Archive | September 2012

Growing dendrobium orchids the GardenEzi way

King orchid growing on a rock

(This article is for those who live in climates where they can grow Dendrobium orchids out of doors.  It’s not for collectors and competition growers whose plants, especially if grown in cooler climates indoors, need a much higher degree of care).

Dendrobium orchids are very independent plants and they don’t like a lot of fuss.  Gardeners who have problems growing them remind me of parents who treat their children like hothouse plants – won’t let them do this, won’t let them do that in case they come to harm.  Rearing children in this unnatural way turns them into adults who lack strength of character and the ability to fend for themselves.  It’s just the same with dendrobiums – give them the right environment and the basics of a good life and they’ll grow up big and strong and tough and resilient, able to survive all the world can throw at them. When they are in flower you think that anything so exquisitely delicate MUST need hothouse conditions – yet in the wild they grow on trees and rocks, exposed to the elements, surviving drenching rain and drought.

Cooktown orchid (Dendrobium phalaeonopsis)

Ever since I founded the GardenEzi easy gardening Five Step Program (see ) I have used the same method for writing most plant articles as I do for my books – breaking it all down into the Five Ps of gardening: Planning, Preparation, Planting, Practice and Protection.  So here goes:

PLANNING – Much depends on where you wish to grow your orchid. You may wish to imitate nature and place it on a tree or rock in your garden.  More likely, however, you will want to provide it with an artificial growing medium such as a piece of bark fastened to a hard surface, or a cork board, a pot, or a basket. Dendrobiums do best in a position where they have morning sun and light overhead shade, with protection from direct midday and afternoon sun, as well as hot winds, cold winds and (if grown on or near the ground) frost.  The Australian “king” or “rock” orchid Dendrobium speciosum will handle temperatures down to zero or even a bit below for short periods, as will the pink rock orchid (Dendrobium kingianum); the Cooktown orchid (Dendrobium phalaeonopsis) will tolerate temperatures down to 50 degrees F (10 degrees C) and so will the popular Dendrobium nobile hybrids.  Some of the Asian and Pacific species require higher temperatures and no frost but all dendrobiums cultivated in gardens require night temperatures of no less than 60 degrees F (15.5 degrees C) during their dormancy period in order to flower later.  When planning for containers, it’s the size of the maturing stems and leaves that’s important – the root system grows very slowly while you can expect at least one new step a year.  Choose a size roughly twice that of the plant and pot (or basket!) on as required.

PREPARATION – If you are growing your dendrobium in a pot or basket (the latter is better) make sure the container is filled with plenty of coarse, fibrous material.  You can buy a commercial orchid mix or make your own with coconut fiber or peat moss.  If using a pot make sure it is shallow, wide at the base and has at least THREE good-sized drainage holes; put small rocks or pebbles or bits of broken-up terracotta pot in the bottom, to ensure perfect drainage.  You can’t pot these orchids using an ordinary potting mix and expect them to do well – they are epiphytes that must develop an extensive mat of roots to survive and grow.  They can do this on a wall or rough wooden fence, provided you place them on a slab of bark or cork to start with; in a pot or basket the roots will need plenty of room to spread.  I prefer a cane or wooden basket, placed where the roots can grow outside the container on to some other surface when they are long enough, or be easily trimmed back if necessary. Pack the bottom of the basket with sphagnum or peat moss (I once used an old coir doormat, chopped into pieces, with great success!), then add some coarse orchid mix.  I usually put in a few twigs and leaf mold from the garden to hold this in place and provide plenty of “open work”; a few small rocks are good too, or a handful of coarse gravel.  The idea is to give the roots protection and some initial nutrition while allowing free drainage.

PLANTING – (Or placing!).  If you are going to grow your orchid on a tree or rock, tie it firmly in place with any binding material that will rot away as the orchid roots spread and find their own anchorage.  NOT plastic, or wire!  If you’ve bought it already fastened to a piece of bark or similar, you need only to bind this to the growing place.  If it’s in a pot you’ll need to remove it carefully so that the roots aren’t damaged and then bind it in place.  The same goes for a division from somebody else’s plant – in both these cases pack sphagnum or peat moss, or soft bark, or burlap (hessian) around the root system and tie the whole lot in place.  If you are growing in a pot or basket take the same care in handling the roots and see they are securely in place with the growing medium packed loosely but thoroughly around them.  Use the same careful root-handling procedure when potting on, once the plant becomes too large for its container – where necessary cut the roots with a sharp, clean knife.  Mature plants can also be divided in this way, increasing your collection.

