Media Considerations – Hydrotron is Dead! Long Live…?

Since the summer of 2013 and earlier, the use of “Lava Rock” as an orchid medium has been actively discussed in the orchid community in general, and among members of both the Jacksonville Orchid Society (JOS) and Saint Augustine Orchid Society (SAOS).

My interest is a result of searching for a Hydrotron replacement after closure of the company that made the product for 27 years. In doing so, I’ve found two easily available replacements, Lava Rock and PlantiT, both of which I’m evaluating. There are other replacements available as well, but these can be found in the local area with Lava Rock being clearly the cheapest.

At this time, I’ve only heard of one person using PlantiT, which is available in Jacksonville at Grower’s Choice ( While I don’t yet have enough data, my initial assessment is that PlantiT, although smooth in configuration like Hydrotron, is far more water retentive than Hydrotron or Aliflor. In my own adhoc testing (decidely non-scientific) PlantiT appears to remain wet 2-3 times longer than a comparable quantity of Hydrotron. PlantiT is also far more dusty than Hydrotron out of the bag and should probably be washed before use. Unfortunately, while using PlantIt, I’ve already lost one orchid (a Cattelaya type) to rotted roots. Moreover, when examining the media I noted it was exceedingly wet, although the plant had been watered two days previously.

Regarding Lava Rock, Cortney Hackney and others report good results and I can make the same report as well.  In my case, both Dendrobia and Cattleya appear to do well with robust root growth under my growing conditions.  Successful use of Lava Rock with orchids is reported elsewhere on the Internet as well.  Tom of the Angraecums website ( and on Facebook at reports generally good results with Lava Rock, but also notes that in larger pots (8 inches and larger) the center may be too water retentive.

At the moment, it appears Lava Rock has the nod as a replacement for Hydrotron in many of my applications. How about yours?

Greenhouse Survey

My small greenhouse is falling apart and I’m running out of room. This summer, along with other work around the house, I plan to put in a new greenhouse among other things. But what type, how large and how configured? I’m limited to 18×14 feet for a total of 252 square feet. In comparison, I now have approximately 112 square feet of greenhouse space between two dissimilar greenhouses.

With those limits in mind, I’m interested in what others are doing to meet their greenhouse (or shade house or however they are caring for their orchids) requirements. Along the way, I determined I’d do a short survey to see how others approached the situation. I’ll also share the results of what I find as I’m sure others have entertained the same question – what type of greenhouse should they get.

So obviously, I need your help! With that in mind, I’ve put together an online “Green house” survey that I’ll be be sharing. I will not share your personal information (name, address, etc.) unless you state that I have permission to do so. Instead, your survey data will be folded into the larger data set generated by this survey. Your survey information will NOT be used to develop marketing products and you won’t be receiving SPAM or other such products from me.

The survey is located at:

Thanks for your assistance and sharing your thoughts about your green house or other orchid structure.

– Art



Orchid Slum Greenhouse Tour

Jane and I hosted the Jacksonville Orchid Society’s tour of Art’s “Orchid Slum” on 6 October 2013. I currently have approximately 260 orchids split between two greenhouses, plus another 20 or so under the trees, or in the house if they are blooming.  Approximately 10 JOS members were on hand for the tour during which I passed out Epidendrum radicans and Dendrobium cucullatum keikis.








By way of background, Bonnie Myers, JOS President, gave me the first greenhouse, which is an 8ft wide x 8ft long x 6ft tall “Dream House” by Flower House greenhouses that she’d used for several seasons before replacing it with a considerably larger rigid-wall greenhouse. This greenhouse is for all intents and purposes, simply a large tent with a fiberglass shock-pole skeleton. As I’ve owned several smaller tents, I immediately knew how it went together and had it up within 30 minutes of after getting it home. I also built two 7ft x 2ft orchid benches for this greenhouse as well. The “tent” is a rip-stop weave of polypropylene fabric that has unfortunately not done well with Florida’s relentless ultraviolet light. A week before the greenhouse tour, the top panels ripped out (no rip-stop here!), but fortunately, I already had on hand a 20ft x 25ft roll of 4mil clear plastic, and it is now the top of the greenhouse!

Last year, I rescued my father’s orchids (75 or so) and his greenhouse came along with the deal.  This one is 6ft wide x 8ft long x 7+ feet tall and the plastic is considerably tougher, at least 6mil, if not more, with a true rip-stop weave. Unlike the “Dream House,” this green house has a rigid steel tube skeleton and is considerably stronger. Did I mention that it is taller as well?  I can stand up fully and its rigid structure makes it ideal for my Vandas and mounted orchids.  Like the “Dream House,” I have orchid benches, but in this case I purchased a 5-tier plastic shelf system at Home Depot and repurposed it for my orchids.


