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Florida Orchid Growing Month by Month

September in Your Orchid Collection

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  • Average high: 89.0

  • Average low: 75.7

  • Average mean: 82.4

  • Average rainfall: 8.38"

Excerpted from Florida Orchid Growing: Month by Month by Martin Motes. All rights reserved.

September looms as the only truly dismal month in South Florida. Even without the prospect of the unspeakable ‘H’ word, September disheartens since it is easily the dampest, dullest month in the year. Although more inches of rain fall in June, more hours of rain occur in the often slow, seemingly endless drizzles of September. Frequently a day or two can pass without so much as a solid hour of truly bright sunshine to lift our spirits and dry out our plants. Days are growing much shorter also, with long nights when our plants are wet from the frequent rains. Coming at the end of the rainy season when disease pressure has been building, September presents the maximum opportunity for fungal and bacterial diseases to take hold of our orchids. Hopefully careful watering practices and the judicial use of fungicides (as recommended last month) will have diminished the potential for disease in our collections. But even in the best managed collection, September calls for extra vigilance. Keep a close eye out for problems and remove immediately any plant that shows the first sign of fungus to a dry location to prevent the disease being spread by splashing rain drops. Good hygiene is particularly important this month. Clean up growing areas and remove any dead leaves, twigs or other organic debris from the plants and the ground. In September numerous diseases that linger in decaying plant material find the ideal conditions that allow them to jump to the living tissue of our prize orchids. Such problems can develop more quickly in September than in any other month. September is a month to stay home and be there for your orchids. Look at every plant, every day.

    September, above all, is the month that the old Florida growers’ adage that "One needs a cat to grow good orchids," holds true. By leaving enough space between plants on a shade house bench for a cat to walk around without knocking them down, one provides the good air circulation which is absolutely essential in periods of protracted wet weather. Well spaced plants are much less likely to encounter disease problems this month. Remember that your plants will have grown considerably over the summer and that the space they occupied comfortably in the Spring has now been filled by their own growth as well as their neighbors. Space them out. Now is perhaps the time to decide to hang some of the larger ones where they will dry much more quickly. The small cute ones left behind on the bench will be very appreciative of the extra air and light.

  Another excellent way to increase air circulation and enhance rapid drying is by trimming excess (particularly vertical) branches from all trees which support orchids or are near to orchid growing areas. By increasing the light and air flow one will also garner the benefit of reducing the possibility that such trees will be knocked down in a severe storm. Trees trimmed to permit proper air circulation and light for orchids were frequently the only ones which survived upright after Andrew. As there is rarely time to do such pruning when storm warnings are actually posted and creating extra debris is not then wise, now is the time to protect both your orchids and your trees. Days are shortening quickly now and more hours of rain and overcast skies mean that your orchids will benefit from all the additional light that they can get. Beginning the process of “hardening off” our plants by allowing more light to reach them will give them a leg up on the coming cool weather as well.

    As orchids grown outside are so frequently wet in September, it is often difficult to apply fertilizer or fungicides to the plants because they are already damp. Catch 22! — the plants need extra protection because they are wet and because they are wet one can’t apply chemicals to protect them. In these circumstances, many growers find Quaternary ammonium compounds useful. Sold as Physan, Consan, Greenshield or Triathalon these disinfectants dissolve totally in water and can be applied to wet plants. Strengths vary so follow the label. Although Federal regulations say they should not, many growers substitute the cheap and readily available pool algicide which contain the same active ingredient. Home Depot sells a brand called ‘‘Pool Time’’ which could be purchased legally to disinfect walks and pathways at the rate of 1 to 2 tsps. per gallon and would certainly do no harm at that rate, if it came into contact with the orchids no more frequently than every 7-10 days.