PRACTICE – In warm-temperate, sub-tropical and tropical climates the dendrobiums readily available to gardeners don’t need to be moved under cover in winter.  They all experience a cold-season dormancy period when they produce no new shoots and at this time they require very little water.  I usually give mine a sprinkle or spray with a fine mister once a week if the weather is very dry, or if I notice any sign of dessication in leaves or stems.  In areas with winter rainfall, overhead protection will prevent the plants becoming too wet for prolonged periods. In summer, when new shoots appear, watering should be regular and plentiful except when it’s raining.  Though feeding is not strictly necessary, if you want more and better flowers then apply a half-strength monthly dose of liquid fertilizer.  I use a standard balanced mixture in summer to encourage leaf and stem development, switching in autumn to one which is higher in phosphorus and lower in nitrogen, to encourage flower development.  This rewards me with superb spring blossoms.  Other growers have different methods but there is general agreement on regular light summer and autumn feeding, and no fertilizer at all in the cool season of dormancy.  No pruning is necessary but it’s a good idea to remove any withered leaves or canes as these are not only unsightly but may indicate a fungal disease which can spread to the whole plant.

PROTECTION – I never give my dendrobiums any protection at all against insects.  Nor have I ever had any problem with fungal diseases. As these orchids grow outside, rather than in a bush or greenhouse, Mother Nature seems to take care of pests.  However, like all plants they CAN be susceptible to attacks from insects such as aphids, thrips, scale and two-spotted (red spider) mite. All these can be dealt with by washing down with ordinary dishwashing detergent, though repeated infestations might need a chemical treatment as recommended by your nursery retailer.  Rusts can be a problem, showing as reddish-brown marks on the leaves and stems. These tend to occur in long periods of continuously wet weather.  You can buy a treatment from your nursery retailer. Other fungal diseases are usually too advanced by the time you notice the effects and it’s mostly a waste of time trying to treat a plant that starts to blacken and rot.  The best regime is to make sure your orchids are well-drained, have plenty of air around them, won’t suffer from sunburn (which will scorch the leaves and leave them shriveled and susceptible to fungal attack), and are not exposed to frost, hail or wind.

There is a lot more I could say about growing dendrobiums – especially about propagation and the many different species and varieties available today.  But this is enough to get you started – if you want to know more, contact me on my GardenEzi website, or via this blog, and I’ll answer any questions.

Fall fascination in the garden

It’s back to work, back to school – and back to getting the garden in shape for winter.

But before we clip and snip and get things bedded down we ought to be making the most of fall, while the last of the warm days are with us.  Too often, gardens in this ‘twixt and ‘tween period look dreary and neglected.  It’s okay if you live in Maine or Vermont or some place where the trees turn to flame.  But if you live (as I do) where the winters are mild and the leaves don’t fall at all or, if they do, put on a less spectacular fall show then you need to think about putting some zap into your garden right around now.

First let’s consider the obvious candidates – the small (comparatively!) Japanese maples, the Acer palmatum with their dainty fairy-fingered leaves that turn on a spectacular red and gold show.  Most gardens have room for at least one of these and they can be grown in all zones except the tropics.

Then of course there are the barberries and these make a very solid mass of spectacular color in the shrubbery, though single accent specimens look good too. In a small garden it might be best to stick to one varietal color but if you’ve got plenty of room try a range of the different leaf shades available today – when it comes to small stuff nothing beats a barberry for fiery fall fascination.

Except, perhaps, the “burning bush”, Euonymus alatus ‘Compactus’ which actually grows to about 10 feet and is so fiery red it almost hurts the eye. This gorgeous shrub can be pruned to keep it compact.

Other shrubs or small trees which provide the foundation for an awesome autumn every year in your garden include blueberries (there are different types for northern and southern gardens so select those that suit your zone), native witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana for cooler zones to Zone 9), smoke bush (Cotinus species) and the spectacular dogwoods with their scarlet to crimson-purple leaves and red stems that make the garden glow long after the leaves have fallen.  I like the variety ‘Arctic Fire’ (C. stolinifera), which doesn’t exceed 4 feet in height.  There are few things more splendid than dogwood stems against a blue late fall or winter sky. For warmer climates, pomegranates; both the fruiting and purely ornamental types put on a surprisingly attractive show.

