Monday, July 26, 2010

My Orchidarium



In 1988 I built my first wardian case or orchidarium after moving to Houston, Texas.  At that time I had a large collection of cool-growing miniatures and Masdevallias, and had to find some way of keeping them in hot, humid Houston.  My inspiration came from an article in the March 1980, American Orchid Society Bulletin.  That article was written by Joy and Ralph Stiller under the title “A System for Summer Survival of Cool-Growing Orchids.”

I later wrote an article about that first wardian case in the American Orchid Society Bulletin of February 1989, with the title “Cool Masdevallias in Hot Houston.”  At that time I was growing plants of approximately 65 different genera in the wardian case, including many pleurothallids and Masdevallias, New Guinea  Dendrobiums, various Sophronitis species, and unusual genera such as Telipogon, Kefersteinia, and Promenaea.


The success of that first venture was evident in the fact that I received nearly 20 American Orchid Society awards, along with numerous ribbons and trophies from area shows.  What I learned from that first attempt I have put into the building of a second wardian case, since we had to leave the first one behind when we moved overseas.

A case of this sort is not only ideal for keeping cool-growing species in a warmer climate, but for miniatures in general.  Miniatures are particularly vulnerable, because of their size, to neglect, insects, excessive heat or cold, and whatever else might kill an orchid.  In a case of this kind, temperature, humidity and light can all be carefully controlled and insects and disease can be almost completely eradicated.  When you remember that a single snail can eat most of a tiny plant in one night, you will see the value of a system such as this.

The basic structure of the case has been the same with both.  They are built primarily of aluminum and plexiglass and are very light-weight as a result.  They stand on three-foot legs and have a growing area of approximately 30" x 54" x 36" with room at the top for lights and space for about 250 miniature plants.  The front and sides of the cases are of plexiglass and there is also a plexiglass divider between the lights and the growing area to keep the heat generated by the lights out of the growing area.  The back is a masonite panel with wire mesh attached for mounted plants.  The cost of the first case was approximately $200 and of the second around $500, mainly due to the increased cost of materials, but still far cheaper than a commercially built case.


As can be seen from the picture, the upright elements of the case are 1.5" aluminum angle and the horizontal elements 2" aluminum angle at the bottom and 2" aluminum flat pieces at the top, all bolted together with 1/4" x 3/4" aluminum bolts. The area in which the lights are kept is surrounded by 3/4" thick wood panels, which provide support for the lights and make the case reasonably decorative. The bottom of the first case was made of a masonite panel painted and sealed with a liquid epoxy. That began to deteriorate after a number of years, in spite of the epoxy sealant and so the bottom of the second case is made from a multiwall polycarbonate sheet, the same kind used for greenhouses, carefully sealed along the edges.  It is sufficiently strong by itself to bear the weight of the plants and shelves, but I provided additional support at the corners and across the middle to ensure that it would not bend or break.  This also makes the second case even lighter in weight than the first.  The bottom is also lined with a layer of plastic egg-crate to keep everything out of the water that sits in the bottom of the case.

The cooling system in Houston was nothing more than the household air-conditioning.  Now, in Washington, it is an open window in the winter and the fact that the case is in a basement room in the summer.  The lights in the first case were eight 48" fluorescent tubes, half grow-lights and half ordinary fluorescent bulbs.  Now I have eight 48" high- output fluorescent tubes for light.

Both cases have had four fans, the first two 4" exhaust fans and two 3" muffin fans mounted on the inside of the case for air circulation.  The second has no exhaust fans but has two 4" fans mounted under the shelving and two muffin fans mounted in the corners for air circulation.  All the fans and lights run off 110vac current.  In the first case, I tried to use a cloth panel that would draw up moisture from a reservoir and provide additional humidity on the side away from the exhaust fans, but found that impractical and unnecessary.

On the inside of the case there is not only wire mesh for hanging plants, but racks made from kitchen storage baskets and plastic egg crate that hold the plants at different levels.  The storage baskets are the plastic-coated wire baskets or shelves that are available in any chain store.  These allow both for drainage and for air movement below the plants.