    This month when those brief periods of dry weather permit growers to think of applying other pesticides, they are tempted to think of giving their starving charges fertilizer as well. This is generally not a good idea with any fertilizer containing phosphorous (the second in the numerical series of three numbers). Phosphorus changes the PH of water and tends to interact with many other chemicals reducing their effectiveness. In September we need as much fire power from our chemical arsenal as we can get. A much better strategy in general to add some nutrients employs potassium nitrate (KNO3) 13-0-43 at a rate of 1 tbs per gallon of water. One should ask for the type usually referred to as ‘‘spray grade’’. In general sympodial orchids are reaching the end of their growth cycle as September progresses so a reduction in nitrogen from the potassium nitrate substitution or a missed fertilizer application usually does little harm to orchids grown outside in South Florida. Soft cane dendrobiums of the “Nobile” types will actually benefit from the reduction in feeding. It’s time to wean these deciduous types before cutting them off entirely from the grub next month. Vandas and Phalaenopsis on the other hand can be fertilized as often as weather permits and will bloom all the stronger for this extra attention in the coming months. 

    Snails can also be a problem again in September. Even if you earlier used the ‘‘lightly, frequently’’ baiting suggested in July, snails can travel long distances on wet ground in the dull, dark weather of September. Chances are your neighbors have not been as good as you on snail control. So, once more with feeling: snail bait "lightly, frequently" to give a warm welcome to any recently arrived mollusks. With an eye to the heavens (or at least to the TV screen), removing any old boards, empty pots or other debris that might fly about in a storm will also render the humble snails homeless. An opportunity to re-double your virtue and save some precious moments in the face of the storm that we hope never comes!

May in Your Orchid Collection

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May Climate Data

  • Average high: 87.2

  • Average low: 72

  • Average mean: 79.6

  • Average rainfall: 5.52"

Excerpted from Florida Orchid Growing: Month by Month by Martin Motes. All rights reserved.

May is a month of transition in South Florida. Early in the month we can expect the driest weather of the year. Because of the clarity of the air and lack of cloud cover, temperatures rise rapidly in the late morning and can reach the upper eighties or nineties by mid afternoon before cooling substantially in late afternoon. Fortunately, over night radiant cooling rapidly dissipates the previous day’s heat. May mornings are a delight, the wise orchidist rises early to enjoy them and to finish his chores before the heat sets in. Chief of these should be extensive dragging of hoses.

            May’s wide temperature swings and dry air suit our orchids to a tee. New growths on sympodial orchids are developing apace and by continuing the careful watering practices of April (i.e drenching them thoroughly with repeated applications of water to saturate their roots and potting media, then allowing them to dry to nearly ‘hard’ dry) we can launch them into the summer in vigorous, disease-free growth. Remember, this saturation can only be achieved with two or more soakings to the point of runoff spaced a few minutes apart. Merely holding the water on the plant extra long will not suffice. The water needs to slowly soak into the roots and media. Test the weight of a “benchmark” plant to be satisfied that it is sufficiently heavy to be totally soaked. The arid air of early May will quickly dry the foliage but the roots can draw on the deep reservoir of water that you have provided with this careful, complete watering.

            With the increased heat and light of May we do not want to put our orchids on too lean a diet. Fertilize with up to 2 tsp. of 15-5-15 per gal of water every week or so. Alternating with Epsom salts and potassium nitrate at 1 tbs. each per gal. is still a best practice during May. Always substitute fertilizer for a watering and apply like the water in two doses to the point of saturation. Never follow the widely stated but antiquated advice to “water before fertilizing”. It’s a receipt for over watering without any basis in logic or science, Now is also a good time to apply a soluble trace or micro element fertilizer. Follow the dilution rates on the package as mixtures and strengths differ. You can apply this in conjunction with the Epsom salts/potassium nitrate but never with the 15-5-15, 20-20-20 or any other fertilizer containing phosphorus. In South Florida’s highly alkaline water the phosphorus interacts with the other metallic elements, reducing the effectiveness of the trace elements. Potassium nitrate, 13-0-46, is the perfect companion to minor elements because it not only lacks phosphorus which would hinder the absorption of the trace elements but the nitrate nitrogen seems to enhance their uptake.