While we tend to focus on reds and yellows, bronzes and coppers for this time of year, too much of all those flamboyant shades can be a bit overwhelming.  I like to break it up with some cooler contrast – Artemesia ‘Silver King’ is an excellent plant for this, as are the many varieties of euonymus with variegated leaf patterns that seem to sparkle in the chilling air of autumn – Sparkle ‘n Gold and Frosty Pearl are two varieties which will lighten up your garden well into winter.

To me, every garden is a theatrical stage in which the show is ever changing.  All the plants mentioned so far provide a backdrop, and perhaps a featured player here and there.  Now we want to bring the foreground to life with fuss-free foliage plants such as ornamental grasses and phormiums (New Zealand Flax) which go wonderfully with euonymus and come in the same wide array of subtle colors – pink and bronze, green and yellow, copper and gold.

All this will give you a spectacular fall garden even if you live in the south. And the overall concept is adaptable to any size garden – if you have only a small plot then try just one of each; a small tree, a tall shrub, a foreground foliage plant, using rocks and ornamental pebbles in the open space between them, if you don’t have room for grass.  If you have a large garden then you can create a mass effect; trees at the back, then banks of colourful shrubs, then ornamental grasses and other small plants in the foreground, set off with an expanse of lawn.

Of course, you can add flowers to this scene if you wish.  Asters and sedums such as ‘Autumn Joy’ (both great for rockeries), heleniums, nasturtiums, celosia, chrysanthemums and coreopsis are all good flowers for autumn – and when they fade and drop as the weather grows ever more chill you are still left with a palette of vivid color that will gladden your heart every time you look out of the window.

Bliss on a bike


Our “island in the sky” is always a beautiful place to be and is has the added bonus of being within easy driving of the beach.  So a couple of days ago we packed up the bikes and left at dawn to do our favourite bike ride, from the Tweed River south to Pottsville.

An early start meant we avoided the worst of the rush-hour  traffic on the Pacific Motorway that runs from Brisbane to the New South Wales border and beyond, by-passing the high-rise glitter of the Gold Coast.  Once over the Tweed you are in New South Wales and the shopping malls and beach apartments and general razz and tazz of the coastal strip gives way to endless white beaches and rolling green countryside with Mt Warning and the dramatic scarps of the Border Ranges to the west.

We always start this ride at Fingal Head, a quiet little beach spot that time has pretty well forgotten in terms of development – though like so many other places the scruffy old beach houses are gradually being poshed up and even the old caravan park is having a new amenities block and kiosk built.  Still, the beach is lovely and there’s a nice green park and plenty of shade under the pandanus trees.  Though this time it was surprisingly cold, with a north-easterly blowing hard, so that we had to huddle down with our bacon sandwiches and spike our coffee with a dose of whisky!


Thus fuelled, and with the north-easterly at our back, we ride west-south-west along the south bank of the Tweed, with Mt Warning brooding in the distance beneath a murky sky.  There is an excellent bike track along the river’s edge for almost 4 kilometres (2.4 miles) and then a bit of road work once you go under the motorway bridge and into Chinderah – we used to have to cycle a roughish gravel road edge here but now there’s a very good cycle lane that takes you safely round the corner away from the traffic entering the motorway.  It’s only a short distance anyway and then you are on a cycle track once more, heading up the slight rise to Cudgen and then round to the long stretch of the Kingscliff esplanade.  This is one long piece of parkland running for a couple of kilometres beside the beach, before you reach the Kingscliff township of shops and holiday apartments.  All very gay and seasidish on a sunny August morning. 

From here we cycle to the northern side of Cudgen Creek where there’s a rock wall and good views of the beach as it makes a long white curve all the way round to Fingal Head.  It’s blustery, on this day, and one lone kite surfer is making the most of the wind.  We, however, are glad to get away from it and take the sheltered boardwalk that follows the line of the creek to the bridge,where we cross over to the south side and pick up the new cycleway built by the Tweed Shire Council especially for people like us!  It runs close to the beach, just behind the back dunes, and you can peek at the glittering sea as you ride along.  The vegetation – tuckeroo trees, sun-gold wattles, gracefully drooping casuarinas and lots of small shrubs and vines – gives some protection from the north and south-easterly winds. 


This is Casuarina Beach which runs for several kilometers south to join Cabarita Beach.  There is no vehicle access here so it’s very quiet.  Here and there are little pathways through the dunes down to the lonely beach – lonely now, but on the western side of the bike/walking path is a huge suburban development of houses, apartments and a high-ticket shopping centre.  Where until not so long ago there was just coastal scrub.  It’s a beautiful area, with its magnificent beach and mountain views, so development was sadly inevitable.  And at least it’s given us a wonderful bike ride!

