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Caring for Orchids

Growing Orchids
Growing orchids

One of the main considerations that should be taken into account when deciding on cultivating orchids is that the conditions that you can offer the orchids must approximately match their natural habitat. You may take extraordinary measures to keep your orchid plants alive and it will still refrain from thriving if the environment that you can offer the orchid does not match to its natural habitat. Make a practical choice and you will enjoy success; and a practical choice starts with choosing a type of orchid that is suited to your environment and your local climate. Factors such as temperature, light, ventilation, heating and humidity all need to be taken into account. Then, to prolong the life of your orchids, you need to provide your orchids with optimal care that is specific to its needs.

Buying orchids

Nowadays most types of orchids are available from many outlets, garden centers and nurseries, even some supermarkets stock them from time to time. You will also find that you may be able to purchase orchids from specialist nurseries and orchid societies and at shows. Each of these venues of purchase has advantages and disadvantages. It is up to you to ensure that you buy what is the most appropriate orchid to suit the conditions that you can offer the orchid.

Say you decide to purchase an orchid from a general retailer, make sure to inspect it closely. Do ask when the orchid arrived at the store. (The orchid might have reached to retailer in a good condition, but due to the non-specialist nature of the general retailer the orchid might have been treated improperly throughout its shelf-life at the retailer.) The general retailer will most likely have the orchid tagged to identify the type of orchid. But it will be up to you to do independent research if you want to know more about the orchid.

Say you decide to purchase your orchid plants from a garden center. This is a slightly better choice. The garden center may have special guests that visit the center and those guests may be specialist orchid growers. They will offer expert advice and give demonstrations on how to pot, repot and care for the orchid plants that they specialize in.

Specialist Orchid Nurseries are the best option. However, these are few and far between. At these orchid outlets you will find a wide selection of orchid plants to choose from and you can be confident that the plants have been properly maintained by the experts on those specific orchid species. At best you can be assured that experienced staff members will have taken care of the orchids. In many cases these specialist orchid nurseries offer free telephone services. What is more, the orchids that you purchase will have their full nomenclature on a tag – very handy if you intend exhibiting your orchid. Demonstrations and classes on orchid care are also at the order of the day at these specialist orchid nurseries.

Orchid shows also present the potential buyer with opportunities to purchase orchids. Local orchid experts and societies have a great deal of experience and a great wealth of knowledge and are in most cases always willing to help potential growers and society members. Many orchid societies have annual shows. At these shows you can get all the required information and all aspects of orchid selection, orchid care, orchid cultivation, equipment, orchid books and videos, etc.

Orchid care
Growing orchids in shade conditions to prolong orchid life

Even on the Internet, vendors offer various types of orchids for sale. As a new buyer one should be skeptical and even experienced buyers should heed some caution with this type of purchase.

Growing orchids

Temperature, light, ventilation, heating and humidity all play a vital role in the types of orchids which can be cultivated and whether it will thrive in a particular environment.

Temperature

There are basically three different types of orchids that can be cultivated based on their preferred climatic conditions. The basic temperature groupings reflect the lowest night-time temperature that the orchid is able to tolerate for prolonged periods. Staying on the maximum temperature level the orchid will obviously become stressed.

Cool-climate Orchids originate from the cool mountain areas where the average temperature is somewhat chilly, even in summer. The day-time temperature should range between 18°C and 27°C (i.e. 65-80°F) and the night-time temperature should range between 8°C and16°C (i.e. 52-60°F)

Moderate-climate Orchids come from more or less the same conditions, but they grow at a lower altitude than the cool-climate orchids. Their temperature range is as follows: Day-time temperature between 20°C and 24°C (i.e. 68-75°F) and night-time temperature 13°C and 16°C (i.e. 58-60°F).

Warm-climate Orchids are prevalent in the tropical and subtropical areas. They love a temperature that is consistently warm throughout the year and will tolerate only minor fluctuations between day and night temperatures. Minor fluctuations would be: day-time temperature of 24°C and 27°C (i.e. 75-80°F) and night-time temperatures of 18°C and 20°C (i.e. 65-68°F).

All orchids appreciate moderate temperature fluctuations and parts of the orchid life cycle depend on these fluctuations. As an orchid grower it is wise to be aware and to monitor minimum and maximum temperatures. Just remember, healthy growth can be inhibited if the orchid is exposed to extreme conditions for too long or too often.