             May is still prime time for re-potting. With cattleyas, dendrobiums and other sympodials, the virtuous among us have long since finished this labor of love, but the majority of us are faced with the moral dilemma of doing the potting now or waiting until next year with the pseudo bulbs of our plants overhanging their pots and proclaiming to the world our sloth. The one instance in which this dilemma must be resolved absolutely in favor of the plant, is when the media has broken down in the pot. This condition will encourage root rot to become stem rot which will pursue the rhizome even into those over arching bulbs. If in doubt, give the media the “nose test”. A pinch of media taken from below the surface of the pot should smell “sweet”. A sour smell or the odor of a pond bottom indicates media that is broken down and must be replaced as soon as possible.

             The case in which this is almost universally true is with plants potted in sphagnum moss. Sphagnum simply will not last beyond one year (even under cover) in South Florida. As the vast majority of commercially produced Phalaenopsis are now grown in sphagnum, recently acquired plants MUST be re-potted annually. As most Phals. will be finishing their flowers, now is a good time to get them right for the new year’s growth. When repotting, one can, of course, choose a more durable media; rock, red wood chips or various mixtures and avoid this annual ritual. Choosing a more durable media will entail modifying one’s watering schedule to accommodate the faster draining, quicker drying qualities of these harder substances.

            May is a great month for re-setting vandaceous orchids whose baskets have deteriorated or that have grown too tall to be easily managed. keikies (off-shoots) can be most safely removed now. In both cases choose the most durable containers for the plants so they need not be disturbed for years. Teak or other hard wood baskets and clay pots last longest. Above all make amply sure that the plants are firmly fixed in their lodging. Vandaceous orchids, above all others, are intolerant of being loosely set. The very height of these plants act as a lever to keep them rocking unless we anchor them securely until their new roots affix themselves to the new containers. Stake and tie them securely until their abundant roots take over. Unsightly staking can then be removed.

            As we bask, lulled into complacency by the nearly ideal weather of early May, Summer sometimes surprises us. Toward the middle or end of May, the weather in South Florida literally undergoes a sea change. The large continental weather patterns which have dominated our weather through the winter and early Spring give way to the tropics and the prevailing south easterly trade winds return us to the interaction of Gulf Stream and peninsular with its characteristic afternoon thunder showers. Although lacking the clockwork consistency of June, the rains have come and we must be prepared for them.

            The relentless and increasing crescendo of rain will, by summer’s end, tip the balance in favor of the ubiquitous fungi lurking to attack our orchids. The time to scotch their plans is now; an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

            Leaving the taxonomic niceties to the experts, fungi which attack orchids in Florida fall into two broad classes; the leaf spotting types (Cercospora and Phyllosticata) and the soft rots (Pythium and Phytophthora). Fortunately, for modern orchidists, excellent systemic fungicides exist for both types. While these chemicals are no substitute for good cultural practices, i.e. adequate spacing, brisk air movement; the strongest possible light combined with careful watering, fungicides provide the edge to approach near total control of most fungal diseases even in their ancestral home, South Florida. May is a good time to take stock of the collection and see which plants are overgrown and need more space or perhaps even re-potting. The increase in air circulation is well worth the effort. Trimming shade trees and moving plants to brighter locations are also good strategies for May. May is also a good time to consider a preventative spray program before disease has a chance to get the upper hand in our collections. An ounce of prevention begins now.

            Leaf spotting fungi are symptomatic of poor air circulation and inadequate light but even under good growing conditions are rarely entirely absent from orchids in South Florida. This near inevitability results because the same diseases also afflict so many other tropical plants in our gardens. Under the battering of the heavy and sustained rains of our wet season, the most minor of problems can occasionally blossom quickly into a major epidemic. Thiophanate methyl (Cleary’s 3336, Domain, Fungo) is the proven and recommended systemic fungicide to control leaf spotting. It is even more effective when combined with Mancozeb (Manzate or Dithane M45.) Two pre-packaged combinations are available; (Duosan, and Tops MZ ). Always follow label recommendations for rate of application.

            To be truly effective, Thiophanate methyl should be applied initially early in the growing season (IE now!), then again in two weeks and then every 5-6 weeks thereafter across the rainy season. Faithfully followed, this regimen will control nearly all leaf spotting fungus, including the dreaded ‘Thai crud’: Phyllostictina capitalense. A spreader sticker enhances the effectiveness of the fungicide by holding it on the plant through the hardest rain.

