Orchid growers reveal the secrets of their lush hobby

Keys Sunday contributorMay 26, 2008 

Behind a small house in Key West lies an incredible display of almost 1,000 orchids lovingly collected and nurtured by Gary Gethen, whose house was a highlight of the March House and Garden Tour sponsored by the Old Island Restoration Foundation. The collection of brilliantly colored blooms, some large and splashy, others very small and delicate, includes some very rare species acquired by Gethen in his travels around the world, including Hawaii and Peru.

On both days of the tour, Gethen held court in his private Eden, patiently answering questions from orchid experts and many wannabes. When asked if beginners could ever hope to grow orchids as beautiful as his, his answer was yes, if they start slowly and carefully and are armed with knowledge of a few important basics.

The growing season begins in April and lasts for 6 to 8 months for most orchids, so this is a good time to start by selecting orchids and learning what it takes to maintain them. They are essentially hardy plants that grow in all parts of the world – except Antarctica. We are fortunate to live in the Florida Keys, where the climate is conducive to growing many orchid species.

If you are a beginner, choose your starter plants carefully so that you can be assured of success. Avoid more sensitive species until you gain confidence, and don’t be tempted to buy exotic species that live in mountainous areas or in cold climates. Gethen himself has had to eschew remarkable specimens he saw in the Peruvian Andes, since he knew they would not survive in the Keys. Choose plants that like warm, sea level climates such as ours. Also note that hybrids are easier to take care of because they have been bred to thrive under man’s cultivation techniques.

Learn the basics

Five basics should be kept in mind for all plants, including orchids: light, water, fertilizer, insecticides and fungicides. Study the light requirements for the species you choose. According to the American Orchid Society, the need for light varies widely. Vandas and Ascocendas require 70 percent full sun, whereas Dendrobiums need 30 percent, Cattleyas, 25 percent, Paphios, 10 percent, and Phalaenopsis, 10 percent.

Watering needs also vary from species to species. It is important to learn not only how often to water but also which potting medium to use to retain the moisture required. Orchids need less water than many other flowering plants and are therefore a good choice in times of drought such as the one we are experiencing now in South Florida. Orchid leaves and potting medium do need to be soaked, however, for success with the plants. A general rule is watering twice a week, but a good rain of half an inch or more can eliminate the need for one of the waterings. Heavy dews, amounting to about 1/8 inch of rain, also provide some of the needed moisture.

For example, Vandas need lots of light but no potting medium. They can be cultured in a basket. Oncidium can be grown on a rock if you wish, whereas Cattleyas and Dendrobiums require moisture and a potting medium of pine fir bark, charcoal, and lava rock, which will hold the moisture. Cymbidiums thrive on pure bark. Paphs and Phalaenopsis need sphagnum moss with bark. They like wet feet.

“Fertilize your orchids once a week for three weeks with a mild, balanced solution such as 20.20.20, and a Bloom Booster (middle number of the 3 being highest) on the fourth week” he recommends. “No special orchid formulation is needed.” A time-release fertilizer is a good choice because it releases all the necessary nutrients gradually over time. For this, Gethen recommends a 13.13.13 formulation of Dynamite.

Don’t neglect pesticides. “Alternate pesticide applications,” he advises, “using one pesticide for three applications and then switching to another formulation for one to two applications.” Prophylactic application of pesticides once a month is an effective preventative measure.

Fungal infestations can be warded off by ensuring a good airflow around the orchids. The application of fungicides (Captan or Daconil) should be applied once a month as a prophylactic.

He agrees that organic control of the threats to orchids is certainly possible, but cautions that it does require intense dedication to be effective.

Gethen’s recommendation for a starter orchid is the Dendrobium, which likes the sun. It is disease resistant, is essentially bug free, requires water only once or twice a week, and can survive exposure to salt water. If the plant is affixed to a tree or other location where there is little medium to hold water, you should water more frequently. Boost your watering to two or three times a week during growing season. This orchid has the added benefit of blooming twice a year.

Phalaenopsis is another plant he recommends for the beginner. This lovely orchid produces wonderful flowers in a wide spectrum of vibrant colors once a year in the spring and is worth the wait. It doesn’t like direct sun, but thrives in filtered light. Its blooms last several weeks. When the blooms are finished, do not remove the flower stalk unless it turns brown for it will bloom again on the same stalk next year along with new flower spikes. If you wish, it can be brought indoors while in bloom and put back outside later. Water this one frequently. It likes to have its feet moist.

The Cattleya, or “cat,” is often referred to as the “corsage orchid.” This familiar, showy orchid is easy to care for and grow, but it is prone to bugs, specifically scale. But with knowledge of this weakness, the problem can be easily averted with a little attention along the way. Water this orchid only when dry.

The Oncidium (Dancing Lady) and Vanda are also on Gethen's list for the beginner, although the American Orchid Society puts them at the intermediate level. Gethen maintains that the Oncidium is easy to care for. It loves lots of sunlight, and can be stuck in a pot, on a board, or on a tree, he says, requiring minimal care. It likes lots of water, but must dry quickly so the roots don’t sit in water.

The Vanda, which blooms twice a year, is also easy to grow, says Gethen, but requires more water than most because it grows without a potting medium that would retain the moisture. He recommends a slow-release fertilizer. The Ascocenda bears blooms smaller than the Vanda but in greater quantity and can delight you with showy blooms three to four times a year. Its needs are the same as those of the Vanda.

Paphiopedilum (Paths, or Slipper Orchids) produce long-lasting, exotic blooms. They like bright light, but no direct sun, frequent watering, and weekly fertilization. This is another plant that likes wet feet.

Starting off

Gethen himself started with only six orchids, which he acquired during a vacation trip to Hawaii and brought back to his farm in Wisconsin in 1990. His business as a retailer and wholesaler of perennials essentially closed during the blustery Wisconsin winters, leaving him free time to travel and learn the art of orchid growing, which became his passion.

In 1994, Gethen moved to Key West, bought a house, began tropical gardening in earnest, and opened his own business, The Cadi-Gardener. The name was derived from the Cadillac he brought with him from Wisconsin.

He now has 35 clients and still manages to work four days a week (Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.) in the plant store at the MARC House in Key West. All proceeds from MARC’s plant store and other functions are used to teach life skills to the mentally challenged and to sustain group homes for them so they can live on their own.

This season’s series of free orchid culture classes at the MARC House just ended, but will resume again in the fall. In the meantime, there are many ways to keep up on the subject until next season’s classes are announced.

The third weekend of May, The Annual Orchid Show and Fair will be held at the Redlands Spice Park near Homestead on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Somewhere between 50 and 70 vendors from around the world will exhibit, and sell, an amazing assortment of orchids outside under tents.

You might consider joining the Key West Orchid Society. It is a place where beginners mix with the more experienced to share ideas and plants. Members have the opportunity to hear and question speakers, who offer new insights into orchid culture and often bring new varieties to delight and inform members. To join the Key West Orchid Society, contact Judy McKemie at (305) 743-0769 or 870 Copa D’Oro, Marathon, FL 33050.

To learn more about the orchids mentioned above and many others, check out the Web site of the Miami-based American Orchid Society (www.aos.org), where you will be able to retrieve culture sheets with complete instructions for beginners and experienced gardeners.

Depending on your level of interest, you might be interested in joining the society. Membership includes a monthly magazine. For more details, visit their Web site.

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