Orchid Tips For Unlikely Gardeners & Hopeful Growers

Orchid Tips For Unlikely Gardeners & Hopeful Growers


Sunday, August 09, 2020

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“The garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust.”

— Gertrude Jekyll (2011)

The Unlikely Gardener is an academic at heart and strives to perfect all crafts which she finds interesting and most challenging.

Thanks to the Master of Orchids Claude Hamilton, who so kindly humours me on a weekly basis, I was reminded recently that biology was never my strong suit, and that to receive an “A” in Human and Social Biology, Cherian of Mt Alvernia High School fame spent many hours tutoring me, despite the fact that I never attended Mt Alvernia. The “A” was and is still a surprise because I still know very little. Hamilton, who feels passionately that biology must be a compulsory subject for all high school students, must also often be of the view that I am not very bright despite my exuberance.

The Cow and The Fish

Sitting on his patio on a rainy Friday evening, Hamilton asks, “Have you ever heard the analogy of the cow and the fish?” Of course I had not….

Hamilton: “A man went to a store and bought a cow and a fish. He didn't pay too much attention to what they were telling him but remembered that you put one in the pond and one in the pasture. The next day he saw that both were dead. Being a Jamaican he didn't accept blame. He said that he had bad luck and there are a lot of orchid growers like that.”

The Lesson: You have to understand the type of orchid that you have and how to look after it. In order for the plant to thrive, there must be an acceptable, if not an optimal, growing environment.

Ideal Light

Here is your biology lesson. Hamilton asks the Unlikely Gardener to describe photosynthesis… she gave a simple third grade answer. At that point, I wished that we were playing Who Wants to be a Millionaire? because a better response would've definitely have come from a lifeline.

The Orchid Master explained to his student: “One of the absolutely most important processes on Earth is photosynthesis. Where the plant through chlorophyll converts the minerals it absorbs into food that it can utilise and grow to reproduce. Some plants require low light. Some plants require high light. High-light plants will grow in nature in full sun. Low-light plants, you will usually find them growing on the forest floor… orchids that need medium light are intermediate between the two extremes.”

As a practical and visual lesson, Hamilton teaches that orchids that require low light will have broad leaves as their “solar collectors”. Orchids that need bright light will normally have thinner leaves.


When we speak of light we must also account for heat. Hamilton says, “If an orchid naturally grows in low-light conditions, they don't handle extreme heat very well. If the intensity of the sun is too high they become scorched. If there is too little light, they will not be able to photosynthesise properly. Very often, this happens to Cattleyas and they won't bloom as a consequence.”

Major Takeaway: “99/100 times, if your orchid won't bloom, it's because it needs more light.”

The Best Time to Water

According to Hamilton, “The single most important thing that a beginner needs to master is water. Once the plant is in the optimal light and they master watering, 90% or more of their problems are over.”

Hamilton asks: “When is the best time to water?”

He explains: “The best time to water is when the sun isn't out because that is when the stomata in the orchid leaves are open and the plants have the ability to absorb most of the nutrients in the plants from the stomata. If the stomata are open, you can water and fertilise to a more optimal level than if you fertilise during the day. The best time is between 5:00 am and 7:00 am in the morning.”

Of course, the Unlikely Gardener struggles to wake up before 7:00 am and asked for the second-best time to water and he responded: “The second-best time, if you have good air movement, then you can water at any time during the night. If not, it's not a good idea because then you can have rot or fungal problems. Very often, during the night, you don't have as much air movement as you do during the day unless you live near the sea coast.”

The Beauty of Rain

The beauty of rain, however, is very interesting even for those of us who aren't very scientific. When it rains, the stomata are naturally open and the pH of the rain is around 6.5 which is ideal so the plants absorb more nutrients. According to Hamilton: “Rain water would normally be neutral but it passes through the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that creates a weak acid in the rain water.” This is why plants look better when watered with rain water as opposed to tap. Ideally, the pH of water should be slightly acidic between 5.2 and 6.5. Our tap water is alkaline and normally between pH 7 to pH 8 but can be altered by fertiliser or by adding phosphoric or citric acid.

Fun Fact from Hamilton: “If the orchid is thirsty and it wants a drink, it doesn't roll over and die as most people think. It's not like a fern or some foliage that you have to keep wetting continuously. They grow in trees and the only time they get wet is when it rains. They put out new roots that search for water.”

Growing Tips & Watering Techniques for Popular Orchids:

The most popularly purchased orchids in Jamaica are Phalaenopsis, Vandas and Dendrobium. Here are a few quick facts and tips from Hamilton:


• The orchids of choice for the beginner.

• Not the most expensive.

• Bloom frequently with long-lasting flowers.

• Grow fairly quickly.

• “Some of the most forgiving orchids” — recover from mistakes quickly.

• Susceptible to fungal problems and spider mite damage.

• Try to keep on top of and control fungal issues.

• Best to spray with a prophylactic fungicide, eg Ridomil.

• When spraying, use a low-volume sprayer like a knapsack sprayer and ensure that the spray coats the upper side and underside of the leaf and stem and use a sticker/surfactant.

Watering Technique:

• Water and let dry then water again when dry.


• The potting medium that you put Phals in (usually sphagnum) holds water because they do not like to be wet and then dry like Cattleya.

• They like to be evenly moist and shouldn't be left out in the rain if in potting medium that holds a lot of water.

• In nature Phals don't grow upright and don't grow in pots. Generally, the leaves bend over so that if rain falls it runs down the leaves and away from the crown.

• If upright it provides a catchment in the crown that will rot the leaf leading to crown rot.

Watering Technique:

• Water thoroughly and leave to dry.

• Don't measure the water by a cup or half-cup.

• Wet the potting material thoroughly.

• Flush the potting material.

• There should be air movement to help to circulate the air around the plant and to dry the foliage.

• Don't use your finger to check moisture of the potting medium because every time you put your finger in it can damage the root and compact the medium.

• To check whether the plant needs to be watered use “the heft test” by lifting the pot.

• An indicator pot can also be used to judge moisture — use a plantlets pot that has the same potting medium, same sized pot and type. When checking, you can pour out the medium to see if its dry or damp and water accordingly.


• Vandas are quite easy but require regular watering, especially since we grow them without potting medium.

• If watered regularly and properly, they will grow well and have tremendous root systems.

• They can also be grown in pots making mastery of watering more essential.

• When grown in baskets or on trees they are basically bare-root and can handle serious rain events.

• When growing Vandas in baskets, protect from the wind or they will dry out quickly.

Watering Technique:

• Spray the root so that the Vanda can absorb the water through the velamen which will turn green.

• After spraying the root, wait about four minutes to see if they turn green; if not, spray again.

The Importance of Examining Plants

Watering with sprinklers — Hamilton doesn't particularly care for sprinklers since “people who use them don't look at the plants regularly or carefully. They just turn on the sprinkler and go about their business”.

“If you're hand-watering your plant, you should see the plant every time you're watering it. If you use the sprinkler and ensure that you examine the plant, then it's OK. People who don't examine lose plants more regularly.

If there is fungal or bacterial rot and it starts on the leaf and travels down the plant and gets to the rhizome then you can't stop it.”

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