            The soft black rot of sympodial orchids and crown rot in vandas are caused by two different organisms i.e Pythium and Phytophthora although in effect they are indistinguishable. Control of these diseases necessitates different chemicals from those used on the leaf spotting diseases. Etridiazole (Truban) has long been used. For the amateur it is readily available in combination with Thiophanate Methyl (the recommended chemical for leaf spotting) in the formulation Banrot. Applied in the same manner suggested above for Thiophanate methyl to control leaf spotting fungi, this pre-packaged combination should be adequate for most circumstances and control crown rot as well. If problems persist two other systemics give excellent control: Aliette (Fosetyl-aluminum) and Subdue 2E (metalaxyl).

            All chemicals should only be applied at the rates and according to the label instructions. If in doubt about whether to or how to apply a pesticide always call your County Agricultural Agent at 305 248 3311 for advice.

April in Your Orchid Collection

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April Climate Data

  • Average high: 83.8

  • Average low: 67.6

  • Average mean: 75.7

  • Average rainfall: 3.36"

Excerpted from Florida Orchid Growing: Month by Month by Martin Motes. All rights reserved.

            Far from the cruelest, April is the kindest month to South Florida orchid growers. The weather in April is definitely settled into warm, even deliciously hot, with passing cold fronts only adding the delight of a pleasant change in temperature. The clean, bright days brimming with abundant sunlight and the low relative humidity create the high drying potential that orchids love. Now we can get our orchids off to a great start on the growing season by practicing our very best watering skills under ideal conditions. Water heavily when you water and allow the plants to dry thoroughly before watering heavily again. Drying ‘hard’ in the Spring will produce benefits all season. We want to get our plants well launched while leaving all the fungi high and dry.

            The new shoots of Oncidinae, grammatophyllums and dendrobiums are quite cup-like; care must be taken that water does not stand too long in these immature growths. Water these types very thoroughly with two or three applications of water spaced 10-15 minutes apart. Water should run freely through the pot on each application. Saturated thoroughly in this fashion the plants will need only weekly watering. Even more care should be taken with the soft plicate leafed genera like Catasetum, Mormodes, Cycnoches, Gongora, Calanthe and Thunia The new growths of this type are rolled together (the fancy word is convolute) like a collapsible drinking cup. These should be grown in water retentive media that should be saturated at each watering to permit the developing roots to have abundant water but allow the vulnerable new growth extra time to dry. Feel the weight of a pot when you have finished watering. Be sure it is heavy with water. If it’s not water one more time. With plants properly spaced, good drying should not be difficult in the hot dry air of April. But do be careful to water early enough in the day to allow the tender new growth to throughly dry by twilight.

            With vandaceous orchids grown in slatted baskets, most growers find that they dry altogether too well in April. Vandas can be watered almost every morning in April. Indeed, a second light watering or misting in mid-afternoon in April and early May is often beneficial provided the crowns and leaf axils of the plants have time to dry completely by nightfall. Another strategy under high drying conditions is to bend the rules, at least occasionally, and water heavily in mid to late morning. Late waterings on weekend mornings (you didn’t want to get up early, any way) provide relief for plants that are more stressed on week days with their owners absent. Very occasionally, one needs to break the rules absolutely and water thoroughly (not just mist) in the mid to late afternoon so the plants can slowly absorb the water across the cool hours of the night. This is the season that one must be sure that Vanda roots have turned overall dark green when we have finished watering. Two applications of water to the point of runoff spaced several minutes apart should accomplish the required color change from white to totally green. Saturated roots are absolutely necessary to provide the plants the moisture the plants need to withstand the heat and dry air typical of April. Sometimes, particularly at this season, the roots will not change color even after the second or third application of water. This lack of response to water is because the roots have become so dry that they are repelling rather than absorbing water. They are behaving like a cork in a wine bottle. The grower must exert special effort to re-saturate the roots. Often this will require 4 or 5 waterings to the point of run off spaced 15 minutes apart. Once the roots have been changed to the healthy overall green, normal applications of water should bring them around in future.

