Tips for the Time-Challenged Orchid Grower
HOBBY ORCHID GROWERS OFTEN have a tendency to amass rather large and diverse collections of plants over time, and it is not uncommon for the care and maintenance of those collections to become time consuming and unwieldy. Periodically, it can be worthwhile to step back from the situation and consider ways to help make plant maintenance easier and to implement some practices that may save time and money too.
FERTILIZERS One of the best ways to simplify your routine is to streamline the fertilization of your orchid plants. Most of us appreciate that many orchid plants do best with frequent, but weak applications of fertilizer. While sophisticated growers often apply weak nutrient solutions through their automated irrigation systems, many of us with smaller collections or a limited growing situation must mix up dilutions to apply with a watering can or tank sprayer.
Although I resisted using them on orchids for years, I have become a big fan of time release fertilizers for my potted orchids. As orchid medium is usually coarse, the pellets have a tendency to fall down into it, but they still work well. To the best of my knowledge, none of these products have been produced with the particular nutritional needs of orchids in mind, but generally speaking, fertilizer is fertilizer. Look for formulations that are coated for longer usefulness, generally six to nine months, realizing that such fertilizers will deliver nutrients for a shorter time at high temperatures and with frequent watering.
PEST AND DISEASE CONTROL Avoid prophylactic sprays and treatments for plant pests and diseases. They are a waste of time and materials. Also, pests can build up resistance to chemicals that are constantly applied. It is time to take a responsible approach to pest control. Do not treat your plants before a symptom appears, then diagnose and identify the problem. Evaluate its severity. In some cases, no treatment may be necessary or elimination of the affected plant (or plant parts) could be the best approach. If it is determined that treatment is needed, consider all options and first try the one that is most environmentally friendly.
PLANT STAKING Many conscientious orchid growers spend a considerable amount of time staking new orchid growths to keep them upright. Certainly, there are some sorts of orchid plants that will be growing in every direction in rather short order if you do not stake them. In many cases, I have found that the wire rings that clip onto the pot rims can keep most of these plants on the “up and up” without the time and trouble (and potential plant injury) that staking each individual growth requires. It is important to choose a ring that is about the same diameter as the pot and one that is a suitable height for the stature of the plant, yet they tend to come in a small range of sizes. Don’t be afraid to employ a pair of pliers to help modify a manufactured ring into one that better suits a particular plant’s needs. Also note that you will usually minimize the risk of damaging your plant when you slip the ring up from under the bottom of the pot before securing it to the pot rim.
WATERING Most orchid growers spend more time watering their plants than they do on any other activity. I have known more than a few indoor orchid fanatics who carried their plants from the window sills or the light stands, two at a time, to the kitchen sink for a good drenching two or three times a week — and they grew dozens of plants. Simplify your watering practices in any way that you can. If you are one of those aforementioned creative indoor growers, try to devise a way to water your plants in place. Trays or tubs under the pots can catch the runoff from a watering can and may help provide valuable humidity around the plants. If you keep a large orchid collection that requires considerable time for watering by hand, look into an automatic irrigation system.
Cultural strategies can modify watering frequency. Potting mixes that incorporate moisture retentive ingredients can make the need for watering less frequent. In a similar way, plastic pots retain moisture longer than do clay pots. Boosting humidity levels can help extend the days between waterings. Also, orchids grown at higher temperatures will require more frequent watering than those cultivated a few degrees cooler.
Plant arrangement can work for or against you at watering time. Arranging pots and plants of similar size in the same area is efficient as they will tend to dry out at the same rate, thus requiring water at about the same time. To speed up the watering routine, it is wise to place orchids with similar moisture needs together.
Plant selection also affects the watering schedule. If you want to spend less time watering your plants, avoid those orchids that need constant moisture — phragmipediums for example. Realize that rather young plants and miniatures generally need more frequent irrigation than other orchids. Finally, if you find that you are watering more orchids, but enjoying them less, you may want to eliminate mounted plants, those grown in open slat baskets, or any others that require daily watering.
POTTING AND REPOTTING Orchid growers who amass sizeable collections typically dread repotting time and often become lax about it. Yet one of the biggest dangers to a mature orchid is a rotting root system trapped in an old potting mix that is rapidly breaking down.
If you are an orchid grower prone to repotting procrastination, avoid organic ingredients in your mixes that tend to decompose quickly, such as many types of bark chunks. Coconut husk chips, coir (coconut fiber) or tree fern fiber may provide a longer lasting alternative. Similarly, if you grow orchids in open slat baskets, you will find that those made from teak last longer than those made from pine or other woods. When orchids grown in this way become too large for their basket, some growers find it convenient to slip such a basket into a larger one that will contain it, rather than disturb the plant. Nothing could be simpler or easier.
Moving up versus tearing out can sometimes be adapted for potted orchids too. I have managed this on occasions when a plant with multiple leads had reached or extended a bit beyond the edge of a clay pot. I select a larger clay pot that allows about 1 inch (2.5 cm) of space into which I can tuck fresh growing medium all around the smaller one. For this to work well, the growing medium in the original pot must be in good condition. The method can be a real time saver, and the plant never misses a beat from suffering a severely damaged or destroyed root system.
The reluctant repotter may also benefit from careful plant selection. Avoid those orchids that seem to do best with frequent or regular repotting, such as paphiopedilums and phalaenopsis. Choose orchids that do best when grown undisturbed, such as schomburgkias and many dendrobiums.
Nearly any dedicated orchid grower can find ways to simplify maintenance. Often, there are routine tasks that may be modified or eliminated in order to save time. Sometimes, it is important to analyze your growing conditions and select plants accordingly. Cull your collection if necessary, as it is much easier to manage a collection when most of the plants have harmonious cultural requirements.