Dave Saunders (dhs0403 at Big Leaf Forum) requested that I post this as he felt it would be of interest and benefit to people here on the forum. This interview was conducted in October 2004 for the Desert Valley Orchid Society newsletter. Dave felt it's age did not affect it's value, so here it is.
Note: When this was initially published in the DVOS newsletter, there were a few photos to accompany it, but unfortunately, I no longer have them. Interview with Sherri Pantano on Indoor Orchid Culture – October 2004
Based on the interest created by the photos last month of Sherri Pantano’s indoor orchid collection, Sherri graciously agreed to let me interview her so that we can learn how she does it. The interview follows:
Eric: You have a spectacular collection of orchids that you grow indoors under lights and the plants are very strong and healthy. In fact, I've never seen a better indoor collection of orchids. Please tell me what your collection consists of ... how many and what types of orchids do you grow?
Sherri: Thank you Eric for your kind words. Your advice over the past few years has reflected itself in how my plants grow and bloom now.
I grow a total of about 325 to 350 plants. I haven't counted in some time and to tell you the truth I don't want to know as it might scare me! The majority are Phalaenopsis, a few mini Cattleya and two Cattleytonias.
Eric: Over 300 orchids all grown indoors, that’s quite a feat! And for all practical purposes, you basically grow just Phals. Do you simply prefer Phals., or is it that they make an ideal choice for indoor culture?
Sherri: I fell in love with Phals. when I was grocery shopping at the then "Smitty's" at Tatum & Shea and was browsing in the garden department and there they were in full bloom and oh so healthy looking! I still have that original Phal. and it blooms so faithfully for me every year and reminds me why I fell in love !!!!
I had no idea what orchid would love my growing conditions but in reading various orchid books I found out that Phals. would be happy in the same conditions as African Violets. Well at that time I had over 200 Violets so I just took the plunge, and to this day Phals. just tug at me over all other orchids.
Eric: Well, based on your success, Phals. were certainly a good choice!
It's been my experience over the years that Phals. are perhaps better suited for indoor culture than any other orchid. My mother has a few that she blooms out every year indoors in Tucson and Mary's mother has some that she blooms every year indoors in Wisconsin. And neither of them uses any supplemental lighting.
Speaking of light, I've found that this is perhaps the most important aspect of indoor culture ... at least as far as getting Phals. to bloom. Often people who grow indoors are unable to get Phals. (or any orchid for that matter) to bloom due to insufficient light. You have obviously figured out lighting. Please tell us how you address lighting for your collection.
Sherri: Most of my light gardens are set up with four 4-foot fluorescent bulbs per shelf. I use a combination of Sylvania standard Gro Lux and Sylvania Designer warm white plus.
For the Cattleyas and stubborn bloomers I use the new compact fluorescent that are a combination of 6500 K and 2700 K, 125 watts. I have these on a moving rail hung from the ceiling which moves 6 feet back and forth over a table holding the plants.
The lights are on for 16 hours a day all year round. Over the years I've tried changing the light timers according to the seasons but didn't see any difference in the growing or flowering.
Eric: Fluorescent lights in general are known for low output and usually need to be replaced about once a year. Have you modified your fixtures to produce higher light output? Also, how frequently do you need to replace the fluorescent bulbs?
Sherri: Yes, the fixtures have been modified. All the standard ballasts have been replaced with Instant Start Electronic ballast that are meant to run 4 lamps. My son re-wired the ballast so that two lamp outputs drive one lamp, and each ballast runs two lamps thereby increasing the output by 1.7 times more light.
I used to change the lamps once a year but haven't had this setup long enough to determine if once a year is necessary. I'm guessing that the lamps will last at least two years because the electronic ballast doesn't preheat the lamp when starting, so it will not wear out the filament.
What I have been able to determine since the change over is more double spiking and spiking of plants in less than a year. I've had many plants sending out spikes 7 to 9 months after they had previously spiked.
