This Week It’S About Orchids—The Hardy Ones
by Art Drysdale
by Art Drysdale


Art Drysdale, a life-long resident of Toronto and a horticulturist well known all across Canada, is now a resident of Parksville, British Columbia on Vancouver Island, just north of Nanaimo. He has reno-vated an old home and has a new garden there. His radio gardening vignettes are heard in south-western Ontario over radio station Easy 101 FM out of Tillsonburg at 2 PM weekdays.

Art also has his own website at

August 11, 2013

Above: a typical Lady Slipper orchid (Cypripedium) growing in Ontario; Cypripedium x andrewsii; Cypripedium ‘Sabine’; Cypripedium Oulla Silkens. Below: Cypripedium Michael; Cypripedium Philipp; Bletilla Sunset; and Platanthera dilatata. Final seven photos courtesy Fraser’s Thimble Farms.

In considering a topic for today’s article I did a lot of thinking about all of the different topics I have written about in the last almost 20 years I have been writing these pieces on And, it suddenly came to me that as far as I can remember, I’ve never written about orchids—the hardy ones that many Canadians are able to grow in their own gardens.

While in Toronto, for most of the time while we had dogs, we had a very good friend in the person of Dr. Alan Secord who owned the Secord Animal Hospital being the longest standing continuously American Animal Hospital Association accredited Animal Hospital in Canada. During my times at Radio CFRB I often had Alan Secord as a guest on one of my shows on topics usually related to animals—but not always. At their country property Alan Secord had a large area devoted to hardy orchids.

He was always after me, in late spring, to come out to the property to see his orchids, of which he was most proud. Unfortunately I only made one trip out—but it was certainly breathtaking. I never did get into garden orchid growing myself for a very specific reason. Our Nesbitt Drive home was located in a heavy clay soil area of East York. And, orchids like a nice open (sandy/peaty) type of soil. Their roots absolutely demand never to be water-logged Most orchids would never have survived the first winter without a major soil changing and drainage project.

As it happens, the house that we were in on Hopedale Avenue prior to the move to Nesbitt drive was also in East York, but it was in an extensive sand belt, so had I gotten interested in garden orchids many years earlier, I should have been able to do quite well with them.

And now again here we are in the middle of Parksville sand where many orchids should do well! I am actively considering giving one or two a try. While there are not a whole lot of suppliers of hardy orchids in Canada, there are a few, and one, Fraser`s Thimble Farms are located only a short car trip away. Specifically they are located on the famous Salt Spring Island—home of the wildlife artist, Robert Bateman. We have visited Fraser`s Thimble Farms once since we have been out here, but may just make another trip this fall.

For those of you not lucky enough to be located in British Columbia you`re in luck because Fraser`s Thimble Farms is a mail-order operation. Annually they host an event called Orchidmania. About what they call ground orchids, here is what they say on their Website ( ): “The number of hardy ground orchids has exploded and we would like gardeners to become more familiar with these beauties. The hybrids are very easy to grow and make a valuable and unique addition to the garden. We also have many species for the purist, some of which are easy to grow and some are not.”

While there are many suppliers (or handlers) of orchids in eastern Canada, I have not been able to find such a company to recommend there.

Fraser’s Thimble Farms has quite a bit to say on their extensive Website. Here for example, is what they say generally about ground orchids: “This includes a diverse group from around the world. Some of these groups are relatively easy to grow like the Bletilla and Pleione and some are more challenging like the Cypripedium. The cultural requirements for most of these orchids are similar. They require well drained but moist soil when in active growth and excellent (almost dry) drainage in the winter when dormant. Light shade or partial sun works well. Bletilla are more tolerant of soil conditions and require more sun than other species.”

