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 I have always claimed that if I stayed out of date long enough I would be at the forefront of gardening innovation and this is yet another example.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


  1. Interesting how you keep your orchids going for even 5 years. I'm a very lazy orchid keeper, I live literally between the orchidgrowers. My old neighbour provides us now and then with flowering plants which continue flowering for several months. Actually I find them a bit boring the flowers last too long, but when they are finally outof flower I bring them back to the orchid grower and yes I always return home with new plants.....

    1. What a marvellous arrangement Janneke! A sort of sale and return! Convalescence back at the orchid grower. Lucky you.
      I am pretty sure I have seen very fine orchids on your blog

    2. I have re-examined my claim of maximum five years Janneke after your thoughtful comment - I think four years maximum would be more accurate and my bread and butter lifetime is perhaps three years. I have edited my text!

  2. Orchids are wonderful but we must be patient. I like to water them by putting them out in the rain for a few hours. The rain, of which we have plenty adjacent to Pendle Hill in Lancashire, also helps wash off he insects.

    1. I imagine that suits them very well, especially perhaps cymbidiums and cypripediums

  3. I have just two orchids and I water mine by holding the pots under the hot water tap and then let them drain on the draining board. They seem to thrive and reflower.

    I’m like you and have always loved houseplants so must be fashionable again. I’m sure though that there is far less choice of house plants than there used to be some years ago.

    1. I think you can find them but you have too look around as you did finding your lovely yellow clivia in your recent post
      I have always thought of you as a lady at the height of fashion,

  4. Nice display!

    If you keep on top of the scale I reckon you should be able to get rid of it. I had scale in a pair of standard olive trees that were indoors, and I managed to clear them. I hunted for them once a week for about a year. Let's face it, they can't run away, so if you can get them before they are mature enough to breed then you can break the cycle. The only difficulty I can see is that there is nowhere to hide on an olive twig, whereas the orchids have hidey holes. Unless you pull all the leaves off, but that might be a bit extreme :-)

    1. Your advice is always so useful Sarah.
      Scale does get into hidey holes and I find the hard corner at the back of the sponge nicks into small apertures
      I admire your persistence but agree how effective it is. I find it quite satisfying scraping them away!


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