Eighteen months ago I visited a friend who proudly showed off a fine display of home grown orchids in the garden. Orchids, sumptuous, glistening queen of flowers! They’ve always been a hit and miss affair for me. I had a few in the garden, mostly remnants of gifts from friends, grown to perfection in commercial nurseries to hold up spectacularly for months indoors. After the flowers fell, they were relegated to a spot out of sight, out of mind. Lovely gifts, but flowers have never been a high priority in my garden. If the orchids flowered again it was a bonus, if not, well no harm done.
Orchids tend to be pretty finicky. To get a good flower display they have some pretty particular requirements: damp but not too wet, so good drainage, frequent applications of dilute fertilizer, filtered light and high humidity in summer, drier and sunnier in winter, good air circulation, but protection from harsh winds and no extremes of temperature. Growers aiming for top notch flower displays prefer the artificial environment of glass or shadehouse where you have automated total control over these variables.
That’s never been my approach to gardening. I prefer to fit my plants to suitable microclimates in the garden and then allow Nature a free hand. I think it’s called neglect. To do well in my garden plants need to demonstrate a high level of autonomy and resilience. I’d always equated good orchid flower displays with serious mollycoddling.
I’m not sure if my friend’s proud display evoked inspiration or envy. Perhaps these two emotions are merely two sides of the competition coin. Either way I returned home fired up to get serious in my approach to orchid cultivation so I could build up a decent orchid collection. After years of whinging about my garden-unfriendly coastal climate, I figured this might be one time where moderate temperatures and high summer humidity could actually work to my advantage. I could already pick out various niche microclimates in the garden, well suited to orchid cultivation without having to resort to greenhouse climate control.
They really are delicate little flowers, orchids. To get good growth and flower production, they need frequent applications of dilute fertilizer, much more frequent and dilute than your average garden variety plant. They’re so sensitive they even require different types of fertilizer at different times, blue, high-nitrogen for leaf growth after flowering, and red, high potassium to stimulate flower production.
It’s one of the few types of cultivation where I resort to artificial fertilisers. So fired up to get serious about my orchid cultivation, the first thing I did when I got home was to go to grab some already mixed blue fertilizer from the shed and made a circuit of the garden giving all the orchids scattered about a good foliar spray, visions of luxuriant plants bedecked with flowers filling my mind. It was only as I approached the last one, a large Sydney rock orchid, a native dendrobium mounted on a pergola post, that a question occurred. Hang on a sec. Blue spray? Do I know for sure it’s actually orchid fertiliser? Isn’t the herbicide, Round Up also a blue liquid? Hold that spray!
Sure enough, over the next month my orchids slowly turned yellow then brown then dead. Oh dear. I just poisoned all my orchids. How embarrassing!
You blithering idiot!
You stupid, stupid gardener!
You see, I still had those visions of massed orchids cascades of flowers in my head.
Blinded by the light.
What the hell do I do now?
Only one thing to do – start again. I went online and ordered a couple of job-lots, cymbidiums and dendrobiums, 25 in each cache, this time with the added challenge of starting with little plants in 5 cm pots. These two groups of orchids are considered easy to grow in Sydney’s warm temperate climate, even for klutzes like me. Cymbidiums originally from south east Asia and India have been grown ornamentally for millennia, and have been extensively hybridized to provide a huge range of flower colours. Dendrobium is a large genus with what might be described as western Pacific distribution from China, through southeast Asia, New Guinea and eastern Australia to the Pacific islands. Many dendrobium hybrids have the local Sydney rock orchid somewhere in their geneology, so are well suited to our local climate. Unlike the cymbidiums, many dendrobiums are epiphytic and will happily grow on tree trunks, or mounted on wood
I potted up my babies and vowed to take better care this time. I built a tiny shade house in a protected corner of the garden and nursed them through their first winter outside the cosseted confines of the nursery, all the while keeping an eye out for suitable spots to mount the dendrobiums permanently.
Dendrobiums are semi dormant in winter, so are well adapted to the low humidity of Sydney’s winters. Some of these I mounted on short lengths of paling in preparation for independent living. As spring moved into summer I upped the watering with a misting hose fitting. In the past I have used micro-irrigation for watering, but I found that hand watering allows for much closer monitoring of the babies.
My wife gave me an old-fashioned, analogue weather station for Christmas and as summer progressed I watched the humidity go up to the 80s and stay there. The hot, sticky late summer air that has been the death of so many other plants is finally working for me. Despite a couple of casualties, most thrived and I now have over 70 plants. By early autumn, as the sun’s intensity dropped away, I was looking for a spot to set out the dendrobiums in a more naturalistic display. I settled on using the pergola post that the wisteria climbs up. We do not get a discrete drop of autumn leaves this close to the coast, just a slow thinning of the canopy as the leaves fall from about Christmas on. By mid autumn as the sun has lost its sting, this allows a lovely filtered light to come through. Perfect!
So three weeks ago, after more than a year growing them on, I began setting out the dendrobiums, attaching them to the multiple trunks of the wisteria, dozens of the young orchids. Here they will get protection from the intense late spring early summer sun, with increasing light as the leaves fall and the days shorten after summer solstice. That’s the critical factor, bright filtered light. Too much sun and they’ll burn, too little light and they won’t flower well. Here they are easily accessible for handwatering, and here many, I hope, will permanently establish themselves epiphytically on the wisteria trunks. It’s fiddly work, wiring them in place where they can be seen when in flower and also get enough, but not too much, light. The idea is that they look like they have grown there naturally, that they belong here in the garden, rather than being cosseted in an artificial environment.
Last weekend was the annual Plant Collectors Fair, one of the most important dates in the year for keen gardeners, when a selection of wholesale nurseries have stalls offering rare and unusual plants that you just don’t see in the Sydney retail nurseries. I made sure I was out there early to get the pick of the crop of beautiful orchids in flower, just a handful to flower up my little dendrobium pole.
Once home, it was straight back out to the pole with plants pliers and wires, to get them all set in position. It has taken a while to make good my initial sorry-arsed foray into orchid gardening, but it’s been a wonderful lesson in extending myself as a gardener, starting out with what is widely considered to be the most challenging, certainly the biggest group of plants a gardener can put their hand to.
Take a look.