My 60-gallon Orchidarium Project
Photographers do their best to find themselves out and about with their cameras as much as possible, but there’s times when we must hunker down at the desk and actually look at the bounty collected. This doesn’t mean we have to leave the outdoors outside, though! This is a bit of information detailing how I went about building a large orchidarium for my office. (orchid + terrarium)
I’ve had houseplants my entire adult life with one of my favorites being a velvety, dark-green leaf with striking white vein Alocasia Frydek. At some point, I started collecting Phalaenopsis orchids (the common, popular ones) then began rescuing them from the nearby grocery store as the flowers dropped and the plants were to be discarded. I swapped out the soil- usually moss- from the poor plants for orchid bark and brought them all back to health.
When my orchid count hit about 25, I realized it was becoming too time-consuming keeping them watered and fed. I want to be away on backpacking trips and didn’t want to saddle my wife with watering chores so I looked into ways of streamlining and automating the orchid needs.
First and simplest consideration was to put all of the orchids together in a long trough which could be filled with water then drained. This might have done the trick but, ultimately, this arrangement wasn’t interesting to me. I found that I didn’t want to have a few dozen of pots huddled together.
I wanted to make something more dynamic, a setup where the plants could grow naturally into their space much like they would in nature. They wouldn’t all be in a line, rather, would be planted among mosses and ferns within cracks and along branches. It would all have a very organic, natural look to it.
A glass terrarium fits the bill nicely, here. The glass would contain and protect the plants, keep moisture in, raise humidity and temperature levels to that of their native jungles, and give my setup a structure to install lighting above. it didn’t take long for me to settle on a 60-gallon “tall” which came with a black cabinet. The overall glass dimensions are around 48x24” face with a depth of about 12”. The cabinet is large enough to house a water tank, pump, and other accessories.
I did more research into Phalaenopsis orchids before building the scene inside the terrarium and discovered they naturally grow opposite to what you see in the store. Many orchids including this one are epiphytes which attach to tree trunks and branches. Their leaves grow downward and fan out while the flower spikes arch outward to the side.
At this point, I’m realizing that my 25 orchids won’t fit in this new terrarium very well without crowding and blocking each other from light and airflow. So, I decided to donate most of my collection to neighbors and explore other smaller orchid species. Wow, there are a ton of orchid species to choose from!
The orchid family is about 900 genera and up to 30,000 real species and now over 70k hybrids created through combining those species. The trick is to find the ones that are available and have somewhat overlapping care requirements that could be dialed in with correct placement within the terrarium. The light-loving varieties can be mounted up higher closer to the lights white the terrestrial (planted) and lithophytes (on rocks) could be at the bottom in partial shade. Those that want more moisture can be put on the back wall and given fog overnight without over watering the terrestrials that like to dry out a bit between waterings.
I started work by building the back wall of the terrarium laying on it’s back on my dining table. The first item was a large branch meant to give the scene horizontal surfaces in contrast with a flat back wall. Once that branch was in, I completed the background with several dozen cork “flats and rounds” purchased as a bundle from NEHERP, a small family-owned online terrarium supplier. It took several days and many iterations until I satisfactorily puzzled the cork together into one large, wide surface. Everything was secured with black silicone aquarium glue.
I then uprighted the terrarium onto it’s cabinet and added several inches of lightweight recycled glass rock (under 2lbs per gallon) to the bottom of the terrarium to serve as a drainage layer. Next, I dropped in several inches of NEHERP “V2” soil made up of coconut fiber, fir bark, cypress mulch, sphagnum moss, charcoal and clay. There’s a screen between the soil and rocks to prevent the soil from falling down into the drainage layer. I also keep the drainage layer about half full of water to help maintain humidity levels in the terrarium. The V2 soil is fast-draining and works great in high humidity, perfect for Paphiopedilum slipper orchids, mosses and ferns.
Now, to keep these guys alive and happy, I need to give them light, humidity, air movement, and heat.
For lights, I chose six 13W “corn cob” full-spectrum (high PAR) LEDs for a total of 6000 lumens and a beam angle of around 90 degrees downward without reflectors. It’s the PAR that matters which is the wavelengths of light that a plant actually uses, so don’t base lighting on lumens! The lights are all plugged into a wifi outlet and controlled via the “cloud” to be on for 12 hours a day to simulate the photoperiod found at the equator.
Air movement for orchids is also crucial for health as it supplies fresh CO2 to the plants and lowers the chances of fungus growth and other plant issues. I currently have an 80mm fan at the top of the terrarium creating a circular flow just large enough for the ferns to quiver a bit. At night, the fan turns off and my fogging system turns on to raise the humidity along with the drop in temperature.
Watering and humidity levels are controlled using an automated (timed) misting system, the MistKing Ultimate, installed at the top of the terrarium which is fed by a 5-gallon water tank and pump system in the cabinet below. This system produces a very fine droplet mist almost like fog. I currently have 7 misting heads installed but am probably going to add a few more to target the plants on the background more effectively or add in a drip line. The tropical mosses and the mounted orchids grow well with high humidity.
The orchids selected for my setup grow well in warm to hot environments. There are many that love very warm and some that like cold. In my room, the terrarium is a bit hotter than the ambient room temperatures during the day due to the LED lights. Due to the fogging evaporation, the night temperatures are a little lower than nighttime ambient room. Most orchids also grow best where there’s a significant difference between day and night temperatures. Without any cooling/heating right now I measure a difference of about 10F. The goal is to increase that a bit and then vary the high/low average across the year to simulate tropical temperature swings which is expected to help with blooming patterns.
Most of my uncommon orchids came from Seattle Orchid and a few others were purchased online at Olympic Orchids. Olympic’s are smaller, less mature but a great way to add in a bunch at a great price if you are willing to watch them grow.
Phalaenopsis hybrid pink
Paphiopedilum maudiae x2 (white + violet)
Paphiopedilum Herbert Bernhart (liemianum x gardneri)
Stenocoryne aureo-fulva (orange!)
Howeara lava burst “Pacific Sunrise”
Oncidium twinkle “Pink Profusion”
Cleisocentron gokusingii (true blue!)
Lots of rabbit foot ferns (planted and wall)
Several maidenhair ferns
Most of this setup is automated using wifi outlets and timers set via an app. This controls the fans, lights and fogger while the misting system is currently timed via its own controller. At present, the mister comes on about 10 times a day for about 8 seconds to maintain humidity levels. On Monday, the mister comes on in the morning for two minutes to saturate the soil below.
Soon, though, I will be adding a new custom controller based on Raspberry Pi. This new system will employ a suite of sensors to actively measure and log temperature, humidity and soil moisture. A 7” touchscreen will show all of the data and allow me to override anything. It will also warn me if the water tank is close to empty, if the pump fails or if the lights aren’t coming on.
The goal with the new automation is to better simulate the environmental swings these plants expect. The temperature rises in the summer and falls in the winter are somewhat regulated by my room here, but can be further influenced with a heater/cooler Peltier system I’m integrating. The light period is extended a tiny bit in the summer as well.