The plants are watered with a tank sprayer nearly every day, which allows selective watering.  Water on the plants themselves is not a problem since there is more than adequate air movement in the case.  I have always used a pinch of fertilizer in each tankful and continue to do so.  I’m not the kind to do everything scientifically and so have not used light meters or any other gauges except for a cheap temperature and humidity gauge.

The plants are grown in and on a variety of media, including bark mixes, locally collected sphagnum moss, small branches, tree fern (for mounts and as a medium in pots), and cork bark.  Pots are also a variety of clay, ceramic and plastic, including both solid plastic and plastic net pots.  I do try to adapt the medium and pot to the plant and to provide slightly drier conditions for those plants that like it drier.

At present I have about 150 plants in the case,but have room for quite a few more.  I have mostly Pleurothallids and New Guinea Dendrobiums, but also a miscellany of other species.  Most do well, though some need to be moved to a location that suits them before they thrive - more or less light, more or less air movement, or a slightly cooler or warmer spot.

30 comments:

  1. Hello

    First congrats for your Blog and your wardian case. It's a wonderfull project.

    As you i grow orchid in a room and i would like to build the same kind of case for "cold" species here in France. I have a simple question, could you please give me the exact name of the tube light (wich trade mark T5 or T8 or maybe another kind of tubes...)

    Thanx a lot.
    Marc

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    1. Marc, they are T5 bulbs and are four feet long in a fixture that holds eight of them. The fixture in this case is made by Hydrofarms.

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  2. Love your orchid case. My 2 orchid cases are built out of wood.I have a website i recently created to celebrate what I call natural history furniture.I build furniture in my shop, and have been fascinated with this kind of furniture all my life. Feel free to check it out if you'd like to see what my two cases look like. http://thenaturalistsworkshop.weebly.com/index.html

    Love to have a collection of orchids like yours. Well, maybe one day.

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    1. Thanks, Mark, for the nice comments and for the link. Hope you find opportunity to build your collection of orchids. I had a look at the link and remember seeing pictures of one of your cases on Orchid Board - the smaller white one. They are beautiful and much more amenable to being used in a living space than mine is.

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  3. Hi Ron,

    I too have a very large collection of orchids and grow them under led lighting, but want to start collecting more cool growing plants. I absolutely love your orchidarium and I am very interested in your second design, can you tell me how the case opens? Two more questions....1)I assume you still have to water weekly, and if so, do you have to remove all of the plants from the case? 2)is the daily misting all you need to maintain the humidity?

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    1. Hello,

      The case opens with two sliding plexiglass panels (double strength plex) - the temperature changes, however, make the plex bow and I had to add aluminum strips along one side of each panel to keep them more or less straight. The plex slides in a plastic track that is glued to the top edge of the case and to the bottom of it. It's not perfect, but with my limited engineering skills it was the best I could come up with. As to watering, I do not remove the plants, but water them daily with a tank sprayer - the wand allows me to reach each of the plants and water it thoroughly, and the watering and fans keep the humidity at around 80%.

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  4. Ron, estas imagens, passou despercebidas, lindo orquidários, que cacpricho, plantas super saudável.
    abraços

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    1. Thank you for your comments and for looking up this old post. This is how I've been growing orchids for nearly thirty years and it has worked well for me, though my engineering skills are less than adequate.

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  5. Hi Ron,

    It struck me as appropriate that I should thank you for the inspiration you gave me in 1989 when I visited family in Florida and read a copy of your article in the AOS Bulletin. I was 13 and captivated! Scroll forward to the present day and I have a similar case to yours - growing similar genera and have just had an article published in the Scottish Orchid Society bulletin about growing orchids in climate controlled cases. I always read your blog with interest and enjoyment. Thank you for your passion and enthusiasm. It was that and the promise of being able to master those tricky species which I had only seen in botanic gardens that got me where I am today (and I still have that AOS bulletin!)

    Best wishes,

    Cam

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    1. Wow! 1989! I can hardly remember that far back, Cam, but thanks for such a nice note, and it is nice to know that you were inspired by what I was doing (and still am). Congratulations, too, on the published article. Would love to see a copy of it.

