Friday, May 24, 2013

How to Grow Orchids (And Photograph Them as Well)

Taking a breaking from photo-blogging for this weekend, but not photos.  Regular visitors to this site will notice that there are a set of orchids by the side of my desk that appear in various stages of bloom throughout the year. Though horticulture is something that runs in my family, I came into orchids quite by accident. I've stuck with them because they are easy to care for. Yes, you heard, me: easy to care for.

Plants as Calming Agents

But first, the whole "accidental" thing with orchid enthusiasm. Like many of my stories, this one involves business life. I've been involved in a number of stressful occupations over the years, but one of the most stressful was the one where turn-over was as high as 70% every year. After one particularly bad day of out-goings/defections, you can image that the office atmosphere was particularly tense. Fortunately, I had been off during the day of the staffing catastrophe, so I ended up being the most sanguine about it. This was when I started to keep a plant on my desk, because the idea of taking care of something living gives the impression that you will be around for a while, no small thing in a workplace where the talent kept walking out the door. Since I wasn't yet a plant person, I chose something a bit off the beaten path: a Venus flytrap. That was certainly a conversation starter, and it kept people from talking about the staffing shortfall... at least while they were around me. However, flytraps are difficult to keep in the best of times, and it soon suffered at the hands of the sub-arctic office air-conditioning.

Good Roots, Good Health

Orchids came later when I discovered how maintenance-free they could be once they are set-up correctly. I'm going to concentrate on Phalaenopsis, otherwise known as moth orchids. They're the easiest species to keep, and are tolerant of a wide range of climates. They've been in my family long before the present commercial boom in orchid. The red one above is a hand-me down and had already bloomed a number of times over the years.

If there is one thing to remember about orchids, it's that they are essentially air-breathing plants. In the wild, they naturally grow clinging to trees, not in the ground. In fact, they have a bit in common with air-plants; both will grow just fine with only a bit of moisture. What nutrients that they need, they can obtain from the surface that they grow on; orchid roots aren't like other plant roots that burrow deep into the ground for sustenance. Likewise, air-plants don't have any roots at all.

The oh-so-trendy air plants.

Roots are the key to good orchid health. They aren't meant to sit in water, and are happiest when some air can flow in and around them. The single best and most important way to achieve this is with the correct potting medium. Orchids are sold packed in sphagnum moss, which helps in the shipping and transport, but which is actually terrible for the long term health of the plant. The moss is usually packed so densely that it can expand to twice the volume once you remove it from the pot that the plant comes in. Sphagnum moss is a terrible growing medium because it is so efficient at holding on to water; this is bad for the roots, which will rot if they are kept wet for too long. Nonetheless, many people maintain orchids in the original medium for some time, but your chances of keeping the plant for the long term are reduced if you don't re-pot into something more suitable. I don't recommend keeping the moss, because you may think that the medium has dried out by the feel of the top surface, but deep underneath moisture will still be trapped against the innermost roots.

It's best to re-pot when the plant has finished flowering, or is just starting to flower. My preferred medium is bark chips, broken into 1/2" to 1" fragments, with only a little bit of moss mixed in. You can buy it in the form of pre-packaged orchid mix, but I prefer to make my own since it's far cheaper. Just find some spare pieces of bark or bark mulch, and submerge in boiling water for a few minutes to kill off any pathogens or bugs. Once you've removed the orchid from the original moss, give the roots a good rinse to get rid of any mold (black and slimy stuff) that might have developed. Snip off any roots that are black and mushy, or where the covering has decomposed and slid off. Re-pack the plant with the sterilized back chips, adding back in sparing amounts of moss in between layers of chips. Make sure that the roots are in good contact with bark, but do not over-pack. The plant should be firmly anchored, but there should be room in the potting medium to allow air to flow through.

Healthy orchid roots. Firm and with intact sheath. 

Leaf Reading

Another way to watch for the health of the plant is the leaves. Generally, the happier the plant is, the the firmer the leaves are. Healthy plants should have pale green leaves that are quite firm and rigid. Larger plants tend to have floppier leaves, and smaller plants to have very firm leaves, but you should watch out for wrinkling and yellowing. Orchids prefer indirect light, and yellowing leaves generally mean that they are getting too much light and/or the environment is too hot. In the the picture at the bottom, you can see a leave that was left in direct sun for too long. The leaf looses it's firm fleshiness, wrinkles and thins out. If this happens, adjust the light level down. The leaf won't recover to its previous state, but it will still be functional. Older leaves like this may eventually dry and naturally fall off. In the worst case of too much light and heat, the leaf will become scorched and turn bright red. If that is the case, you need to relocate the plant, the area where you are keeping it is too bright and hot. The affected leaf will die and drop off, but provided the rest of the plant, if unaffected, will be fine.

