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Hey, Orchid Man!

Hobbyist Bill Austin Offers a Bit of Bloomin' Luck


Bill Austin blames it on the blooms. That's why he has 1,000 orchid plants filling the backyard of his home in Orange.

"I'm fascinated by the length of their bloom time and the challenge of making orchids grow well," he explained.

Austin and his wife, Joan, have been orchid hobbyists since 1982, when they visited Hawaii and were intrigued by all the tropical plants, orchids especially.

That's also the year Bill Austin retired from his career as a salesman.

"I wanted to keep busy and was looking for a good hobby," he said.

He bought a few orchid plants, then decided to join the Orange County Orchid Society to learn how to grow them.

"I soon found myself program chairman and decided that I really did need to learn about orchids. So, I read all the books I could find, and attended a lot of lectures," he said.

He also joined the Newport Harbor Orchid Society and the Cymbidium Society. In time, he served as president of the Orange County and the Cymbidium societies, and he is president of the Southland Orchid Show Committee, which organizes the orchid show each October at the New Otani hotel in Los Angeles.

He's involved with producing the upcoming orchid show, "The Fascination of Orchids," at Crystal Court in Costa Mesa, Feb. 5-8.

But his involvement with societies and shows doesn't keep him from caring for his extensive orchid collection.

Austin spends several hours each day in his backyard, tending to his orchids. His outdoor collection includes cymbidiums, cattleyas and paphiopedilums. Several phalaenopsis hybrids grow near a sunny window in his dining room.

He observes each plant daily to check on its condition and spot problems before they become serious.

"If you see insect damage, like mealybugs or red spider mite, just when it starts, it's much easier to control," he explained.

He has a pattern that varies by season.

In cool, rainy weather, he waters and fertilizes his plants every two weeks. With the arrival of spring and more active growing conditions, watering increases to once a week or more, depending on variety and size of container.

Fertilizing also increases, and by the time summer heat arrives, he waters and fertilizes his plants every two or three days.

Austin starts the year by scattering timed-release fertilizer around the base of each cymbidium plant. He uses anywhere from one-half to 1 teaspoon, depending on container size.

From the end of January through June, he applies a commercial orchid food with a 30-10-10 formula, diluted one teaspoon of dry fertilizer per gallon of water. Starting in July, he switches to a fertilizer with a 6-30-30 formula. The numbers refer to the ratio of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.

The first formula encourages plant and bloom growth; the latter helps with size and quality of bloom. Each plant will also be repotted, every year or every two years, depending on variety.

"Every orchid plant benefits from repotting," he said. "The bark needs replenishing, roots must be trimmed, and plants need dividing when they get too large for their containers."

Like many orchid specialists, Austin mixes his potting medium. For people who grow just a few plants, he recommends any good commercial orchid potting mix.

He doesn't agree with the idea that growing orchids is difficult.

"It's just a matter of selecting the right type to suit your own location and needs," he said.

Orchids belong to the largest plant kingdom. There are more than 25,000 species and 100,000 registered hybrids. Some orchids are native to tropical rain forests. Others are found in temperate climates.

Many types need high humidity and warm temperatures, and these grow best in greenhouses or indoors with plenty of sunlight and humidity. But a large number can grow just fine outdoors in Southern California. Cymbidiums top the list for ease of growing.

"Just give them good air circulation, bright but not hot light exposure, plenty of water and fertilizer, and they'll reward you with a bloom every year or two," Austin said. "Give them as much sun as they can stand without burning the leaves. When leaves turn white, you know they're burning."

Expect cymbidiums to produce large bloom spikes that will last from one to three months, depending on the variety. Most spikes must be fastened to a thin stake for support.

Because Austin has such a large collection, he's rarely without orchid blooms to admire. Those with a smaller passion and less time to tend them can get similar results by choosing orchids with staggered bloom times.

He advises beginners to simplify fertilizing by using an all-purpose commercial orchid food with a 20-20-20 formula, and applying every two weeks from January to June, and every week from July through November. Stop fertilizing in December and early January.

He also advises keeping orchid plants off the ground by placing them on benches or similar supports. This helps with water drainage and deters ants, slugs and other insects from nesting in the pots.


* Sponsored by the Orange County branch of the American Cymbidium Society, "The Fascination of Orchids International Show" will include 50 commercial orchid vendors, displays, seminars and orchid art gallery. Seminars on how to grow orchids will be held every day. Orchid plants will be for sale with prices ranging from $15 to $100. Show hours are 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Feb. 5 and 6; 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Feb. 7; and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Feb. 8. Crystal Court is at 3333 Bear St., Costa Mesa. Admission is free. (714) 435-2160.

* UCI Arboretum's annual spring orchid sale featuring miniature cymbidiums, epidendrums and other spring flowering orchids. Lectures on orchid care will be offered throughout the day. Feb. 21, from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. The arboretum is one block south on Campus Drive from the Jamboree Road intersection, on the UCI North Campus. Admission is free for children and Friends of the UCI Arboretum, $1 for others. (714) 824-5833.

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