Along the track the council has installed some very imaginative water fountains, benches and low-key contemporary-style sculptures that are intended to compliment and reflect the nature of the environment.  They make good stopping places for tired and thirsty riders.  On some parts of the track you pass beach houses of remarkable design, mostly tucked well away behind a screen of vegetation.  Luckily there are still long sections of the track where there is nothing except bush on the western as well as the  eastern side and the ocean’s song drowns out any other singer except the currawong and friarbird who carroll joyfully of food and love among the wattles and eucalypts.


Eventually this splendid track turns a corner away from the beach and meets the coast road that runs from Kingscliff to Pottsville.  There is not a lot of traffic on a Thursday morning but nonetheless we are glad of the screen of trees and shrubs that buffers the bike track from the bitumen.  On the eastern side is a bushland reserve about a quarter of a kilometer thick with tracks through it to Cabarita Beach.  In fact Casuarina and Cabarita are really one long beach, though there is a curve at Cabarita Township into a small bay and rocky headland which some think of as Cabarita Beach “proper” – what makes it thus is the presence of a surf life-saving club and the safety of being regularly patrolled because this can be a bad coast for rips and large waves in season.

We cycle the short and easy distance into the holiday hamlet of Cabarita, buy apple turnovers and iced coffees at the cake shop and take them to the beachfront.  This used to be a somewhat scruffy, somewhat shacky sort of place with a certain raffish charm but now even the old surf lifesaving clubhouse has been poshed to buggery and there are a couple of stylish restaurants with stylish prices and some several-storey apartment blocks.  All quite pleasantly done but another sign that the times, they are a-changing, at least when it comes to the sort of beach holidays which today’s Australians (and overseas visitors) expect.  No more sand-between-your-toes and a simple weatherboard or fibro shack smelling of sea salt and mildew; no more cossies hung to dry over sun-worn verandah railings.  It’s a cappuccino and sun-dried tomato and truffle oil world down on the beach today and the tapas we used to eat free with a glass of rojo in the red-dark little bars of Spain are now an expensive staple of the seaside eateries of Oz.

But never mind, we are content on our bench with our old-fashioned cholesterol-filled pastries, except that the sun has been covered by a mass of high cloud and the blue day has turned to grey.  So we get on our bikes – Bob’s sleek Silver and my beloved little cob Bluebell – and head back along the track towards Kingscliff, taking time for diversions on to the beach and photography along the way.  There are a few more people, now, using the track, most of them ageing cycies (as opposed to bikies) like ourselves, exchanging cheery greetings as we pass (subtext: aren’t we lucky to be this old and out and about like this on such a beautiful day and still able to move our legs forgawdsakes!).


Back at the bridge over Cudgen Creek we divert along the track on the southern side to where the creek meets the sea – just across from the rock wall at Kingscliff where we had sat only a couple of hours ago.  There is a lovely little beach here, always deserted because the sea is rough and less protected from the prevailing winds than the beach on the northern side.  I paddle around in the rock pools and wish the sun would come out again, while Bob checks the bikes (I had dropped mine back on the track while taking photographs, and the handle bars have become skewed – easily fixed). 

Then it’s back down the creek, checking the mangroves for interesting birds, and across the bridge and along the boardwalk to Kingscliff and lunch at the Thai Restaurant which does a very good prawn curry for $10.  We share a beer, then go next door to our favourite ice-cream parlor for dessert.  We need to be well refueled because once we’ve cycled the Kingscliff Esplanade and turned dead east to run back up the Tweed River we are heading slap into the north-easterly that so kindly blew us along in the morning.  Now we have to pedal like mad to make headway and as we’ve been on the bikes for several hours our legs are tiring.  Still, the views are lovely and the sun is out again and soon we have reached Fingal beach and our dear little blue car, Hermione, who has been patiently waiting all this time.  We’ve cycled 41 kilometres since breakfast and don’t even feel particularly tired.


We take the longer, scenic route home instead of the motorway because we want our lovely day to have a lovely ending.  At 77 (next month) and 67 respectively, we feel proud – and lucky – that we can still enjoys ourselves like this. AND IF YOU’D LIKE TO SEE MORE ABOUT THIS LOVELY DAY OUT, GO TO MY FACEBOOK PAGE FOR LOTS OF PHOTOS.