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Nine ways to improve your orchid culture

Growing orchids is a maddening, wonderful addiction.  Part of the satisfaction in orchid growing comes from continually improving your growing skills.  Here are ten things that can improve your orchid culture skills.


1) Join a society

On my first visit to the local orchid society, I was stunned at how well the members had grown the plants they’d brought in for show and tell.  Clearly there were incredible growers who had acquired years of experience in growing all kinds of orchid plants.  And on top of it, they were knowledgeable about local conditions: weather, water, suppliers, growers.  Going to a society meeting lets you meet a range of growers from newbies to orchidaceous experts.  But just keep in mind that some societies are always looking for eager new blood to take over a lot of the society work!


2) Join an online forum

Online orchid forums have taken their place as the 21st century’s latest contribution to the centuries-old history of orchid culture.  In some ways, these digital equivalents of orchid societies have many advantages: you can tap into a worldwide network of growers, you can remain anonymous, and you can satisfy your craving for new orchid info 24/7.  The drawbacks: you don’t get to see the plants in person, you may encounter some annoying people, and worst of all, you’ll rapidly become jealous of other people’s growing skills and collections.  In the slipper orchid world, I’ve learned a great deal from the people at two popular forums:, and


3) Read books and magazines

While societies and online forums collectively possess formidable amounts of practical experience, reading books by people who have devoted their lives to the study of orchids will give you information that you simply won’t find anywhere else.  In addition to good photos of orchids, you can get information about where these plants grow in the wild, colorful histories of their discovery, and detailed cultural conditions.  For Paphiopedilum lovers, I highly recommend The Genus Paphiopedilum (both Volumes I and II) by Braem, Baker, and Baker.  Excellent cultural information with great pictures and interesting plant discovery histories make for a great resource.   Similarly, Phillip Cribb’s The Genus Paphiopedilum (I guess orchid scientists have an affinity for Latin titles) has excellent pictures and information about wild conditions.


If you’re looking for something lighter, and want to get into the heads of other orchid growers, I recommend Eric Hansen’s Orchid Fever.  He gives a very entertaining and funny survey of orchid folk of all types; after reading it, you may find that you have orchid fever as well.


4) Visit other growers

One of the joys of orchid growing is to, well, see the plants growing!  Short of trekking into the jungle, visiting other growers -- especially large commercial operations -- is a great way to see lots of plants growing.  Be prepared to end up with a lighter wallet and fuller greenhouse.  There’s nothing like the rush of warm, humid air in a well-kept greenhouse, with hundreds of plants waiting to join your collection.  Commercial nurseries depend on growing well for a living, so the methods they use for their plants must be successful or they’d go out of business.  Orchid people are passionate people, and you can always get growers to talk to you about their techniques and experiences. 


If you’re fortunate enough to live in one of the larger metropolitan areas in the US, you’re probably only an hour away from at least one commercial grower.  If you live in CA or FL, you should have no problems finding growers to visit.


5) Know your water

It never ceases to amaze me how much money people will spend on orchids, but not on a simple Total Dissolved Solids meter and pH meter to test their water.  Some people would rather plow another $50 or $100 into a nice plant, only to slowly stress and kill it rather than to use the money for instruments that will tell them the condition of their water.  I should know: despite being a trained scientist and knowing how to use these instruments, I put off getting a TDS meter for months and instead spent lots of money on new plants, like delicate P. sanderianum seedling plants.  Well, many of those plants died before I came to my senses and bought a TDS meter.  It confirmed what I already suspected given my lackluster growth -- my tap water was awful.  That led me to get a good reverse osmosis system, which turned out to be the best thing I ever did for my orchids !


6) Grow in clear pots

I love watching plants grow.  New leaves, flower spikes, buds getting bigger – I love them all.  But why stop there?  In healthy, growing plants, there’s plenty of action happening underneath the mix with the roots.  Unfortunately, black and green pots don’t let you see much more than the occasional root creeping out in search of moisture.  While you may or may not talk to your plants, your plants certainly can talk to you, if you know their language.  Clear pots let your plants’ roots talk to you just like the leaves can talk to you, if you know how to read them.


These pots do cost more, though, but for smaller collections, the window they give into a plants root system make them worth the extra money.  If you like watching leaves get bigger, you’ll like watching roots get longer.