Sometimes you will find drops of dew along the flower spike or under the leaves, with no obvious insect marks. That's excessive sap that the plant isn't using, it's generally a sign of a happy plant. If you do come across it, wipe it up with a moist cloth so that bugs aren't attracted to it.

A bit too much light and/or warmth.

Going to Pots

If you love orchids, a good investment is a ceramic orchid pot, pictured below. These will typically run about $15, less if you can find them on sale. As you can see, there allow for air to flow through the pot. They also let water drain out the bottom into a built in collection dish at the bottom of the pot.

Orchid pots make a difference.

This is the same plant as above, two months later. Despite the slightly scorched leaf, it's doing fine. One thing you want to be careful with when staking an orchid is to not be too aggressive in trying to tie down the flower spike. Generally, I will let the spike grow out a bit before anchoring it. It's not worth it to try to get the spike as straight as the ones that come out of the store... you run the risk of snapping it. Of course, I learned this from hard experience...

Same plant, two months later.

Really, They Are Easy to Care For!

Other than that, the plants are surprisingly care free once you've got the right drainage and light. With bark chips, you never run the risk of over-watering. I water twice a week until the potting medium is damp, let the pot drain and leave the plant alone... done more frequently in the summer than the winter. About once a month I will give each plant a good "wash" by flushing the pot with a good volume of water to reduce any any mold that might be accumulating under the bark chips. You can't do this with moss, the pot will become instantly water-logged. Some people prefer the "water from the bottom" method, but I'm not a fan of it as you run the risk of letting the tips of the roots sit in water too long.

While you can use orchid fertilizer, you don't have to. The plants will acquire all the nutrients they need from the biomass that grows on the surface of the back chips, and as a general rule of thumb, orchids have their own timetable. Juicing the potting medium with fertilizer may or may not be what the plant wants to do at the moment. Just to illustrate that fact, the purple orchid plant is actually grown in a mix of half bark and half pumice. You would think that that isn't enough organic matter to sustain a plant, but it's been the most prolific plant that I have. Blooms on a healthy plant will last weeks, if not months. Once they are done, it's best to let them rest. I usually don't try to force them to re-bloom by cutting off the tips of the flower spike, but there generally isn't any harm in it. Once the bloom is over, the plant will grow new roots and and a new leaf, and will be ready for another bloom when it is ready. Once you've had a plant for a year or two, it the cycle will work like clockwork with a healthy plant.

Orchid Photography

Of course, orchids make for beautiful photo subjects. (iStock: "We now possess the definitive online collection of files called 'flower'...) However, don't let the fact that flowers are one of the most photographed subjects in the world discourage you; after all, out of all those photos, none of them are your pride and joy. Variety helps when you are shooting flowers. It helps if you have a macro lens, but there's more to shooting flowers than just zooming in all the way. But that's always a good place to start.

Panasonic LX-5

Since orchids run like clocks, you don't have to wait until they are at full bloom, you can also photograph them at the various stages of their development:

Nikon D7000 = 50mm AF-D f/1.4
When you shoot at a wider focal length and and up close, you will emphasize the organic nature of the curves and lines of the flowers. If you shoot at a longer focal length, you isolate the plant away from the background, giving it a more austere and dreamy feeling:

Nikon D80

Or, you can go for ultra-shallow depth of field to draw the eye along the bloom until if lands on the one flower that is in focus.

Nikon D7000

Some tips:

  • Do experiment with different angles, focal lengths and apertures
  • Watch what's happening in the histogram. Remember that the red and blue channels will blow out before the green channel. This means that you can lose detail in the flower petals even though the picture as a whole is "properly exposed"
  • Try not to crop too much; try to frame as much of the subject as you want it for the final image. You want as much resolution as possible in order to capture all of the subtle low-contrast detail. If you are shopping for a new camera, then yes, that fancy new Nikon D7100 will be a boon to your flower photography.
  • Tripods help. Again, in order to capture all of the low contrast detail, you need to maximize the resolution that you are capturing. This means reducing camera shake and mirror slap.
  • You can cheat a bit my misting the flowers with a spray bottle, giving an added bit of texture to your pictures.
  • Do print your pictures so that you can enjoy your plants when they are not in bloom!

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