In some areas it is not uncommon to experience sudden and dramatic midsummer heat waves. Orchids detest searing heat and you might need to take your orchid to a cooler location and provide plenty humidity.

In some areas some spring evenings can become quite cold and you may even need to shelter your orchids by placing it in an enclosed area.

Light

Of the most popular species of orchids, in fact most orchids come from environments where the sunlight can be quite intense (at the tree canopy level), but is filtered by thick plant growth lower down the trunk. When you choose the orchid plants that you want to cultivate, you need to remember that you need to position your orchid in relation to the windows in your home (if you intend having in indoor home garden). You also need to position the orchid according to the seasonal direction and intensity of the sunlight. Several hours of sunlight are a basic requirement for most plants, and it is no different in the case of orchids. You need to place your orchid in such a way so as to create the correct quality and intensity of light to suit your particular orchid.

There are a few species of orchids that are able to tolerate extended periods of direct sunlight. They are the Cattleya orchids, the Laelia orchids and the Vandaceous orchid. Most orchids however, prefer dappled or filtered sunlight. In your home garden this can be easily achieved by means of blinds or curtains. Alternatively you can make use of cool-white fluorescent tubes, hung directly above the plants.

If you have your orchids outdoors you will need to find the right spot. The right spot would be a shady location with gentle early morning or late afternoon light. Full midday sunlight would be too intense. Alternatively you can use shade-cloth to shelter you orchids.

Ventilation

Almost all types of orchids will flourish with good ventilation, but be careful not to place your orchid directly in line with a cold draught (window or air-conditioner draughts). A fresh breeze from an open window is ideal. (Tip: A small oscillating fan will keep an indoor atmosphere buoyant ). Just keep the air lively and avoid stale, still conditions. Free-flowing, gentle summer breezes are just great for orchids. Take care not the expose the orchid to strong gusts of wind.

Humidity

Most orchids thrive in humid conditions. If you happen to live in an area that has cold winters, then you must bear in mind that central heating quickly depletes moisture from the air. To counter the effects of central heating with regard to humidity, you can place a small humidifier in the growing area of the orchids. Bathrooms are great humid spots for growing orchids.

If you happen to live in a very, hot and dry environment, then you will need to mist your orchids on a regular basis. If you have a large collection of orchids you may even think of investing in a wet-pad evaporative cooler.

In summer you will need to water your orchid more frequently, whether they are kept outdoors or indoors. Misting is important in both locations.

A recommended care and maintenance routine
  • Morning: – check all orchids and provide them with water if necessary.
  • Mid-morning: – spray greenhouse floors.
  • Midday: – mist the orchids if necessary (especially on those ultra-hot days.)
  • Mid-afternoon: – mist again.
  • Late afternoon: – check all orchids to ensure that there is no water left on any of their leaves from earlier watering.
  • Weekly: – add orchid fertilizer as required. Check for any pests and diseases and treat accordingly. Stake all emerging flower stems.

Pests and Diseases in orchids

It does not matter where you cultivate your orchids, indoors, outdoors, in pots, in a climatically controlled greenhouse environment, you will at some stage need to deal with pests and diseases. There is nothing as devastating as when you wake up one morning to find that the orchid that you lovingly tended to for months and could not wait to see the flowers has been slug-attacked, or a mouse has eaten the pollen, or mealy bugs attacking the new growth on orchid. Prevention is often better than cure and will go a long way in prolonging the life of your orchid as well as its blooming period. As a first step it would be best practice to:

  • Buy orchids from a reputable nursery or garden center. (Carefully grown plants are usually resistant to bacterial and fungal diseases and most likely free of pests.)
  • Where possible, place newly purchased orchids in a quarantine area before integration with the rest of your collection. (Or at least apart from your existing collection.) Until you are confident that the new plants are disease and pest free.

The common pests

Ants: Ants usually indicates the presence of aphids on orchids. Ants feed on the honeydew that is secreted by aphids. Furthermore they transfer scale from one plant to the other, they make nests in pots which breaks down the compost and prevent proper aeration. Make use of an appropriate organic insecticide and treat the entire plant.

Aphids: Aphids can be green, black, brown and even orange. They multiply rapidly in warm, dry weather and also attract ants with their honeydew secretions. The honeydew secretions also result in sooty mould. With minor aphid infestation you can spray aphids with a jet of tepid water or wash the infected areas of the plant by immersing it in a solution of insecticidal soap. For a serious infestation you may even resort to a general insecticide. (Tip: Check regularly for these pests can be quite persistent.)

