Orchid expert and grower, Jeff Hutchings, talks about what to
and how to grow them in a garden or meadow.
Growing beautiful hardy orchids in your garden or meadow .....
I am constantly being told by gardeners that they did not realise that orchids
can be grown in the garden despite the fact that there are 60 plus species
growing wild in this country including over 20 in Cumbria. In this article I
intend to outline the orchids available for you to grow in the garden, the way
in which they grow and where they can be bought.
The most important aspect of growing orchids in a garden situation is to be
aware of the needs of individual species. I have found that the best way to
identify these cultural requirements is not to read books and “experts” cultural
suggestions but to study photographs of each species growing in its wild
habitat. A good example is the Bee Orchid Ophrys apifera. Books on British
native orchids refer to this orchid as requiring dry alkaline/chalk soils.
Earlier this year I stood in a very wet clay soil field full of Bee Orchids in
Essex. Apart from the alkaline soil the conditions were completely opposite to
what is expected.
The basic principles of hardy orchid cultivation are quite simple. The key is
“killing with kindness”. Terrestrial orchids have adapted to enable them to
withstand low nutrient regimes and periodic droughts. They have very specific
dormancy periods in the same way as all perennials but this period may be in the
summer or last for three-quarters of the year. Therefore, giving the plants good
compost, constant watering, etc; is not what they actually want.
To cultivate a particular hardy orchid you need to know its requirements and
how to recreate them, the hardiness of the species; particularly to our winter
rain, whether it requires sunlight or shade, wet or dry, and the pH levels.
Before introducing you to the different garden worthy terrestrial species I
want to dispel the myth concerning the requirement for fungus (mycorrhiza) in
the soil before orchids can grow. The need for the mycorrhiza is at the
germination stage. The seed is so small it has no food reserves and needs the
symbiotic relationship with a specific fungus in order to enable the development
of the protocorm. Some growers do not use mycorrhiza when they are growing
orchids in flasks. Older orchids often retain some mycorrhiza in the tubers
which is transferred each year.
Hardy orchids can be grown in many different garden situations and most
relish poor low nutrient soil. Initially, it is sensible to purchase easy
species and then progress onto more difficult species with experience.
To grow hardy orchids successfully, you need a basic understanding of your
chosen species. All the hardy orchids grown outside in the United Kingdom are
terrestrial and usually have a seasonal dormancy period within their annual
Terrestrial orchids can be divided into four specific groups depending on
their root system. There are the rhizomatous group where the rhizome spreads out
just under the surface and sends up leafy single shoots which may terminate in a
flowering spike. This group includes cypripediums and epipactis and are winter
Cypripedium annual growing cycle
The next group have an annual root tuber (carrot or finger
shaped) with a rosette of leaves being produced in the spring from which
develops the flowering stem which has leaves up its length. Flowering is in late
spring through into the summer. This group includes Dactylorhiza, Gymnadenia and
Annual cycle of the Dactylorhiza
Species with an oval annual root tuber forming a leaf rosette
in the autumn and producing a flowering spike in the spring and early summer
followed by a summer dormancy period include Orchis, Anacamptis and Ophrys.
Annual cycle of the Anacamptis
The final group have pseudo-bulbs which spread across the
surface with the new buds sprouting each spring on the edge of the clump and
flowering in late spring and summer. These include the Bletillas and Calanthe.
Of the summer flowering species, Dactylorhiza, Epipactis and
Platanthera are all good garden or lawn subjects. Most require a moist free
draining soil which is neutral or slightly alkaline. Cypripediums are becoming
increasingly available and a small number of species plus numerous hybrids grow
well in cool semi-shade conditions.
The winter green species include both native and European
species. The former grow well as they are adapted to British conditions but the
latter are more used to much lower rainfalls. It is from this group that the
species useful for lawns and meadows are found.
Terrestrial Calanthe are good subjects for damp shady areas
where there is some protection from heavy frost. Finally, there are the
Bletillas which grow in either semi-shade or full sun.
People often ask what conditions are required for hardy
orchids. My response is to ask where they might like to grow the orchids and
then I can outline which grow in those particular conditions.
Having outlined the annual growth cycles of the different
groups I will now take you through the various genus and the particular species
which make good garden subjects.
