat longer. A post takes several days to create and gestate. I usually have three or four in the can.
I never foresaw this being my fate.
I might add that as I blog Sparkle sits on my head. He tends to get inpatient after half an hour or even sooner when he takes issue with my prose. It’s a little annoying when he tucks at my reading glasses or rewrites my text when he jumps on the keyboard. You now know where all my peculiar words come from.

He sits on Brenda's head too
The first six years
I am grateful to Brenda for suggesting the ‘no dig’ moniker. It says what I am and adding my name gives me opportunity to write things beyond gardening. Something I never expected. There once was a time that I never dared to google my name….

Harry suggested that if I posted about birds and animals it might bring a wider audience to my gardening. He got me off to a good start when we got marvellous pictures of the sparrow hawk he rescued when it had been trapped in my garage. Bearing in mind he was to take the blog’s very best pictures on that occasion it was me pointing the camera. It’s quite ironic I know very little about birds. Cameras either.
Sadly Harry died four years ago.

Harry and Cathi advised me to keep posts short. I now think that this was wrong as they only tell half the story. Peter Williams more recently told me that if something is worth reading he likes it to be long.

Po Simpson told me to keep my posts funny. I never really got that one.

I never expected to write much other than gardening. I now love having a wider canvas. ‘Fool on a hill’ congratulated me on my mention of hybridisation in the post ‘Musings from York’ He started a hare which has much further to run.

My friend Rowena commented "thats a bit different" when Po Simpson's moonshots appeared. I dare not tell you how much it swells my two million. Cathi's theory is that it's all those people googling 'moonshine'

I love reader’s comments. I just wish there were more. I miss those regulars who supported me in the beginning and regret all those that I have lost. Poppy Murray where are you? 
I have recently received my e-mail alert for fascinating comments that a writer had immediately deleted! Folk seem reluctant to express their real opinions. I wish more of you would dare to publicly disagree with me rather than in disgust moving elswhere. What you have to say is important to me. Just don’t send me links to false news.
On reflection I sometimes think that I should delete some of my own comments in other places. The rambling ones written in an alcoholic haze.

I was recently asked why I do not take adverts. This is not me. I blog because I love having a platform and fortunately need no financial support. I do endorse named products that I actually use or recommend. I would hate ads popping up all over for products I despise.

Cathi Poole bears total responsibility for me being here as a blogger. She has a lot to answer for but I genuinely thank her. I expect she will be waiting to get the picture of 2,000,000 on Blogger.

We are all in good hands
I like the colour of the gib of the number, 999 to go

The sparrow hawk that started things off
My musing from York
Po just keeps sitting at the top of my top ten!

Saturday 10 March 2018

Mainly about planting

Do not over-prepare your soil
Forty years ago I sprayed off the weed and started popping plants in
A reader recently wrote that she had enjoyed reading my articles about clearing weedy ground without cultivation; how should she insert plants in her new garden?
I have frequently written about ‘slitting small plants in’, ‘making small holes’ or ‘levering up with a fork or spade and tucking under a handful of bulbs - or even a potato’

I felt my response was bound to be too brief to properly answer and for some garden situations would inevitably be wrong! I seem to remember ironically relating how TV personalities inevitably demonstrated planting on a BBC fluffed up soil, gently inserting a plant with a trowel and finishing  - as if a pat on the back - with a shake and a  ‘good luck son’ celebratory smile.

In real life it isn’t like that. What about severe soil compaction as a result of previous bad management? What about tree roots, rocks and stones …or a natural iron pan or more commonly a pan resulting from previous rotavation or from a former farmer’s plough?  Say nothing about builders! What about really rubbish soil?

Where possible it is best to plant in your unadulterated soil rather than in concoctions in specially prepared pockets. Although plants might get away quicker in ameliorated soil their long term progress will usually be better if they are planted in the soil where the roots are to grow. It is particularly relevant with long lived large plants such as trees.

The most diabolical scenario is to plant in a hole of ‘planting’ compost when the surrounding soil is heavy clay. The plants will like the starting conditions but many such composts dry out and fail to rewet naturally. Plant roots fail to penetrate the surrounding heavy soil and any new growth is stunted. It is worse if your garden is poorly drained when the hole can act as sump for surplus water in Winter.

