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CULTURAL TIPS FOR THE WORKING CLASS by Brian Milligan

Those still young and fit enough to work for a living must hate me at times, especially during winter, when I offer advice such as ‘water only on warm, windy days so that the leaves are dry by nightfall’. In mid-winter most of these growers are on their way to work as the sun rises and don’t leave for home until sunset. They could be forgiven for thinking that orchid growing is a hobby for retirees only. Don’t be disheartened! Many orchid societies may have more retirees than members of ‘the working class’ but most of those retirees began growing orchids long before they retired. And many of us, including me, probably then grew our orchids as well or better than we do now. We may have more time to devote to them now, but we also have less energy, and probably more orchids than we can care for properly. The late Jim Rentoul, once one of Victoria’s best growers, would often say “if you can’t pick up and examine each of your orchids at least once a month, then you have too many”!

Why should you water your orchids on warm, sunny days in winter? When you think about it, the rain seldom falls on native orchids growing in the wild on warm sunny days during winter! The reason I advise you to watering cultivated orchids at that time is so that their leaves dry by nightfall, thus minimising the likelihood of the onset and spread of fungal infections. Then why don’t native orchids in the wild suffer fungal infections? They probably do to some extent, but individual plants probably grow far enough apart to limit the spread of these infections. Also, these orchids are usually exposed to such strong breezes that their leaves soon dry after each passing shower.

So what does all this mean to those who cannot water during the day in winter? If you can’t persuade your partner to water at that time for you, then it’s probably best to water in the early morning, before you go to work. Choose a day when fine, windy weather is forecast, so that the foliage is likely to dry during the day. Watering after work is a poorer option, because the foliage will almost certainly remain wet all night.

The above discussion particularly applies to cymbidiums and other orchids grown in a ‘cosy’ shade-house, one with a fibreglass roof and shade-cloth walls. If you grow your orchids in an enclosed glasshouse, whether heated or not, then the likelihood of fungal infections is increased considerably. And, if you’re like me and try to cram in as many orchids as possible, you encourage the spread of infection from plant to plant. It’s almost impossible to avoid the development and spread of fungal infections under these conditions unless your watering practices are such that the foliage dries by nightfall. Good ventilation and admission of fresh air to the glasshouse are essential, even if this means the occasional escape of hard-won warm air during the day. In addition, I spray with a preventative fungicide several times each year.

Another piece of advice is to stake and tie your cymbidium spikes only on warm afternoons, and then before, rather than after, watering. Cymbidium spikes are very brittle if they are cold or turgid and are much less likely to snap if the plants have had a chance to dry out for a day or two. Members of the ‘working class’ should preferably leave staking and tying until the weekend. Alternatively, move your orchids into a sunroom and stake and tie them as soon as you return home, while the flower spikes are still warm.

A final piece of advice - don’t defer growing orchids until you retire! Most growers regret that they didn’t take up the hobby much earlier. If you begin with small seedlings, it takes about ten years to build them into large, specimen plants. That’s if you grow them well – something that takes most of us a few years to learn before we get into our stride.

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