Eric: Let's discuss potting and mixes for a little bit. I know that you've experimented with different mixes, just like everyone else. I also know that over the years a good grower tends to stick with what works, but experiments and fine-tunes things as they go. What mixes have you tried and what has worked for you?
Sherri: I knew shortly after I bought my first orchid that bark was not the medium for me. In my air-conditioned home it dried out too fast. Since I had been using a Promix like mixture for my African violets for many years, after reading about growing phals in Promix I decided to give it a whirl. I loved it immediately, and after trial and error I got the mix right for my conditions. Using #4 sponge rock works great in keeping the mix airy but not so much that I would have to water more than once a week.
I also use N.Z. sphagnum moss for separating little compots, rooted keikis and any struggling plant. Even though I have to watch these plants closely as they dry out quickly,( that air conditioning again) they grow roots like crazy and are ready for repotting in no time.
My latest conversion has been to semi-hydro. It's a way of growing in an inert material ( clay pellets ) of which there are several kinds. The web site http://www.firstrays.com
has the complete instructions for growing in semi-hydro. I experimented with a few plants for a couple years and was completely won over and have transferred approximately two thirds of my collection to semi-hydro.
One of great benefits of growing semi-hydro is that there is no need to repot once a year and when you do repot it's a snap to transfer the plant to a bigger container and add more pellets. It is a very clean way to grow in the home.
Eric: What proportion of #4 sponge rock do you add to the Promix and how often do you repot plants that are grown in your modified Promix media?
Sherri: I use approximately one third #4 sponge rock to two thirds Promix HP. All plants in the Promix / sponge rock mixture are repotted yearly.
Eric: Normally, I would ask about temperatures, but since you grow all your plants in your home, there doesn't seem to be a need. I assume that if you're comfortable, the plants are too. So, let's talk a little bit about water. How often do you water and/or fertilize? Also, do you do anything special to increase humidity?
Sherri: I think I'd be safe in saying that most of my collection is on a weekly watering schedule, not all on the same day though as that would be impossible for me to do!
I fertilize with each watering and my orchid fertilizer is called Jerry's Grow. About every 6 weeks or so I water with plain water.
I have a large ( 40 gallon ) Reverse Osmosis Unit in my garage to take care of all my plants .
I don't do anything to increase the humidity other than the plants creating their own little micro-climates in each light garden, and in the winter I use the Master Cool instead of air conditioning and it raises the humidity a bit.
Eric: Which Jerry's Grow fertilizer do you use and at what strength?
Sherri: Jerry's new formula is the only one he sells now. I use 2 teaspoons/gallon on everything and for bloom I am now using 1 teaspoon/gallon as Jerry suggests.
Eric: Virtually every book I've ever read about growing orchids stresses how important good air movement is. In my greenhouse where humidity will approach 100 percent at times, good air movement is very important. I have suspected that in an air conditioned house, air movement may not be good and could possibly stress plants due to the lack of humidity. What's your view on air movement and do you do anything special to increase or decrease it?
Sherri: I also believe good air movement is very important for all the plants, not just orchids. The air conditioner fan is on 24/7, so that even when the unit shuts off, the fan is still running in every room. I also have ceiling fans that run during the warm months.
Eric: In a greenhouse, controlling insects and diseases is usually a simple matter of spraying with an appropriate pesticide. However, in a home it is not so simple. How do you control insects and diseases?
Sherri: Well, up until about a 1-1/2 years ago I had very little trouble with insects, just the occasional scale or mealy bug showing up on new plants. I always repotted new plants immediately and sprayed thoroughly with Ultra-Fine Pesticidal Oil. Then the plants would be put into a separate light garden and checked often. This seems to really work for me and the times when something would pop up I was able to catch it and spray with Orthenex aerosol spray until I was sure they were clean.