And here is what they say about the wonderful Cypripedium species and cultivars they handle: “The most beautiful of all the hardy ground orchids are the Lady Slippers, however, they are not the easiest plants to grow. Frequently, people need several attempts before mastering their cultivation. In cultivation, many have success growing them in pure perlite or in pots with a mix of equal parts of peat, sand and perlite. In nature, they often grow in bogs, but they tend not to like soggy conditions. Until recently it was not known how to germinate the seed of these beauties, but a few people (laboratories) have worked out how to in sterile medium (including Fraser’s now). We will be offering laboratory raised seedlings that are out of culture for one or two seasons. These should bloom in two to four years. We will also have a small selection of mature single eyed divisions of garden grown plants (mature plants). We have also recently begun to sell large plants with two growth points (double eyed divisions).”

But, hardy, or ground orchids are not limited to the captivating Lady Slipper cultivars. I’ve already mentioned two other types: Bletilla and Pleione. The Bletilla are one genus of plants we do grow here, but only one or two species. The Frasers say: “These are best planted 5 cm deep in light shade to full sun in a well drained humus-rich soil. In colder areas (say southern Ontario) they need to be planted 10-15 cm deep and in yet colder areas they can easily be grown in pots indoors or in an alpine house.”

As to the Pleione cultivars this is a genus of near-hardy orchids originating in the Himalayas and the mountainous regions of China. Most species and hybrids produce their incredible flowers in spring. They grow in a variety of habitats from moss covered rocks to leaf litter under shrubs, but always in sites with excellent drainage. Fraser’s Thimble Farm go on to say the following. “For most, the rules of cultivation are simple: Do not over water in early spring as the new roots emerge, and once the plant has developed a root system feed regularly with a well balanced liquid fertilizer. Finally, a rest period is required during the winter with a low temperature of 0-4C for a time.

“On the west coast many people are growing Pleione outdoors in well drained beds in sheltered conditions, as we do in our own garden. However, it is rather risky. The genus has minimal cultivation requirements which make them ideal for growing in the home, in a coldframe or in a cool greenhouse. If a mature pseudobulb is fed well it will produce two or more new pseudobulbs each year. The old one shrivels and should be discarded in fall. Most species will also produce a small bulbil atop the old pseudobulb which can be grown in two or three seasons to bloom size. Most species are easy to grow indoors or out (with protection) in very free draining humus rich soil (we generally use a 40:40:20 peat, perlite and sand mix). Customers from east of the Rockies, we suggest having these shipped before your other plants. For those of you who make a trip to the nursery, we have other species and hybrids that we are still multiplying to the point where we can sell them, so a few will be available.”

Another major genus to report on: Dactylorhiza, about which the Frasers say: “These wonderful hardy ground orchids are currently widely planted throughout Europe. Initially the flower stalks are short but as they get older the flower stalks get longer and fuller and the flowers get larger. Mature plants are stunning. All sprout from a tuber and multiply freely if the conditions are right. Most prefer humus-rich soil with good drainage. All our plants are grown from seed that is open pollinated so expect some variability.”

And finally, just one more major genus: Calanthe: “a large group of hardy and semi-hardy ground orchids from Asia. Most can be grown in the garden but the frost tender species should be brought indoors. They prefer a lightly shaded woodland setting with humus rich soil. Most spread quite rapidly, and are extremely showy and rare in North America. Great companion plants for ferns, Hosta, and Bleeding hearts. These like to be fed a lot with a weak solution of liquid fertilizer while in active growth.”

In addition to the aforementioned “major” genera, Frasers also sell a number of lesser-known genera; for example: Amerorchis, Epipactis, Goodyera, Pectelis, Platanthera, Pogonia, Ponerorchis and Spiranthes.

Many of these unusual genera are native at least to North America, and there are several species within the “major” genera which are also natives.

If you can provide the few key elements to growing good hardy orchids, as described here (from the Fraser’s Thimble Farms Website) I hope you’ll check their Website, and consider growing something different beginning this fall for next year.

  • New Eden
  • Kids Garden
  • Plant a Row Grow a Row