Orchid Culture Questions and Answers
Questions and Answers from 2008
by Sue Bottom, from the St. Augustine Orchid Society Newsletter
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Dynamite Fertilizer
Dynamite Fertilizer

Dynamite Slow Release Fertilizer
Q. Courtney was talking about Dynamite at the last meeting. I am thinking about switching to that slow release fertilizer and stop using my water soluble fertilizer. Many of my cattleyas have roots at the surface and I don’t know how much of the good root zone is below the surface. Seems to me that the roots at or above the surface of the growing medium will get little benefit from the Dynamite. So, how much of the total root zone is needed to give the plant sufficient nutrients? Also, I have heard numerous times of the importance of flushing the salts out with clear water periodically. How is that accomplished when using Dynamite that has some degree of fertilizer dissolution whenever the plant is watered.
A. The Dynamite works by dissolving a small amount of its fertilizer when you water so any surface roots above the Dynamite would not be fertilized. However, I suspect there are sufficient roots in the pot for fertilizer uptake and the occasional aerial root will just seek out water. If all your good green tipped roots are out of the pot, it may be time to think about repotting. When you flush, you are trying to flush the accumulated salts, those salts that have been deposited from multiple previous fertilizing events, out of the root zone. If you reach a steady state by flushing a sufficient amount of water through your pot, even with the Dynamite in the pot, you would have a salt load equal to the salt in the dissolved water in that single fertilizing event, and that salt level should be at an acceptable, low level. After flushing, the salts will begin to accumulate again in the root zone over time until the next flushing event. (Dec-08)

Tree Fern
Coconut Husk Courtesy of RepotMe.com

Potting Mix
Q. I am thinking of switching away from coconut husks in my growing medium and going more to a tree fern mix. What are the proportions of aliflor, tree fern, charcoal, etc. that you use for your Cattleyas?
A. The freely draining mix I use for cattleyas and dendrobiums is about a third aliflor, third tree fern, sixth charcoal and sixth sponge rok, although I probably mix it differently each time around. If you listen to Fred Clarke, he is an advocate of adding organic material (in this mix tree fern and in your prior mix coconut husk) into your potting mix for three reasons, to increase microbial activity, to buffer changes in pH (acidity and alkalinity) and to increase the cation exchange capacity (make nutrients more available to the root zone). You will need to water more frequently with tree fern than coconut husk in your potting mix because the mix dries much more quickly, which is, of course, why the tree fern mix works so well with the cattleya and dendrobium type orchids that have pseudobulbs or canes to store water and food versus the more water retentive coconut husk mix that works so well with phalaenopsis type orchids that have only a fleshy leaf to store water and nutrients. (Dec-08)

Sphagnum Moss
Sponge Rok Courtesy of RepotMe.com

Orchid Potted in Sphagnum Core Surrounded by Bark
Q. One of the first things I read about orchid potting mixes in my Ortho book was to be wary of mixed potting media. The topic was about a small orchid grown to market size in sphagnum and then placed in a larger pot of bark for retail sale. One could not see the sphagnum. If the orchid is watered to keep the bark at just the right moisture level, the sphagnum will stay too wet and rot the base of the orchid. Shouldn't the potting media have uniform drying characteristics?
A. Absolutely, and I think you have answered your own question. You shouldn't’t repot most orchids unless you have a good reason to repot them. Once a newly acquired orchid has bloomed out, you can repot it if you find the dreaded mixed potting media situation you describe or if you simply want that orchid in the same mix as you normally use so that all your similar type orchids can be watering at the same time. Other than that, only repot when the mix has broken down or the orchid has become unstable by growing too much out of its pot. The exceptions to this ‘repot sparingly’ rule would be for your phalaenopsis that should be repotting by June every year or two or your paphiopedilums that seem to love being repotted, possibly because they are so sensitive to salt accumulation. (Dec-08)