Both green houses are equipped with fans in the summer and electric heat in the winter, with one heater in each green house running at 750 watts easily providing sufficient heat. Both green houses also have watering systems, with each timed separately to meet the needs of their individual collections.

Photos by Margie Johnson

Dendrobium blumei

The Jacksonville Orchid Society recieved a number of orchids from the wife of one of its late members and I picked this up more out of curiosity than need; plus, the price was right.  It vaguely reminded me of a Dendrobium crumenatum with its furrowed pseudobulbs, but I really didn’t know what it was.  Members of the Florida Orchid Grower’s Facebook community properly named it as Dendrobium blumei, a warm to hot growing orchid which will grow nicely in my conditions.

Dendrobium blumei - Sep 2013When I brought it home, it was desiccated and I didn’t have much hope for it.  However, after placing it in my “wet room” where it was watered twice a day, I was rewarded with this bloom after a few days.  In the shape that it was in, I couldn’t help but think it might be on a ‘death-ride’ and producing its last bloom in an effort to get fertilized before perishing.  That was last week.  A week later, I’m again rewarded with a new blossom, which gives me hope that I may be able to save this orchid. This is a small blossom, 1.7cm vertically, but nicely fragrant.  It reminds me of honey, but others suggest something more towards lemon.  Unfortunately, the blossom will only last a couple of days.

Greenhouse Disaster Averted

Disaster Averted! Looking out this morning I noticed that my smaller greenhouse looked “different.” Upon closer examination I discovered that two panels of “ripstop” fabric had indeed, ripped. Er, without stopping.

What to do? The good news is that I was already planning for the cooler or cold weather soon to come and had a 20×25 foot roll of 4mil plastic. All this really did was move my plans forward.

And give me something else to talk about during the “Orchid Slum Greenhouse Tour” next weekend.

Total cost? About $35 dollars and 35 minutes of time.

GH_Disaster5 GH_Disaster4 GH_Disaster3 GH_Disaster2 GH_Disaster1

The Orchid Man’s Son

Son of the Orchid Man

Although not obvious, it’s really only since moving to Jacksonville that I’ve had much luck with orchids. Previously, this would have been obvious from the trail of dead orchids that has followed me for the past 35+ years. Look for the dead orchids and nearby you would have found me killing them with kindness, er, paying too much attention to them, er, well, you get the picture.

Actually, it should have been different – much different. I am the son of the Orchid Man. You see, I come by my love of orchids naturally. I grew up with them.  My father started growing them when I was two years old, and except for 3 years in Germany during the late ‘60s, we’ve always had at least a few around.

It was after our return from Germany and our settling in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, that my father became known as “the Orchid Man,” or at least that was how he was titled in the local paper. After we’d been there a few years and my father retired, he acquired the reputation as being the choice of last resort if you wanted to save a dying orchid in Fort Walton Beach. The orchid is dying or dead? No problem, give it to my dad; he’ll save it.

Unfortunately, at the time, my greatest talent was to take a perfectly healthy orchid and make it commit suicide once it dawned upon it who its new owner was. It’s not an enviable talent, I’ll grant, but it was mine.  Of course the rest of the story bears telling as well. I joined the Army in 1975 and spent the next 20 years in the field in such tropical orchid friendly places as Germany, Colorado, Washington state, and of course, Alaska!

Truth to tell, the multiple deployments with no one at home to care for the orchids, and a succession of unsuitable environments, would have given pause to even the most talented orchidist, but not the Orchid Man’s Son. I tried to grow orchids, but they just weren’t up to the task. Darwinian orchid culture at its finest!

Fast forward past retirement from the Army, graduate school, and a fortunate move to Jacksonville, and surprise upon surprise, I am the Orchid Man’s Son; and I Can grow orchids.  At present I have 2 to 3 hundred in two small ‘pop-up’ green houses and under the trees at home on Fleming Island, south of Orange Park, Florida. Winter remains a challenge as it remains a constant struggle to get them appropriately watered and given enough sunshine during the cooler months. However, with the first blossoms of spring, I’m amply reminded that it’s worth every bit of effort.

I’m currently a member of the Jacksonville Orchid Society where I’m a fixture taking pictures of the winning orchids on our monthly show table.  I’m also a member of the Saint Augustine Orchid Society and the American Orchid Society as well.

Art Russell

The Orchid Man’s Son