7) Experiment – but use a good sample size

Experimenting is necessary to improving orchid culture.  Although people have developed excellent methods for growing nearly every type of orchid, we all still need to experiment to find what works best for our own specific conditions and plants.  No matter what I say works for me, there is no iron-clad guarantee that it will work for you.  The best I can do is provide you with a very detailed description of how I did my particular experiment.


Unfortunately, all too often orchid growers draw conclusions based on too few observations.  For example, people always want to know whether semi-hydroponics works better with aliflor or some other media.  And the way they’ll test is to take one plant of a given species (or hybrid) and stick it into aliflor, and take another plant and put it into some other media, like CHC.  They’ll grow for a couple of months and make observations, and then declare one the winner.


Unfortunately, that’s not the way a proper experiment in plant science (or experimental biology) is conducted.  Scientists must deal with variability in their results all the time. To give you an example – if you flip a fair coin 100,000 times, you should get pretty close to 50,000 heads, and 50,000 tails.  It very likely won’t be exactly so, of course, but pretty close.  As you increase the number of flips, the closer you will get to that theoretical 50/50 split.  But what if you decrease the number of flips?  If you were to flip 100 times, most of the time you’d end up with 50-something vs. 40-something.  It would not at all be surprising if you get something like 69 heads, 31 tails.  Unlikely, but very possible.


Now, let’s try flipping 10 times.  You could easily end up with 7:3, or even 8:2 now and then. 


So what does this have to do with plant experiments?  The point is that there is variability in nature and in experimental results.  Doing an experiment to test two conditions using one plant in each condition will not give you generalizable results because of the variability inherent in nature and in measurement.  You might have an especially vigorous plant that will grow well in whatever condition you grow it in, or an especially non-vigorous plant that will suffer in whatever condition you grow it in.  To overcome this uncertainty about the individual plants you’re working with (and your experimental measurements), you need to increase your sample size.  Typically, you would want to include at a bare minimum six plants in each of your conditions.  In fact, a number closer to 30 would be much, much better.


Of course, most growers don’t have space even for 6 plants per condition (or 6 plants to test!).  That doesn’t render experiments conducted with small sample sizes completely useless, but results must certainly be viewed properly.  So if you’re going to do experiments to compare different media, or to test if mycorrhizae enhance orchid growth, or lighting conditions, etc., try to use as many identical plants (same species or hybrids and size) as possible.  You’ll have more confidence in your results.



8) Keep good records

The conditions in your growing area change constantly.  Weather conditions such as temperature and humidity vary throughout the day, while your plants constantly react to media conditions, watering, fertilizer, light, and pests (just to name a few).  Monitoring all of these various conditions and your plants’ reaction to these variables can become a very big task.  Hence the necessity of keeping good records.


Our minds are extraordinarily susceptible to seeing what we want to see.  Keeping careful records helps combat that tendency, and enables you to see larger trends over time. 


All you really need is a notebook in your growing area, a calendar, and a ready supply of pens or pencils.  You will be amazed at the amount of information about your plants that you can gather in just a month or so, information that will lead you to make adjustments that can take you to the next level of orchid growth!


9) Take a walk on the wild side

A trip into the orchid-infested jungles of Borneo will no doubt do wonders for any growers of Paphiopedilum rothschildianum or sanderianum.  So would a trip to the mountains of Peru for collectors of Phragmipedium besseae or kovachii.  It wouldn’t even matter if you’d bloomed and flowered them successfully for decades – the experience of feeling on your skin the same humidity and the same rain, of breathing in the same air, of seeing Nature’s very own contradictions and refutations of age-old horticultural practice – all of these would certainly jar even the most experienced collector into a fresh view of these amazing plants.


While I practice what I preach above with varying degrees of success, a trip into the wild remains as one of my chief objectives in the maddening obsession of orchid growing.  At orchid society presentations, the talks that I find most riveting are invariably the ones where the speaker describes a trip into the wild, and shows pictures of species growing in nature.  Our artificial growing methods can grow "better" plants than in the wild, but there are some things that society meetings, books, growing experts, and careful records can never teach you: how "our" plants fit into their true places in the vast puzzle of the natural world.

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