Garden, Gardens

Growing an Orchid

Text Laurian Brown Styling Tracy Lee Lynch Garden Editor René Slee Photographs Julia Saker, Deon de Lange, Mark Williams The Chinese were the first to succumb, some 2 500 years ago. In the West, orchid mania took hold only much later, in the 19th century. Ruthless hunters crossed the world on Indiana Jones-type quests, risking life and limb to bring new species back to competing collectors. In Victorian Britain, every country estate had its own orchid house – often more than one. A certain R. Measures, gentleman, ordered to rest by his doctors, bought a few pots of orchids and ended up with 31 glasshouses and 14 gardeners to tend his collection. Things are different now: orchid collections are no longer restricted to men of property and leisure. Plants are widely available and affordable; tissue culture has made it possible for professional growers to hybridise and propagate on a vast scale to supply the cutflower industry as well as legions of hobbyists worldwide. And beginners are able to access an abundance of information via books, the Internet and local orchid societies. Happily, all this democracy has left the orchid’s magic undimmed, its aura of rarity and luxury as seductive as ever. Paul Theron, Investment broker, Johannesburg ‘A love of plants runs in my family. My father was a trained horticulturist and grew Cymbidiums, so I was aware of them as a child. He also gave me my first plants, but they were ignored and died. You need a stable home life to grow orchids – someone has to water them, and make sure that they don’t freeze or get sunburnt! By the age of 35, I was ready. ‘It was trial and error at first, but I developed a severe case of orchid fever, and collected and read everything on orchids that I could lay my hands on. I even ordered a complete collection – a decade’s worth – of journals from the Cymbidium Society of America. And of course there is a wealth of information about them online. ‘Johannesburg’s climate is perfect for Cymbidiums. If you study the temperature variation and rainfall patterns of their natural habitat (the higher-lying parts of Bangladesh, Burma and western China), it’s almost the same as Gauteng! Chilly, dry winters, but minimums not much below zero. Heavy rainfall in the warm summers. Good temperature variation in January and February to promote spike initiation. ‘Five years ago my eldest son and I decided to build a greenhouse. We considered a few designs and realised that our main challenge was to avoid the ingress of too much heat and light in summer. It took us a week to hammer together a timber and Perspex shack. It has a gravel floor, tables and hanging areas for the plants, and time-controlled misting sprays. It is not perfect, but it has allowed us to experiment with Vandas, Cattleyas and a few more exotic genera. It smells moist and good inside. ‘I have about 100 Cymbidiums. Apart from some bought from local growers, I have imported some from Royale Orchids in Australia, and from Casa de las Orquideas and the Santa Barbara Orchid Estate in California. These are all high-colour recent show champions  They are all coming slowly to flowering size, which is very exciting. ‘I spend an hour or two on them each weekend. In the evenings, at home, I might fiddle with a plant that needs some attention, such as repotting or staking it, or bring into the house a plant that’s coming into flower. Our gardener, Hardeline, does the basic, regular watering. ‘There’s great pleasure in watching a plant grow slowly larger, sending out green shoots and then flower spike buds. I love handling the plants themselves. The flowers are the ultimate delayed gratification. There is nothing finer than a mature, full-sized orange or red Cymbidium. I am also very fond of large colourful Cattleyas. ‘I display my plants in standard terracotta pots. At work, and all over the home. So much better than cut flowers!’ Growing Tips From Paul Grow the type of orchids that will work well in your climate. You are fighting a losing battle if the normal conditions in your environment are too cold or too dry. If I were in Durban, I’d focus on Phalaenopsis, Ansellias and Vandas. In Cape Town I would get into Disas. Here in Johannesburg, I stick mostly to Cymbidiums, Cattleyas and Oncidiums. Stephan Pretorius, Retired head-hunter, Hermanus ‘I had always been a keen gardener but then 10 or 12 years ago I bought four Cymbidium plants at a church bazaar in Johannesburg. They had been donated by Madge Schlegtkamp, a grower of many years’ experience. I visited her and because she was more than 80 years old I offered to help her with her plants, and she taught me how to subdivide and repot. ‘When we moved to Hermanus four years ago, I initially kept my Cymbidiums in a planthouse that has four high walls and shade cloth for protection. Inevitably, it became too small, so I moved most of my ever-growing collection out into the shade of four huge blue gum trees in our back garden. They do not seem to be bothered by the high winds here and since we get no frost, they are doing extremely well. I now have more than 100 plants and 45 will flower this year. ‘My wife is a botanical artist and loves to have plenty of flowers in the house, so the Cymbidiums are a real joy in the winter months. Different hybrids flower at different times between May and November, and spikes last up to three months on the plant. ‘I bring them indoors when the buds are almost open, place the plastic containers in decorative ceramic pots and cover the surface around the plant with moss. They need water only once a week while indoors. I also lend plants to friends, who return them once flowering is over so that I can look after them. ‘Cymbidiums come in all colours except blue and black. I have had single plants with up to 13 spikes and more than 60 flowers. They keep their foliage all year round and look attractive even when not in bloom. ‘I have no favourites. All Cymbidiums are beautiful; they are easy to grow and to look after, and they give pleasure to everyone.’ Growing Tips From Stephan 

  • Planting: good drainage is essential. I use plastic pots and fill the lower 2cm with stones, then add coarse pine-bark pieces with a diameter of 15–20mm, topped with a layer of finer pieces in which I plant the Cymbidium. It’s a good idea to drill additional holes in the plastic just above the stone level.
  • Watering: my plants are watered automatically every day in summer and in winter at least twice a week, no later than 6am. Plants should be kept wet at all times during active growth and moist during winter.
  • Temperature: in summer, the night temperature should be at least 7˚C lower than the day temperature to induce flowering.
  • Light: Cymbidiums must be given as much sun as possible without scorching the foliage. In most growing areas 30 to 40 per cent shade is sufficient. Too much shade will inhibit the size of the flowers.
  • Feeding: I fertilise my plants with 3.1.5 to enhance flowering and with Sea Gro or Bio-Grow as well as bone meal.

Orchids In South Africa

  •  South Africa has its fair share of orchid addicts, with at least 14 orchid societies around the country. Joining is probably the best way to learn and to increase your collection. For a list of local orchid societies, plus loads of other information, go to The South African Orchid Council’s website at
  • One of the largest orchid nurseries in the southern hemisphere is Duckitt Nurseries at Oudepost farm near Darling in the Western Cape. The Duckitts have an open day on the first Saturday of every month from May to November (9am–12pm) and their Annual Orchid Show takes place this year from 16 to 19 September, the same weekend as the Darling Wild Flower Show. Visit for more information.
  • Orchid societies hold shows at various times from July to September: check websites and watch your local newspapers – these are also good places to talk to experts and buy plants.
  • An international orchid show will take place at the Safari Garden Centre in Pretoria from 24 to 26 September,
  • An excellent local reference book is Growing Orchids in South Africa by Hendrik Venter (978 1 87509 380 9)
This article was originally featured in the October 2010 issue of House and Leisure.