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See a sample issue of The Irish Garden!

August 2012

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Hardy Orchid Bed

Rachel Darlington goes to some trouble for her orchids

Some people buy hardy orchids and keep them in pots. But, for me, this defeats the whole purpose. If a plant is hardy then it should be enjoyed outdoors in the garden. So, with that in mind, one of this year's projects was to build a hardy orchid bed in my garden.

But which orchids to choose? My first choice had to be Cypripedium, queen of the hardy orchids. Although the most difficult of the lot to cultivate, a healthy clump of slipper orchids, pouches held proudly, has got to be the pinnacle of gardening achievement. So that decision easily made, my other choices were Bletilla striata, Epipactis gigantea and two types of reliably hardy Calanthe.

The job started by excavating a pit in an area of dappled shade by a large cherry tree. To prevent interference by the tree's roots, I sunk roof slates, left over by builders, vertically at the sides of the pit. And then, to best accommodate the slightly different composts that the four types of orchid would need, I sunk additional slates to divide the bed in four. I lined the base of the bed with large stones, for drainage, and lumps of polystyrene. And then it only remained to mix the composts, one lot at a time in a wheelbarrow. Soil, bark, grit and perlite were used, in varying quantities, and soon I was carefully easing my plants out of their pots and into their new homes.

But where would any good gardening story be without a disaster or two, and mine happened after I had excavated the pit and put the slate around the edges. The slate was supported on one side by the earth outside the bed but not on the other side, as the special compost mix hadn't yet been put in. Then the wind blew an empty pot into the area and I dived in to get it out. Unfortunately for me, however, I walked too near the edge of the unsupported pit. There was a sickening crack and next thing I knew I ended up in the excavated orchid bed and on top of the smashed slate. I find that a few choice expletives never go astray in a situation like that! In disgust, the whole project was abandoned for a few days but once I returned it was soon righted.

Finally, I got to top dressing. This is mostly a cosmetic device to make the surrounding border seamless with the orchid bed. Large amounts of perlite can look ugly and unnatural in a border so I wanted to cover it and also to make sure that final evidence of the tips of the sunken slate was completely camouflaged. I mulched with bark but reserved grit for the section given to my precious Cypripedium!



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