If you feel you really must use fashionable planting compost, work it in to a much larger zone than the mere hole. As a none digger this option is unavailable to me, thank goodness.

Once the brambles had been cut down and sprayed away geranium rhizomes were slit into place and aquilegia seed was scattered
In a well managed garden your long term methods will care of your soil - long before and after planting. Best to plant into the soil that you have got. 
It’s the same with fertiliser. Fertiliser in the planting hole might inhibit plant roots from reaching out to find long term nutrition and worse highly soluble fertiliser wrongly placed might scorch new roots. Often new trees, shrubs or border plants are not really ready for extra nutrients and it might be best to top dress with general fertiliser weeks or months later. That’s if you need any fertiliser at all.

When I stopped growing vegetables(!) on my undug vegetable garden, I merely raked off the debris and scattered annual seed
A new site might have one of several histories. If it has strong growing healthy vegetation - whether an existing vegetable garden or border, a grass field, a lawn, an area overgrown with perennial weeds and in my case old cemeteries -  I would kill all the weeds with glyphosate and not cultivate at all. All my gardens were prepared for planting this way. 
In these circumstances I would only make holes or slits to sufficiently - occasionally generously - accommodate the root span. In the case of the lady who inspired this article her large transplants from her old garden hopefully have good root balls and digging her planting hole would inevitably generate sufficient loose soil to ‘tuck’ the plant in.

My fifteen year old herbaceous border has never been dug. It was planted in glyphosate sprayed lawn and the dead grass was disguised with a mulch
If planting bare rooted trees loose soil will similarly be available and should be ‘shaken down’ to fill all the spaces. In almost all cases of planting a well directed boot will come into the story to firm the soil down.
If a planting hole provides evidence of a hard pan or general compaction it might be worthwhile to use your spade to break up the base of the hole. Many gardeners mistake a merely settled soil for compaction. Do not get carried away when the soil is merely firm. 

The rowan tree sowed itself and the perennials were infiltrated into the rubble when the ground elder had gone
Planting depth
In general insert plants at the previous depth of planting. With herbaceous plants I tend to plant an inch or so lower and with winter tender herbaceous plants such as dahlias  I plant somewhat deeper to hopefully enhance hardiness.

It is important not to plant trees below their bark line as for some subjects any buried trunk will eventually kill them. Occasionally with containerised trees from the garden centre it is even necessary to brush away a little surface compost if they have been potted too deeply.
I think you might have guessed by now that my own holes for garden centre containers are just sufficient to fit them. They rock in the wind less that way. Only when the moon is blue do I stake them.

Height of planting

Planted on a slightly raised bed on my Winter wet soil. Although 99% of the roots are now in the sometimes very wet soil it got a good start.
For very dry sites plant in a depression
I tend to start my posts with good intentions and find they become too long. I had intended to say more about planting in raised areas and sometimes depressions - just a few inches height and a few metres of distance can be the difference between long term success or failure. 
I also had intended to talk about difficult sites due to deep compaction. My instincts are usually to ignore most of these problems but concede there are circumstances were digging and even double digging might be worthwhile. Once only and never again!
As to surface compaction I feel it is not only over diagnosed but that it is usually cured by the first Winter’s frost heave together with plant growth and worms.

In Lyndi's heavy clay field eight foot weeds were repeatedly sprayed from July, clumps of bulbs were 'tucked under' in September and flowered in Spring.

Links to further reading
I have written about planting before. Not only would I encourage my readers to use my search box - I even do so myself - these links will provide further information. I have to warn you there is some repetition 

Although gardeners are generally recommended to not plant on wet soil there is a case for the none digger, or gardeners with sandy soil or just the ordinary gardener planting in settled soil to do the opposite! This post says why.

This post covers some of the above advice in more detail and is generally more wide ranging.

After elimination of vigorous ground elder in Cathi's grass verge by repeated spraying this never cultivated site was very easily planted in the undamaged soil

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