The easiest of all the terrestrial orchids are the
Dactylorhizas. Most people have come across the Common Spotted, D fuchsii; which
grows happily in many situations providing the soil is neutral to alkaline. Its
one requirement if it is to thrive is the need for full sunlight. If grown in
the shade whilst it does not die it most certainly will not multiply.D majalis
is an ideal plant for very damp areas around ponds: having the ability to
withstand very wet conditions. The best species for a garden border is D foliosa
(the Madeiran Orchid) which grows to 60/80 cm and the main clone offered has
deep purple flowers. For alkaline soils, D praetermissa (Southern Marsh)
thrives, whilst in acidic area D purpurella (Northern Marsh) is the orchid of
choice. Planting should take place either in the early autumn or spring before
grow restarts. They should be planted with the growing tip about 2 cm below the
Dactylorhiza also make good species for growing in large pots.
Provided sufficient space is left for multiplication plants can be left to grow
for several years without repotting. British native species make good subjects
for wildflower meadows.
For wet areas, the two Epipactis species, the British native
palustris and the American gigantea are ideal subjects. Palustris must have
alkaline soil whilst gigantea will grow rapidly in many situations with the
rhizomes rapidly spreading over a large area. E palustris can also be grown as
part of an orchid meadow.
Bletillas can be grown in either semi-shade or full sun in the
garden. Being pseudo-bulbs they require well drained soil which has a good
organic content and the new growth develops outwards from the initial planting.
The pink striata is the species often offered in a garden centre and known by
most gardeners. There are however a number of species and Richard Evenden has
produced a whole range of Penway hybrids which includes many with the yellow B
ochracea as a parent. This produces multicolour flowers including plants such as
Sunset and Harlequin. Plants should be planted with the pseudo-bulb just below
the surface and unlike many other orchids division should take place in the
summer after flowering. This enables the plant to grow well during the autumn
producing new pseudo-bulbs for the next season.
A further genus from Japan are the hardy Calanthe which grow
in woodland areas in its native habitat. In the garden it can be grown in the
same situations as hostas and ferns. Again they are pseudo-bulbs which are semi
evergreen. The old leaves should be removed in the spring. The flower spikes
emerge before the leaves fully open. Most species are fully hardy in this
country with tricarinata and discolour being the two hardiest. The largest
flower (60 cm) is sieboldii but it is slightly less hardy than the others. There
is also C reflexa which does not flower until the early autumn. These species
also make very good pot plants where they can be given more protection during
the winter and if keep in a cold greenhouse the flowers will remain for a number
The next group are the famous slipper orchids;
Cypripediums. The majority need free draining soil and situations which are cool
in the summer and does not get midday sun. When the plant is happy, the rhizomes
will spread over a good area and produce numerous flowers. Of the 60 plus
species only a few can be categorised as easy garden subjects. C reginae is the
easiest species. In the USA it grows in dam areas near streams with its buds
held above the water table whilst its long roots will go down into the water.
Two other American species c parviflorum mochison and c parviflorum pubescens
are also good subjects as is c formosanum . When planting it is best to make up
a gritty mix, dig out a planting pit to a depth that allows the root system to
spread out naturally. The rhizome should be planted with the buds about two cm
below the surface. Planting should take place when the rhizome is dormant and
protection provided against winter rainfall. There are a number of commercially
available hybrids which are ideal beginners plants. They combine the good points
of the parents to provide hybrid vigour and consequently a better plant. The
genus is also ideal for growing in pots either in a cold greenhouse or outside.
The flowering period for the different species and hybrids is from April to
The final group are the wintergreen species. The British
natives, such as Orchis mascula (Early Purple) Anacamptis morio (Green Winged)
and Anacamptis pyramidalis (Pyramid) make good rockery or meadow orchids. Most
require infertile soils which are neutral to alkaline which is easily replicated
in a rockery or trough. When grown in a meadow it is important to consider the
fertility of the area. If the grass grows well then it is likely to swamp the
orchids thus reducing their viability. Tubers should be planted in early
September when they are dormant. They will grow through the winter and flower in
the late spring. The three identified will multiply through the division of the
tuber during regeneration.
The native Bee orchid (Ophrys apifera always attracts
attention but it does not always flower regularly. A far better option is to
grow a hybrid between apifera and a continental type because these usually
flower every year. These are only a few of the native species which can be grown
in a garden situation.
As I wrote before there is a hardy terrestrial orchid for all
situations in the garden and I would suggest if you are a keen gardener they
make a good addition to any garden. Start with the easy subjects and when you
succeed with them move on to some of the more exotic. Beware, growing hardy
orchids is addictive.
Bletilla Penway Harlequin
Cypripedium parviflorum pubescens
Cypripediums in a garden
How to grow Hardy