Den. aggregatum var. majus
Den. Adastra

Deciduous Dendrobiums
Q. I remember one of our speakers saying that we need to dry out our some dendrobiums in the fall and winter. When do I start? How can I tell one Dendrobium from another?
Great question. The first thing you have to do is figure out what type of dendrobium you have. The big box stores normally stock the phalaenopsis type dendrobiums, so named because the flower is similar to a phalaenopsis flower. These types of dendrobiums are treated similarly to cattleyas, they do not require a cold dry winter rest period, although most plants slow their growth in winter requiring less fertilizer and water. For the more unusual dendrobiums, you are going to have to check your plant label. If it is a species, cross check it against the Dendrobium Culture spreadsheet to see what section it belongs to and what its winter care requirements are. If it is a hybrid, you can email me the name of the plant and I will check its genealogy in OrchidWiz and let you know whether or not it requires a cold, dry winter to flower best. (Nov-08)

Courtesy of RepotMe.com

Dendrobiums Resent Repotting
Q. My Dendrobium looks like it needs to be repotted. How can I tell for sure? What’s the best potting mix for Dendrobiums?
A. Most Dendrobiums like being root-bound and dislike having their roots disturbed. These two facts both suggest the best potting medium is one that will not decompose easily, so bark and sphagnum moss are not the potting media of choice. A better mix would be one with aliflor, charcoal, sponge rock and tree fern (or coconut husk if you can’t find tree fern). Don’t repot your dendrobiums unless you have a reason to repot them. The best reason to repot is if the potting mix is decomposing, which if left in place will likely rot the roots along with the mix. This is easy to tell if you push your finger into the pot and the media feels moist and it tends to hold water. If the plant has become unruly and is pushing out of the pot, wait until the new roots are getting ready to grow and emerge from the lead cane. Then you can repot with the least potential for transplant shock because the new roots will establish the plant quickly. (Nov-08)

Slc. Jewel Box 'Dark Waters'  

Unifoliate and Bifoliate Cattleyas
Q. Is there any correlation between bifoliate and unifoliate and once per year blooming vs. multiple blooming cycles? I have Slc. Jewel Box ‘Dark Waters’ which has 5 leads. I have been told that it won’t bloom until next spring. Another thing about this plant is that it has both unifoliate and bifoliate leads.
A. Most species bloom once a year although bifoliates like C. aclandiae, C. schilleriana and C. violacea might bloom twice a year as might a unifoliate like C. walkeriana. Your Slc. Jewel Box ‘Dark Waters’ is a hybrid between the bifoliate species C. aurantiaca and the unifoliate hybrid Slc. Anzac, so it is not unusual for it to have both unifoliate and bifoliate leads. It is a spring bloomer and based on the habits of its parents will probably bloom once a year. With 5 new leads, it should be spectacular when it comes into bloom! (Nov-08)

Healthy Roots on Orchids Grown in Baskets
Healthy Roots on Orchids Grown in Pot
Healthy Roots Inside Orchid Pot

Healthy Roots Are Key to Healthy Plants
Q. Some growers say that orchids need to be somewhat pot bound. Others says that they grow better with no medium at all - just plunk them in a basket and let them do their thing. Provided that they are both watered and fertilized appropriately, why do these two methodologists swear by their personal routines - and they both have wonderful plants?
A. Great question. Orchid growers always say that in order to have great flowers you have to have healthy plants and in order to have healthy plants you have to have vibrant roots. So the happy pot bound orchid and happy medium-less orchid must share one thing in common, healthy roots. The pot bound plant is an established plant that has a root system filling the pot, so when it is watered the water is quickly absorbed and air refills the void spaces. The orchid in a medium-less basket can be watered heavily without rotting the roots because the basket dries rapidly and the roots are reexposed to air. The difference between the two growing strategies would be the amount of water required to keep each plant happy and healthy, more water for the medium-less basket, maybe wetting daily, while the pot bound orchid would be watered every 2 to 4 days during the summer growing season. The bottom line: you can grow and bloom orchids under a wide variety of conditions if you adjust the three most critical elements, water, light and air, to match your growing environment. Look closely at your plant each time you water, if the exposed roots are growing actively with a long green tip and look healthy, rest assured, you are doing everything right and will be rewarded with beautiful blooms.(Oct-08)

