Orchid Tips and Tricks:  What Champion growers won’t tell you

(but probably would if you asked)


On Monday, January 11, the Kiawah Island Garden Club learned from Tom Wise, of Johns Island Orchids, how to have more success with our orchids at home.  Tom began dividing and selling the “babies” of his orchids 20 years ago and has been a judge for the American Orchid Society since 2011.  His greenhouse on River Road is open by appointment. He gave us 7 tips, and a great, entertaining education.

 To be a better grower, learn more about your orchids.  There are 22-27,000 species of orchids, the second largest group in the world, behind grasses.  They grow on every continent except Antarctica, but primarily in the tropics.  The richest area, in diversity, is at the foot of the Himalayas in India, Nepal and Bhutan.  The characteristic which helps to identify an orchid is Bilateral Symmetry, as one side mirrors the other.  There are two major growth habits:  either sympodial, growing on a rhizome, or monopodial, where growth emerges from the top of a single stem.  Most are epiphytes, growing on trees, usually in the tropics.  Others are lithophytes, growing on rocks, with leaves like a succulent because they thrive in harsh, dry, sunny conditions.  Still others are terrestrial, growing from a bulb in the ground if it’s too cold to grow on trees.  Some, as those in Australia, have evolved to bloom better after an area burns, and there are wild orchids like that in the Francis Marion forest.  Therefore you need to know which type you have, so that you know the proper potting mixture ( Epiphytes need loose media), whether they should be kept wet or dry (Lithotypes need to be kept dry), and if other growers say the orchid is easy or tough to grow.
Pay attention, as the old Chinese proverb says:  “the best fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow”.  Pick up and examine your plant, remove dead or dying leaves and weeds, and remove or spray for scale or mealy bugs (spray Bayer Advanced Rose and Flower Spray on the medium and the roots also).  Overwatering is a common problem; do not let the roots stay wet, so examine the potting medium:  take the orchid out of the pot, turn it upside down and make sure the medium is not decomposed.  Orchids have a front and back, the leaves of an orchid in the forest will face the sun, so your plant should also.  The leaves are angled towards one side.
Orchid roots need air, so repot if the leaves look dry (the roots have been overwatered and rotted!)  You can test with a bamboo stake…….if it’s dry, still wait another day or so.  Pot in fir bark, sphagnum moss plus sponge rock (Perlite), or Chilean or New Zealand large fibered sphagnum moss. 
 Try Cypress or Cedar mulch mixed with sponge rock, a loose airy mix.  For Cattleyas use hardwood lump charcoal (not briquets!) as it mimics a tree.  Use Nutricote, a slow release fertilizer, every 6-8 months.  Osmocote will burn the orchids.  Use Miracle Gro, at half or quarter strength:  “weakly weekly”, and flush out with tap water every once in a while.
Choose your container wisely, with holes in the bottom, either plastic pots or, ideally, unglazed terracotta which wicks water away because orchids are tough and like to dry out quickly.  Phalenopsis  are monopodial and when you repot, coil the roots around and put them into the medium loosely.  When the orchid has finished blooming, cut off the spike, take it out of an ornamental pot and let it get indirect sun to rejuvenate. Iif the leaves feel warm to the touch, it’s too much sun.  Artificial light is fine but is not enough for cattlyeas.  Do not use plastic net pots as it tears up the roots.  Teak baskets are great for orchids which bloom from the bottom, such as Stanhopea.  The baskets will rot and then you replace them. 
Many orchids like to be mounted, as if on a tree, on cork, a teak plank, a tree fern plank,  hickory bark or wild grapevines such as you find on the trees around here.  Try mounting your difficult orchids:  Dendrobiums, phalaenopsis, and some small Cattleyas.  Attach them with zip ties and eventually the roots will attach themselves and you can remove the ties.   Wire S hooks are good for Vandas.
Don’t stress if your orchid dies, it’s a plant, not a puppy.  Sick orchids take a long time to heal and may never fully recover.  They will attract insects and disease.  Just try to learn from your mistakes, such as decayed roots from over watering.  Growers have killed many orchids, and so you are not alone.


Orchid judges train for 6 years and promote good orchids and growing methods, and Tom Wise is doing just that.  He recommends going on the American Orchid Society website, as well as the Internet Orchid Species Photo Encyclopedia.  Or visit him at his greenhouses on River Road to learn from the master.