Then came the little orange mites out of nowhere, LOL, and I spent about 7 or 8 months spraying with the same Orthenex spray, and do the entire shelf even if I didn't see any signs of the little buggers. Then along came my son and said " this is no way to get rid of them in your entire house." We rolled out plants to the backyard, room by room, and he thoroughly sprayed with the Orthenex concentrate and a hose sprayer. After they were completely dry, in they came and out went another room full of orchids.
I would never have been able to do this myself and it was a great success. The follow-up was done with Isotox liquid concentrate in a hand held sprayer as needed. Every 7 days I checked plants with a magnifying glass for signs of recurrence. If any was found the entire area was redone.
At this time I have only found a few plants showing signs, so I feel good about the route we took.
The few plants that have showed signs of fungus I immediately sprayed with Physan 20. A couple plants over the years have showed what I thought was bacterial infection (after getting sunburn) and I used my Bacitracin ointment and it stopped it in its tracks.
Eric: Blooming Phals. in a greenhouse is very seasonal with peak season in the spring. I've noticed that you seem to have quite a few blooms throughout the year and I'm a bit jealous. What do you do to get the plants to bloom and to keep them in bloom?
Sherri: I've noticed your plants, that I also have, are not in bloom when yours are blooming their little heads off. Then a few months later mine start spiking. I am only guessing that mine are getting their flowering signals at different times because of the air conditioning. One hybrid comes to mind, your beautiful Ambo Buddha 'Phoenix' FCC/AOS were all full of gorgeous flowers at your place and mine were doing nothing. Sure enough a couple months later mine starting spiking. Another plant that was blooming at your greenhouse, Buena Cerise Sparks 'Afire' HCC/AOS while mine was just sitting there looking pretty! Three months later mine woke up!!! There are many more examples that I've observed and chuckle to myself that I should start looking for spikes on certain plants a couple months after visiting you.
I'm a believer like you that light is so very important to getting plants to bloom, over and above fertilizer, humidity and media. Sure to get the best out of our orchids we need to give them the best of everything, but nothing much will happen without enough light.
Oh and I think my flowers last for so many months because they are not stressed by heat. I have plants that will still be in the last moments of bloom and another spike will have started.
Eric: I know that at one time you used keiki paste more to encourage spikes to branch and rebloom rather than to produce keikis. Do you still use keiki paste and if so, how do you use it and what are the results that you obtain?
Sherri: Yes I still use the keiki paste on plants that are strong with good root systems, to coax the lower nodes to send out another blooming branch. It is quite successful as long as I time putting the paste on. I wait until the plant has some open blooms before peeling the protective cover off a lower node and with a toothpick pat a minute amount of paste over the exposed node. I don't do more than two nodes per spike. In my experiments I have found that the keiki paste treatment doesn't in any way delay the plant from spiking again when it's their time.
I have found that the yellow flowering plants are especially receptive to this treatment and will send out many more flowers. Oh and I also put a small amount on the end of the flowering spike when all the flowers are open. You would be surprised how the end will elongate and send out many more flowers. The first time a plant did this for me I counted as many buds on the new branching as the original blooming on the spike.
Eric: Which brand of keiki paste do you use and where do you get it?
Sherri: I use Keikigrow Plus from Plant Hormones Canada. They are listed on the orchidmall.com under Orchid Supplies.
Eric: I really like the light stands that you use ... they are nice looking and functional. Where did you get them?
Sherri: Over the years as my collection of plants increased I had the light gardens made to my specs. My goal was to beautify not only with plants but that the gardens themselves would be handsome. Only two light gardens were bought ready made. They are from Hausermann's in Chicago.
Eric: Sherri, I think we've covered indoor culture pretty thoroughly. Is there anything that you would like to add to what we've discussed?
Sherri: You covered so many points that I wouldn't have thought of. The only other hint I can think of that really helps me know when to water each orchid, is to have the day you last watered the plant on a little label. Then you don't have to check every pot every day. It is a big time saver for me.
Eric: Thank you Sherri! We all appreciate the time you've taken to share your growing techniques with us. Hopefully, some of our members who grow indoors will be able to use the information that you provided to duplicate your success.