            With increased heat and light and the onset of growth, fertilizer becomes more crucially important to the plants. Balanced time release pellets (13-13-13) can still be applied to potted plants provided the duration is 180 days or less. Most time release fertilizer breaks down faster under South Florida conditions and should be exhausted by October when we will want our plants to slow down. The brand marketed at retail as “Dynamite” is generally considered by professionals as superior in reliability to other types. In April, 15-5-15 can be applied to most genera at the rate of 2 tsp. per gal every two weeks. Vandas, ascocendas, Aerides, et al will benefit from a full tablespoon of 15-5-15 weekly during this high energy period. One can also apply high phosphorous ‘Bloom Booster’ fertilizer once or twice at this time to stimulate them to flower for Mothers’ Day or failing that to win those trophies and A.O.S. awards at the Redland International Orchid Festival the next weekend. High phosphorous (we use Millers’ Solugrow 8-48-12) also stimulates root action and is important in getting all genera off to a good start on the growing season. This is one of the few times that high phosphorus is perhaps beneficial. During the rest of the year it is to be avoid particularly with our alkaline water. Current science recommends fertilizers lower in nitrogen, much lower in phosphorus and higher in potassium, magnesium and calcium. Peter’s Excel 15-5-15 is now the standard for year round use.

            The warmth of April, alas, stimulates the growth of bugs as well as plants. Both thrips and mites thrive in the dry heat of April. Liquid dishwashing soap (at 2 oz per gal) will control both but be mindful that soap should not be applied to plants that are suffering from drought stress. Be sure that your plants are well hydrated before you apply soap. Water them extra hard the day before. To be effective soap must be used profusely. The plants should be washed in the solution to the point of wetting every nook and cranny of both the plant and its container. Only such thorough treatment can reach the reclusive thrips and be sure to touch all of the ever prolific mites. A second treatment at 7-10 days is necessary to control mites and a miticide such as Kelthane might be advised. Orthene which is the insecticide of choice for thrips (because of its residual action) is compatible with many miticides. Check with your county agent if in doubt.

            April is the classic month to catch up with all the re-potting which you meant to do across the winter. New roots form fast in April; don’t rot them off by over-potting or break them off by allowing the plant to wiggle in the pot. Tie them up: tie them down!

            April is a month for great moral decisions. When turning on the air conditioner for the first time, consider how much better an orchid grower you would be if you set the thermostat 2 or 3 degrees higher. You will find that you spend more time with your plants when you are accustomed to slightly higher temperatures and it is the master’s shadow that makes the plants grow. Besides spending more time enjoying your orchids, when the FPL bill arrives, you can celebrate with some splendid additions to your collection.

April is a great month for naturalizing orchids in the garden. Perhaps its time to think of new homes for some of our burgeoning collection.

March in Your Orchid Collection

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  • Average high: 80.7

  • Average low: 64

  • Average mean: 72.4

  • Average rainfall: 2.56"

Excerpted from Florida Orchid Growing: Month by Month by Martin Motes. All rights reserved.

Whilst March never comes in like a lion in South Florida, occasionally it slinks in like a bob cat. Frost is not unheard of in the first few days of the month. The more cold sensitive genera, hard cane dendrobiums, phalaenopsis and vandas may well need some protection even into the middle of the month. Overall, however, March brings us some of the most ideal orchid growing conditions of the entire year. Dry air, low humidity and wide swings of day to night temperatures optimize both blooming and rooting of most orchids. In March, Nature gives orchidists growing outside a free sample of what life would be like with a covered green house. With little or no additional water falling from the sky and drying breezes acting like fans, we are in total control of our plants’ water needs. Now, we can water properly: very heavily, and allow the plants to dry thoroughly in the near desert air before the next heavy application of water.

