Orchids belong to one of the largest family of flowering plants on the planet, with an estimated 25 000 to 35 000 species of orchids on Earth, with many new ones discovered each year.
There are myths which suggest that orchids are difficult to grow, need specialised spaces like greenhouses to grow in, or can only be properly grown by specialists in the field. These fallacies have prevented many from trying their hand at growing orchids. Today, orchids are as commonplace as roses or ferns and are available in most department stores. You do not need a hot house or shade house to successfully grow orchids; one can quite easily grow orchids on a windowsill and be rewarded with many beautiful flowering orchids. The key is to use your urban space wisely and to select the right orchids for your space.
Growing on a windowsill
If you have limited space indoors, a perfect and often unused space for an orchid to grow is on a windowsill. The best position would be an eastern exposure, with indirect morning sunlight. A windowsill with a western exposure is generally unadvised, since the hot afternoon sun can easily damage delicate orchid leaves. To avoid this you could provide protection in the form of net curtains or 30% shade cloth. As a general rule, always grow your orchids in bright indirect sunlight or in dappled shade, however, your orchids will tolerate and appreciate some direct early morning sunlight.
Since most orchids are found in tropical regions that have high humidity, it is best to grow your orchids on a humidity tray, which can be made simply by placing pebbles or gravel in a plastic drip tray. Add a little water to the drip tray to about half way up the pebbles, and make sure that the bottom of the pot is not touching the water as this can lead to root rot if too much water gets in to the pot. The best type of orchids to grow on a windowsill are miniature orchids, since the growth form of miniature orchids are very compact you can grow more orchids in a limited space, allowing for a diversity of flowers.
Orchids you can grow on a windowsill or in your home include Phalaenopsis (moth orchids) and paphiopedilum (lady slippers) species and hybrids; Oncidiums, Dendrobiums and Cattleyas (corsage orchid).
Growing orchids in pots
Potted orchids are by far the easiest orchids to keep, as they are easy to move around the garden, or moved indoors during the winter. By far the most affordable type of pot to use if you are growing on a tight budget are free draining plastic pots. Orchids prefer being cramped up in a small pot, so always make sure your orchid is potted so that the plant and its roots are restricted – never use a large pot for a small plant as you won’t see flowers for many years.
Orchids also grow well in clay pots and it is preferable to use glazed pots as these do not dry out as quickly, however, always ensure you have enough holes at the bottom of the pot for the water to drain out, if in doubt drill a few more holes in the bottom. Some orchids have a terrestrial growth habit, which means they can grow in the ground and prefer their roots being in the top layer of hummus. Potted terrestrial orchids such as cymbidiums and sobralias can easily be sunk into your garden beds or into larger containers.
Orchids that can be grown in pots outside all year round are Cymbidiums, Sobralias, Epidendrums (poor man’s orchid) and some oncidium and cattleya species and hybrids.
Growing on trees
In nature, many orchids are epiphytic, meaning that they grow on trees and not in the ground.
To mount an orchid onto a tree you will need to tightly fasten it to the tree, using nylon fishing gut or plastic-coated wire. Old pantyhose work very well too, and disintegrate over time once the orchid has latched on. One can mount the orchid roots straight onto the tree bark or pack some sphagnum moss around the roots which allows for moisture retention while new roots establish. Orchids can also be mounted on driftwood, tree-fern slabs, or cork bark for display in your home, garden or court yard.
Remember mounted orchids will dry out more quickly than orchids in a pot and will need to be watered more frequently, especially in hot weather.
Orchid species you can grow in trees in the Cape are Oncidiums sphacelatum, Laelia anceps, Mysticidium capense and Cyrtorchis arcuata.
If you have limited space on a balcony or courtyard then vertical growing could be the solution for you. There is no doubt that hanging baskets enhance an orchid collection and the most common types of containers to use are wooden slatted baskets or wire baskets. Some orchids such as Stanhopeas and Gongoras need to be grown in hanging baskets to show off their pendant blooms.
You can also use a bamboo or wooden trellis secured against a wall to display your mounted orchids. Before you set up your trellis watch the movement of the sun in your space and see which wall provides the most morning sun. A large tray or trough can be placed at the bottom of your trellis to catch any water and provides the orchids with humidity at the same time.
Orchids you can grow mounted include Cattleyas and laelias, Dendrobiums, Angraecums and most oncidiums.
Orchids you can grow in hanging baskets are Pendulous cymbidiums, Coelogynes, Gongoras and Stanhopeas.
* To find out more about orchid growing, speak to those in the know. The Cape Orchid Society (COS) meets every fourth Tuesday of the month at 7pm the Athenaeum in Newlands. They have a monthly plant table where they display the blooms open at that time of year. Every monthly meetings hosts a orchid-related presentation ranging from orchid conservation in South Africa, to orchid culture tips.
Join the COS at their autumn show, titled The Secret Garden, which will be held at Ferndale Nursery in Brommersvlei Road, Constantia on Friday, Saturday and Sunday April 22, 23 and 24. Entry is R15 for adults and R10 for pensioners, students and pupils. Pensioners get free entry to the event on Friday April 22.
There will be a number of orchids and other exotic plants for sale for those who want to try their hand at orchid growing. For more information, call Bev on 083 252 4659, or log on to www.capeorchidsociety.co.za
* Janine Fearon is a member of the Cape Orchid Society.