Bacterial Brown Spot after Tropical Storm  

Bacterial Infection after Tropical Storm
Q. After the extended rains from the tropical storm, I am seeing damage on my vandas. What do you think it is?
A. It looks like either a bacteria or a fungus. The black necrotic spots look like damage from the bacteria Pseudomonas (Bacterial Brown Spot). You will have to sanitize the plant by cutting out the infected tissue with a single edged razor blade and then reduce leaf wetness. Spray with Banrot (if you have it) or Consan or Kocide, you don’t have to worry about phytotoxicity because the plants are not in bloom. If you can’t find Consan, try 10% pool algaecide applied at the rate of 2 tsp/gal. The Kocide is a copper compound and will leave a blue residue, don’t apply it to dendrobiums and don’t apply if the temperature is above 90. (Oct-08)

Cercospora on Vanda Leaf  

Spots on Vanda Leaf
Q. I have small yellow spots starting to appear in the leaves of several plants. It spreads very slowly. Eventually a black spot develops in the center.
A. The yellow leaf spotting you describe sounds like the fungus Cercospora. The description in Home Orchid Growing is “these usually appear as yellow spots that become sunken and turn dark, or small brown spots that become darker and sunken, or as brown streaks. In all cases, the spots enlarge and the affected issue dies, sometimes with the death of the whole leaf.” To treat for Cercospora, sanitize plant by cutting away seriously infected tissue with a single edged razor blade and reduce leaf wetness. Then alternate applications of a systemic fungicide like thiophanate methyl (like Clearly’s 3336 or Banrot) and a protectant fungicide like mancozeb or dithane (labeled as Daconil in the store). The leaf will never lose the spotting but you will stop the spread of the disease. (Oct-08)

Honeydew and Sooty Mold on Buds  

Honeydew and Sooty Mold on Buds
Q. Several of my Brassolaeliocattleyas and related others have developing or mature leads with a sheath like a snow pea. They exude the clear sticky stuff which I have been told is a good thing. The last few days I have noticed sooty mold starting to grow on some of the sticky. I have wiped it off but I know I am just smearing the spores around. What do you do for this situation?
A. The clear sticky stuff is called honeydew and if it looks like little balls or droplets at the base or tip of the leaf or bloom, it is probably just excess plant fluids being secreted by a healthily growing orchid. One problem the presence of honeydew can cause is attracting ants, and ants can spread scale throughout your growing area. To remove the sooty mold that grows on the honeydew, add isopropyl alcohol to a spray bottle and spray the affected area. The fear with honeydew is that it might indicate sucking insects like aphids, scale or mealybugs are present and causing damage by sucking the sugary fluid from your plant. Inspect your plant carefully for pests and treat appropriately. Spray with orthene, summer oil or malathion to control pests. (Sep-08)

Water Before Fertilizing
Water Before Fertilizing

Water Before Fertilizing?
Q. Does it make sense, on the days I fertilize, to water first with clear water to get the roots plump and green and then water again with fertilizer? Prewatering should get the roots ready for feeding but does it make the roots less capable of absorbing any of the fertilizer solution because they are already hydrated?
A. If you have the time, watering 30 minutes or an hour before fertilizing is a good idea, particularly if in your first pass watering you water heavily until water runs out of the pot and then some. Not only will this help flush some salts from the root zone, it will open the spongy root so the fertilizer solution will be absorbed more easily. Then, in your second pass, you apply just enough fertilizer to coat the roots, this being the most efficient way to deliver nutrients to the root zone. (Sep-08)

