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Preparing For Your First Orchids
Ralph Collins and Richard Peterson - Published January 1975
Few times are more exciting in an orchid grower's career than the moment he first discovers orchids. Even the winning of some coveted award, however thrilling that may be to an experienced person, cannot match the feelings a beginner experiences as his first plants start to bloom. Realizing that each year brings hundreds, even thousands of beginners to the wonderful world of orchids, the authors are attempting a pictorial series, specifically for those beginners, entitled Basic Orchid Culture. This series will appear every month for a year, or longer if there is a call for it. In it we will attempt to explain and portray, step by step, what we have found to be a helpful path to follow through the often confusing maze of twists and turns called successful orchid growing. We do not maintain that this is the only way - or necessarily the best way. It is however a guide which the authors feel has helped them over many hurdles - or dusted them off after they have missed the jump!
The first article of this new series, "Preparing for Your First Orchids," will discuss the essentials with which every beginner should be provided. Subsequent articles will discuss their usage in detail. Since orchids come in a multitude of shapes, sizes and disconcerting plant habits, a variety of potting containers is essential. Plastic pots, used by growers for their ease of potting and resistance to accumulation of salts, range in size from large, 8-inch cymbidium pots (and larger) down to the seedling, thumb pots (2"). Remember that square pots will fit more economically on benches than round ones. Clay pots also come in graduated sizes and are preferred by many growers for their ability to "breath"; i.e., let moisture evaporate more readily. Baskets are appropriate for plants which have extended aerial roots (Vanda, Renanthera, Ascocendas and Ascocentrum) or those whose flower spikes emerge from the base of the pseudobulb and penetrate through the potting media (Coryanthes, Acineta, Stanhopea) The tree-fern basket will permit any orchid to root directly into it, but it proves a devilish thing to deal with when you have to repot.
If you have the knack of old-time growers, you may slice wedges from the base of clay pots with a chisel and hammer. This will provide you with better drainage. This practice is not as widespread as in previous years due to improved watering procedures and a wider variety of drainage materials (Editor's note: Such clay pots are now readily available ready-made and the practice of retrofitting clay regular clay pots is a dead art). Most plastic pots have small drainage holes. Since water tends to remain in plastic pots longer than in clay, enlarge these drainage holes with a soldering iron.
Basic utensils for potting also include, aluminum (or wooden) potting sticks (Editor's note: potting sticks are essential for potting in osmunda fiber but much less commonly encountered because of the prevalence of more modern potting materials), a sharp-bladed knife, pliers, and shears.
Thin wire stakes, about the size of a double strand of spaghetti, are excellent for supporting top-heavy flowers such as Paphiopedilum. Heavier stakes will be needed to support Cattleya growths and the like. Small, U-shaped clips are handy for hanging small pots, while sturdy hangers will be necessary for suspending taller, heavier plants. A water-resistant ink pen or grease pencil should be used for long-lasting labels (Editor's note: Beware of so-called indelible pens or Sharpies for making labels. While waterproof and so-called permanent, sufficient fading occurs within as little as six months in the sun to make they effectively uselss). Proper identification and labeling of all your orchids, right from the beginning, cannot be emphasized too greatly. Without the name, clearly legible, an orchid plant loses much of its appeal to more experienced growers. Labels can also be most informative. A suitable label will contain space for the species or hybrid name, as well as a place to put the parentage. The reverse side of the label may be used to record potting dates. Do not use wire or string in attaching labels to plants. These soon disintegrate in a humid atmosphere. Use plastic-covered wires (the insides of telephone cables) instead, for long-lasting results.
Drainage material is essential. Among the most popular are "crock" (pieces of broken clay pot) and white granite chips, porous stone, large and small pieces of charcoal and even Styrofoam packing material. Charcoal may be most useful when mixed with the granite or porous stone. What to pot with has always been a source of controversy and continues to be so. The common organic potting materials available today include coconut husk chips, fir bark and tree fern. Osmunda fiber is much less available than it used to be and even more expensive making it relatively uncommon today. Fir bark, coconut husk chips and charcoal come in a range of sizes from fine, seedling or terrestrial grades (1/4 inch in size) to medium (1/2 to 3/4 inch) to coarse grades (1" or larger). Some growers, particularly those in warmer, outdoor conditions who water more frequently, prefer to use the relatively porous tree-fern. Tree-fern also comes in various grades as well as large plaques upon which orchids may be mounted. You must watch your watering procedures carefully with this medium as newly potted plants dry out very quickly. Another alternative to tree-fern in hot, humid climates is the use of expanded clay aggregate available under many trade names (Alifor) is one such product. This can be used by itself of mixed with 10-30% fir bark or coconut husk chips to provide more water holding capability and buffer capacity.
Osmunda used to be the most popular potting medium and it provides nutrients which other media do not. Orchids seem to flourish in it, provided a grower realizes that the medium may become deceptively dry, retaining more water than is readily apparent from a glance at the surface. Osmunda does require the patience of the Biblical Job in repotting, however. You must tear or cut it apart to form suitable pieces; a dusty job at best but guaranteed to build muscles. Harvested from the roots of a fern, osmunda has continued to become progressively more expensive and difficult. Although it can still be found, its use limited to mostly very experienced growers.
Sphagnum moss is now used by many growers with success. Its water holding capability and tendency to take up salts makes growing in it very different from other media but those who have mastered it swear by it.
Many growers, once they perfect their cultural methods, prefer to experiment with their own pot-ting mixtures. Though osmunda is almost always used alone, growers will often mix various grades of fir bark with peat (German Peat NOT Canadian Peat), Perlite and/or sphagnum moss, alive or dried, as well as virtually any other exotic material you can think of. The new arrival, your first, blooming orchid, can be displayed in many ways. By using a pot clip you may even attach a small pot of Barkeria to the wall in the manner you would hang a painting.