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.

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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.

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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

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