False Spider Mite: These are slightly smaller than red spider mites and make their presence known by the silvery colored pitting that one can see on the top and underside of leaves. You can mist the top and underside of the leaves. You can also clean the affected leaves with insecticidal soap and water to kill adult mites. Or you could use a miticide. (Tip: Repeat the treatment every ten days to kill any eggs to prevent it from recurring.)

Leaf Hopper: These are tiny, white, sap-sucking flies that usually stay on the underside of leaves, flowers and especially new growth. The best counter for these pests is those sticky fly-traps or use an appropriate insecticide.

Leaf Miner: These are little grubs that is responsible for spreading virus-related disease that destroy leaves and stems of orchids. You should cut away any damaged stems and apply a systemic insecticide.

Mealy Bugs: This is a very common orchid pest. They are little oval shaped, grey-whitish fluffy-looking insects. They belong to the sucking insects that are often encountered on the underside of leaves and new growth. They even attack the orchid flower. Like aphids they also secrete honeydew which causes sooty mould on the orchid leaves. Make use of a cotton swab and clean the affected areas of the orchid with a mild liquid detergent or insecticidal soap to remove the adult mealy bugs in case of minor infestations. They are quite persistent and you might even find that you need to apply drastic measures in cases of bad infestations. (Drastic measures could include cutting off an affected orchid flower if necessary.)

Mollusks: Snails and slugs are possibly the most common pests in this category. They favor seedlings and soft foliage plants; they even eat through root tips, flower buds and pseudobulbs of orchids. Since they are nocturnal their movements can be tracked by the silvery slimy track that they leave behind. You need to be vigilant. The best methods to counter these little pests are organic control – lure them to a feed in a saucer of beer or under a lettuce leaf, collect them by hand in the morning. You could opt for commercial slug and snail pellets, but this can be nasty to curious pets.

Red Spider Mite: This is another common orchid pest and likes to attack Cymbidium orchids and the Lyscastes orchids. Red spider mite is hardly visible to the human eye, but evidence can be seen in the web-like film on the underside of leaves. They are sap-sucking insects and destroy leaf cells. This result in the orchid leaves yellowing and dying. Mist the tops and undersides of orchid leaves regularly and prevent infestations. Use the same countering measures as for the false spider mite.

Rodents: Rats and mice can be very destructive as they enjoy eating the pollen of the orchid flower. They scamper up the stems to reach the pollen and thus shorten the orchid flower’s life. Make use of commercial poison and set traps for these critters.

Scale insects: These come in many varieties that attack orchids. Scale insects are usually quite mobile when young while the adult scale insects tend to rest on the underside of leaves or beneath the orchid leaf sheaths, either individually or in colonies. They are basically sap-sucking insects that leave yellow patches on the orchid leaves and also secrete honeydew which result in sooty mould. Ants can also be lured by these secretions. Make use of a soft brush and insecticidal soap and water to remove scale. Take care not to damage leaves. You can also make use of a 50:50 solution of water and denatured alcohol. With serious infestation you might have to repeat the treatment and use systemic application of organic insecticide.

Thrips: These are tiny winged insects. Grayish in color and they usually settle on the underside of leaves. They tend to chew up the orchid, scraping the orchid leaf surface for sap and thus causing scarring and discoloration. Make use of the appropriate organic insecticide to fight them off.

Weevils: They are hard-bodied beetles with a dull coloration. They chew into the soft tissue areas of the orchid plant. Weevil and caterpillar damage is rather similar. You should spray or dust the orchid with the appropriate insecticide.

The common diseases

Basal rot / damping off: This is a fungal disease that results in the withering of the orchid stems, especially young seedlings. Basal rot is usually a consequence of: failing to use clean pots or potting mix, overcrowding, or over-watering. You must apply fungicide to the infected orchids, repot them, reduce watering, and increase ventilation to alleviate symptoms of Basal rot.

Bacterial brown spot: This disease is a quick spreader and appears as a brown, watery blister on orchid leaves. It can kill orchids when the infection manages to reach the crown. The bacterial brown spot disease thrives in cold, wet conditions and develops when orchid leaves are allowed to remain wet. The most vulnerable orchid species is the Phalaenopsis orchid. The best remedy is to isolate the affected orchid and remove all affected leaves using a sterilized cutting tool. Spray the orchid with an appropriate bactericide. (Tip: Follow the manufacturer's instructions to the letter.) You should also move the affected orchid to a drier environment until you have the disease under control.