Orchid Sheath Stopped Growing  

Orchid Sheath Stopped Growing
Q. I have a beautiful, healthy looking Cattleya that put up a sheath several weeks ago but I can see no buds and nothing seems to be happening now. Is this normal?
A. Maybe. There are a couple of likely possible explanations. If the plant was recently repotted, it may simply not have enough strength to bloom and you have a disappointing blind sheath. It is possible the plant is not getting enough light, the number one reason orchids fail to bloom. If this is the case, the plant will not have enough strength to bloom, move it to a brighter location and wait for the next blooming cycle. If your cattleya is getting 2000 to 4000 ft candles of light and your foliage is a pleasant slightly yellowish green, light is not your problem. Some varieties simply put up a sheath and then take a rest before going into bloom. If it is an awarded mericlone, you can check the month it was awarded to see what its normal bloom pattern is. Otherwise, have a glass of iced tea and wait. Many of those sheaths that were empty in July and August will be in full bloom in November or December. (Aug-08)

Gently Peel Sheath Apart
Remove Sheath from Pseudobulb if Easily Separated

Peel Open Cattleya Sheath to Prevent Bud Blast
Q. The sheath on my Cattleya is turning yellow. Is this any reason for concern?
A. Probably. Too many times moisture can accumulate inside the sheath and the results are rotten buds and no flowers. To be safe, you need to take action if the sheath starts to yellow and long before it turns brown. Gently pull the sheath apart from the top, sometimes there is a natural separation and you can pull it apart, otherwise get a single edged razor blade and slice off the very top of the sheath. Then, very gently, pull the sheath down to the pseudobulb (and remove if it easily separated) to allow any condensation or water to drain freely. It is possible to snap the bud off so be very careful and gentle. If the sheath does not separate from the plant easily, leave it attached to the pseudobulb, just make sure water and condensation drain away from the bud freely. (Aug-08)

Cattleya Not Receiving Enough Light
Cattleya Receiving the Right Amount of Light
Cattleya Receiving Too Much Light

Light and Cattleya Leaf Color
Q. If I suspect an orchid is getting too little or too much light based on the color of the leaf, should I expect the leaf color to change after I have moved the plant to a new location?
A. Yes. If your cattleya leaf is a beautiful lush green, it needs more light. The leaf of a cattleya should have a slight yellowish cast and after the leaf hardens (about 3 months) should be as hard as cardboard. A leaf showing lots of red pigmentation is indicative of one getting great light but if the entire leaf darkens to a dark purple, or the leaves are really yellow, the plant might be getting too much light and would have to be moved or shaded. You should see changes in leaf colors within 2 to 4 weeks of adjusting the light the plant receives. Avoid moving a plant into substantially more sun too quickly, or having water on the leaf during the bright midday sun, both of which can cause sunburn, which will appear as a scorched area fading to a dry, brown sunburn scar that will be present as long as the plant has that leaf. The SAOS has a light meter for use by members so you can determine how intense the light is in your growing area during the course of the day. (Jul-08)

Pot. Burana Beauty 'Burana'
Pot. Exotic Dreams


Color of Sheathing Around New Cattleya Pseudobulbs
Q. I have a Potinara that has 5 new leads all about 5 to 7 inches long that bloomed in April. I have been excited about the new growths on this plant but just noticed that 3 of the leads have a yellow/gold band near the surface of the potting mix. This almost looks like the sheathing (skin) around the sheath. It is very tight. Everything else looks OK but the other catt type plants are not showing the same condition. Should I be concerned?
A. Maybe. If you have 5 new growths, you are doing just about everything right! If the paper sheathing is gold but is tightly attached to the pseudobulb, not holding water and the lead is firm, there is no problem requiring action on your part. If there is any evidence of a place where water can accumulate, you have the potential for the new lead to rot. To prevent this, remove any paper sheathing that could hold water by peeling it back and away from the lead. If there is any softness in the lead with black or gray discoloration, you should be concerned that the rapidly progressing black rot is attacking the plant requiring immediate action on your part. Black rot is most prevalent during the hot summer months. It starts as a discoloration that can go from the roots up or the leaves down. If black rot is suspected, you must sanitize the plants by cutting away the infected tissue and then apply Banrot or Subdue, if you can find these fungicides. (Jul-08)

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