            The ideal growing conditions of March present a great opportunity to get our plants off to a superlative start on the new growing season. The virtuous among us, who have already re-potted their cattleyas and other sympodials as they have finished blooming across the winter, can smile serenely, assured of their place in orchid heaven. For us few reprobate it is still not too late to catch up with virtue. In addition to flowered-out plants, now is also the time to replant those genera which are breaking or ready to break their dormancy; i.e. catasetums, mormodes, calanthes and those Himalayan species that have finished flowering. Now is also an excellent time to re-pot those hard cane dendrobiums that need it, with the reminder that they really don’t like to be disturbed and relish their roots being crowded in the pot. For those commercially mass produced plants grown in peat based mixtures, repotting is necessary in any case as the peat mix will not last out the summer and will likely rot all the roots. Hopefully these will have rooted so thoroughly that the roots have formed a solid mass that can be shifted undisturbed to a new only slightly larger pot. Otherwise the roots will need to be washed clean and lightly trimmed. Rock, tree fern, coconut husk, charcoal/wood chip mixes are best replacement media for the long haul. All of these materials have a life expectancy of several years before they break down in South Florida wet humid summers.

            Attention to fertilizer in March will pay high dividends later on. As many sympodial orchids are commencing their growth cycle, now is a good time to apply slow release fertilizer to last the season. The 13-13-13, 180 day formula marketed at Home Depot as ‘Dynamite’ (Nutri-cote in commercial sizes) is the best available. Its plastic coating is superior to others and relatively unaffected by heat, an especially important consideration in S. Florida. Applied now it will be exhausted by September when we want to slow our plants down in anticipation of bloom and dormancy. The wide temperature swings of March also maximize the effectiveness of high phosphorous ‘Bloom Booster’ fertilizer. The extra phosphorous in these formulas probably does not really stimulate flowers ( most likely the opposite) but does help rooting. Two applications a week apart will speed the rooting process. Return to regular 15-5-15 fertilizer weekly thereafter as the excess phosphorus in the “Bloom Booster” interferes with minor element absorption to an inordinate degree in our highly alkaline South Florida water.

            Vandaceous orchids should be breaking vigorous new roots in March. This is the moment to top them if they have grown too tall and if they have three good roots on the top cutting. Conserving one or more leaves on the old plant’s stump will insure a bountiful production of offshoots. Sliding the knife or shears down the stem before making the horizontal cut usually preserves an extra set of leaves. Now is also the ideal time to remove and reset offshoots of vandas and ascocendas. Again take care each has three or more roots and be sure you tie them firmly in their new container until they have rooted solidly.

            March is also the month for acclimatizing sun-loving plants to full sun. Vandas, dendrobiums and reed-stemmed epidendrums that have not been blooming as they should because they are in too deep shade can be gradually moved to more light. This is best done in two or three stages, moving the plants a short distance every few days and always keeping them with the same side orientated towards the sun. Without this gradual acclimatization, The bright clear sunlight of March can scorch even the most sun-loving of orchids.

            The chief blot on the otherwise nearly ideal growing scenario of March is thrips. March is the month when we are asked most frequently “Why do my vanda flower spikes grow ½ inch and then die?” The answer, like the answer to so many problems with orchids in South Florida, is thrips. The hot dry weather of March favors thrips which are ubiquitous in our landscapes. The drought of March drives them from their homes in our lawns and shrubberies to seek the cool lush oasis of our orchid collections. Most orchidists recognize the symptoms of thrips on their flowers, :the silvered, sand blasted appearance and the withering of the flower parts. Many do not recognize the earlier symptoms which show up on the root tips of vandas and ascocendas as a pitted ring at the point where the green growing root tip is maturing into white. Left unchecked, this damage will cause the root tip to wither. When it re-starts growth, a brown ring remains. Orthene (acephate)is the chemical of choice for thrips because of its low toxicity and residual action. Knoxout and Malathion are recommended also by the Florida Department of Agriculture. A non-chemical solution is liquid dish soap applied at the rate of 2oz (6tbs) per gallon of water. Be sure to water the plants the day before applying soap and take care to drench the plants thoroughly, covering not only all the surfaces but penetrating into leaf axils and other nooks and crannies where the reclusive thrips loves to loiter. Root the thrips out of your collection and you will get the growing season off to a good start.