A BIT ABOUT . . . Watering Those Orchids
© Gerry Walsh
Of all the cultural facets that orchid growers must come to grips with, the simple act of watering them is perhaps the most difficult one to quantify. In nearly every other department of horticulture, we are given very specific instructions on what to do for this or how to handle that.
To explain what I am on about, the following example would seem the best way to start the discussion rolling. Let us assume for a moment that you are sitting on a rock in the middle of the desert, just hanging around . . . doing nothing, when a UFO suddenly lands in front of you. Out steps Urqvug, an entity with a face only his mum could love. He announces that you are the chosen one and presents you with a plant that will rid the Earth of all disease and at least half of all St George supporters.
What a boom this wonderful plant is, you smirk to yourself; “I will be filthy rich!” Within a few seconds, Urqvug has returned to his ship and zoomed off. All that is left is a simple set of instructions, mysteriously written in English, telling you how to nurture this incredible shrub.
In short, the Medivac Dragon plant (as you have promptly baptised it) is best grown in an open mix of three parts coarse river sand and one part German peat moss, into which you must mix five grams each of iron chelates and Magnesium sulphate. Place this in an eight-inch pot (terra cotta for preference) and fertilise with 50 grams of six month Osmacote twice a year. If fungus spots appear, treat with Fungerbunger at the rate of one ml/litre. Grow in warm position under 50% shade cloth. Tip prune twice a year.
Now, what could be simpler you think? But right at the end of Urqvugs instructions you come to the loose canon. “Water As Required” it says. What the hell does that mean? How many mils? How many litres? How often? Less in winter? More in summer? Morning or night? The panic sets in . . .
And so it is in your bush house. Everything is defined for you in very exacting terms. That is until you come to the watering. Then its Raffertys Rules. Watering is a greatly imprecise science that can be neither accurately taught nor confidently interpreted.
Prevailing environmental factors play a huge role in how much water an orchid needs, or rather, how much water the grower needs to give it. Using my own bush house as an example, it sits in the middle of about 15 acres of surrounding land that has not a windbreak or building of any kind for at least 70 metres. When the winds are up they rip across without obstruction and dry the whole bush house out quite quickly.
Where I used to live I had the luxury of protection by paling fences and brick houses all around and at close proximity. I did not need to water with anything like the regularity that I need to now. It took a while to adapt my watering to suit the new conditions. There was no formula or set of tables that could help me. We must each learn to adapt to our allotted conditions.
One of the greatest problems I have encountered is explaining to new chum growers how they should treat a species they have just acquired and have no experience of. The most frequent question is usually “How often do I water it?” The answer is always given with mixed feelings and complicated explanations on what constitutes normalcy.
The real problem is this: what one grower calls heavy watering is exactly what the next grower would think of as light watering. I experience this myself often. I have been in bush houses where the owners should have been reported for cruelty to their plants, such was the infrequency of their watering. And yet the plants themselves seem happy enough. It is me that has the misunderstanding.
One of the best native orchid growers around the village is Eric Lielkajis. Eric has given me a few nice plants over the years. He grows them in what I would call wet conditions. There is lots of bright green moss on most of Erics mounted plants. Within a few weeks of being sentenced to life under my brutal conditions, a good number of those unfortunate plants have tossed it in. There really is no way I could hope to emulate Erics conditions, even by throwing truck loads of money at my bush house.
The shock of being transferred from the Lielkajis Hilton to Stalag Walsh has proven too much for many of the plants. And yet others I have from bush houses where the conditions were never as soft as Erics have fared much better. But wet certainly works for Eric, and works well.
The problem, I admit, is all in my head, and what I call insufficient watering under my conditions, has proved successful enough for growers with less harsh locations. I guess a Calamari Bushman, (I think that should be Kalahari actually), and a New Guinea Highlander would have differing ideas on how much water normal actually represents.
Other aspects of culture come into the water equation as well. The potting mix is a very important one. So too are the mounts you use. A piece of tree fern obviously holds more water then a fence paling. And if you are using sphagnum moss or epiphytic moss your plants will not be drying out as fast as they would without it.
Another problem is delineating between heavy watering and frequent watering. If you happen to be an astronaut, you may be away from home for four or five weeks at a time. You must water when you can and that means you will probably water heavy. This is preferable to letting your missus run riot with the hose, dragging it over half your pots and missing wetting the other half anyway.
In my own case, I tend to water frequently but not as heavy as I would like. It takes me about 50 minutes to deliver a light watering in the bush house. In summer, this means a daily drudgery that I grow weary of quickly. I resent the amount of time I need to find and by autumn I have inevitably developed a hatred of the job and wish I could give all the orchids away. The amount of water I give is watered down dramatically and I rush through them swearing and muttering as I go. To give what I call a heavy watering takes around an hour and a half. If I fertilise, this extends to two hours. The daily quick fix is the lesser of the two evils I have decided.
A compromise I mostly stick to is to just water the mounted plants every day and add on the potted plants every third day. If the weather is not up in the high 30sC or the occasional thunderstorm has dumped some relief over all, then the daily drudgery is certainly lessened.
One of the saddest sights of all has to be entering a bush house where the owner has given in to the dark side of their watering obligations. Plants defoliating all over the place, shriveled up new growths, the lack of that freshness that always accompanies a well-maintained collection.
Some geniuses have gone to the expense of installing automatic watering systems complete with solenoid switches, chrome plated timers and cubic zirconium fog nozzles. I hate these because I cannot afford them. My bush house is too big and I am too poor. Oh woe is me! Also, I doubt they work without having their own peculiar problems. You must have good mains water pressure for a start. Even then the nozzles may block up and cause you a real headache.
I did have one of those cheap black plastic systems in my old bush house. But I found it did not cover all the orchids no matter how hard I tried to arrange the nozzles. In the end I had inserted so many that the main water pressure fell away dramatically. I issued a decree to all the neighbors that they were not to shower or flush their toilets without my permission. This created ill feeling, particularly with the people over the back fence.
The long-term problem was some orchids getting too dry and others staying too wet. Potted plants were drowned. Open flowers were another worry. You never want water spots on flowers. Hand watering allows you to wet only those orchids that you want to. It also ensures you cast a discerning eye over every single orchid each time you water. Any problems are then picked up in the early stages. I must admit though, that the automatic system would be a great asset during those seven or eight days of summer when the temperature hits the 40s and the attending dry winds singe your eyebrows.
I doubt there is anything more dangerous then trying to explain to a novice grower that a plant should not be over-watered. This tends to lead to wide-eyed assurance and exaggerated head nodding, along with heart-wrenching promises that such a mortal sin just will not happen. So his/her new specimen may end up crucified in a high up corner of the bush house, literally not receiving excess water. Some common sense just has to be applied.
Watering is an art that can only be developed by the individual. Heavy watering, light watering, only you can decide. One of the biggest mistakes that novice growers repeatedly wreak on poorly performing orchids is to give it more water. I used to do it all the time. I still get fooled from time to time. You know the tale; a plant sits in the pot, loosing leaves and new growths rotting off. More water is rarely the answer unless you have reduced your watering to ridiculous levels. Repotting is nearly always the cure. Fresh potting mix often works miracles.
So if someone gives you a piece of a rare or hard to grow orchid, or even a shrub that promises salvation to the entire human race, along with retribution for all Parramatta supporters, you must quickly come to grips with its water requirements. Keen observation on a weekly basis is mandatory. Never rely on vague instructions on the label. Or if the grower says he waters it heavy, or frequently, or whatever, you must remember that his idea of watering is undoubtedly different to yours. Think for yourself . . .