Brown rot: This disease manifests itself as a small brown spot on an orchid leave that grows large very quickly. Another symptom of brown rot infestation is the spice odor that infected orchids emit. Brown rot also has the ability to kill the orchid if it is allowed to reach the crown. The most vulnerable orchid species is the Paphiopedilum orchid. You can use the same treatment as for bacterial brown spot. (Tip: What also helps is a good dusting of cinnamon powder.)

Black rot: This specific type of disease affects the whole orchid plant. It manifests its appearance by the infected area turning black and watery. Over-watering is the main cause of black rot. The most vulnerable orchid species is the Cattleya orchids. You should remove all affected parts of the affected orchid. Spray with the appropriate fungicide and avoid over-watering.

Root rot: This disease is a result of fungal infection to the orchid roots. Orchids will manifest a root rot problem by showing a decline in health and the roots will turn brown. A main cause for root rot is over-watering the orchid and decayed potting mix, and even poor aeration. Make use of a sterilized cutting tool to remove all dead tissue, repot the orchid in a clean pot with fresh potting soil and treat with the recommended fungicide. Most of all avoid over-watering.

Leaf Spotting: This is an unattractive, but benign fungus that appears as small brown spots, sometimes black spots, on orchid leaves. Most orchid species are vulnerable to this disease. Make use of a recommended fungicide and spray the orchid following the instructions closely. Provide optimal growth environment for your orchids.

The common viruses

Sooty mould: This is a soft, black fungal growth that results from the honeydew secretions of aphids, mealy bugs and scale insects on orchids. Sooty mould reduces the amount of light that should reach the leaves and results in the ultimate deterioration of the orchid. You need to wash the orchid leaves with a soapy solution, or make use of a 50:50 solution of water and denatured alcohol. Try to get rid of the cause by getting rid of the pest that secretes the honeydew.

Cymbidium mosaic: This is a very common orchid virus that appears as a dark, sunken patch or streak on orchid leaves. The plants will continue to grow, but will be lacking in vigor, and may even affect other orchids. The best treatment would be to prevent the disease from spreading and destroy the affected plants.

Tobacco mosaic and yellow bean mosaic: Symptoms of these viruses are: orchid leaves becoming mottled with irregular patches of yellow and green, the orchid flower exhibiting streaky, dark coloration. At risk most are Cymbidium orchids and Masdevallia orchids. One answer: Destroy the affected orchid.

Odontoglossum ringspot virus: This virus appears as round blemishes on orchid leaves. These blemishes are usually concentric circles and eventually affect the orchid flowers which will appear deformed. One answer: Destroy the affected orchid.

Preventing orchid pests and diseases
  • Prevention is better than cure: Prevent disease in your orchid.
  • Be vigilant. Check on a regular basis for any visible sign of pest and disease infestation.
  • Maintain a clean, well-balanced growing environment.
  • Buy only healthy, quality plants from a reputable source.
  • Quarantine all new plants for a minimum of two weeks before integrating it with an existing collection.
  • Use only sterilized cutting tools.
  • Only reuse pots that have been disinfected with a bleach solution.
  • Do not reuse compost or potting soil.
  • Do not water an orchid with the runoff of another.
Tips for using insecticides
  • Select the appropriate insecticide or pesticide for the specific affliction the orchid is suffering.
  • Read the manufacturer's instructions and be sure to mix and apply the products precisely according to the instructions.
  • Apply insecticide in moderate temperatures to avoid damage to the orchid.
  • Keep pets and children away from the area while spraying.
  • Make use of gloves and a face mask as well as goggles when applying spray.
  • Wash any part of your shin thoroughly if it came into contact with the insecticide solution.
  • Safely dispose of all unused mixture.
  • Store insecticide out of reach of children and under lock and key.

Providing a controlled environment

When you have only a few orchids, the issue of controlling the environment is not such a big concern. As your collection grows, it becomes a necessity. Another factor that will influence your choice of the type of controlled environment is the types of orchids you grow, whether it is a single genus of many. You can make use of sunrooms or conservatories, shade house, lath house or even a polythene tunnel.