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  6. Ron - you should think about putting a prominent permanent link to this post in the sidebar of your blog so people can easily see how you grow your wonderful specimens! :)

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    1. On further reflection, the Orchidarium tag on the right kind of does that and picks up the other more recent posts, but the less savvy who don't make it as far as your tags may benefit from a link to that tag category perhaps? (you could also perhaps link the words "My Orchidarium" in the title to it?).

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    2. Great suggestions, James. Now I have to figure out how to do them. I think I get how to do the title, but I have to figure out how and where to put the other link.

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    3. Can't figure out how to do either one, James. Obviously, I'm a real tyro at this.

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  7. Ron,

    I am going to build the aluminium/plexiglass version, excellent stuff!

    What thickness (in "mm") plexiglass would you recommend please?

    Thanks,

    Graham

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    1. Hi Graham,
      When I built the case originally, the side panels, the doors and the divider between the lights and the growing area were all plexiglass, about 3mm (we call it double strength), but I have since replaced everything but the divider with 3/16 glass (approx. 4mm) and have done so because the plexiglass bowed and shifted with the changes in temperature and humidity and was a constant source of grief as a result.

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  8. Ron,

    I'm really interested in trying to re-create your plan. Most of my questions have been answered, but two remain:

    How many footcandles of light does the eight light fixture provide?

    From the photo, I can't see where your doors are located. Could you please provide more detail?

    Thanks,

    Jim

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    1. Hi Jim,
      I've never owned a light meter, so I can't answer your first question, but in the first build of the orchidarium the light levels with all eight bulbs were way too high. I used only four (with the fixture I have four bulbs can be turned off). I'm trying all eight with the new build but am beginning to think that all eight is still too much for the Masdevallias and lower light plants. As to the doors, they slide in tracks between the wood at the top and another track (both plastic) inside the aluminum frame. f you send me your email address I'll send some close-up pictures of the track and doors.

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  9. Hi Ron,

    I'm working on a presentation for our local society and I'm wondering if you'd mind if I incorporate a couple photos of your orchidarium setup?

    Darrin Norton
    Mountain Orchids

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    1. No problem at all, Darrin. There are a couple of other posts that show this rebuilt, that have more info, and that have better pictures.

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    2. Thanks! Yes, i saw the other too. :-)

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    3. Hope your presentation goes well.

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  10. Hi Ron,

    This is an amazing orchidarium! Truly perfect. What is your approximate day/night temperature range? I keep mostly warm temp species but I'm looking to get more into the cooler ranges.

    Thanks!

    Ryan

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    1. The temperature range is (winter) 55 nighttime to 65 or 70 daytime and (summer) 60 or 65 nighttime to 70 or 75 daytime.

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  11. Firstly I love your site so incredible!
    I'm planning an Orchidarium project for myself and was wondering if you could give me some info? I'm stuck on what kind of lighting to use, Fluro or HID. What kind of light are you getting from your 8 bulb lamp (if you have a light meter readings from the top vs bottom)?

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    1. Thanks for the kind comments. I'm afraid I'm not much help. I've never used HID lighting so I know nothing about it, nor do I use a light meter. I've always just gone by what the color and growth of the plants tell me. As noted I am using a bank of 8 HO T4 fluorescent bulbs, but that was too much light for the Pleurothallids I grow and so I only keep four of the bulbs lighted.

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    2. Looks like pleuro's like 700-1500fc. Well, whats the highest light orchid you are growing under those lights now?

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    3. Probably L. sincorana which I grow as close to the lights as possible. I've also grown and bloomed several mini-catts further away from the lights.

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  12. Hi Ron. As I revive an old interest in orchids I am bedeviled by the variety of lighting options on the market since I was in the hobby 20 years ago. What light spectrum t5's do you use? I've read all the info about mixing blue and red spectrum tubes or is there another variety that does the job? Looks like we live in the same state... maybe we'll meet once I start hitting the shows.

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    1. Sorry for the delay in responding. I've been in the hospital for surgery. Hope, too, we are able to meet. As to your question, I don't worry much about the spectrum of the bulbs and just use a mix of warm and cool white if I can get both. Never found that it makes much difference in the growth and flowering of the plants.

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