Earlier this year, I went on a Wildlife Trust walk through Barton Hills in Bedfordshire. It was a magical morning exploring the chalklands with a group of like-minded people. We were fortunate enough to find several different species of orchids: common spotted, pyramidal and man orchid, along with common twayblade and white helleborine. I was intrigued by discovering these exquisite flowers just miles from my house and, like so many before me, instantly joined the ranks of the orchidists or orchid-lovers.
Orchid Summer by Jon Dunn introduced me to the vast range of orchids across the globe, between fifty or sixty of which are found across the UK. It also introduced me to some orchidists from the past whom Professor Richard Bateman, the UK’s pre-eminent orchid specialist, terms ‘orchidiots’!
I also learnt about the habitats favoured by some of our native species. Still, it never crossed my mind to consider growing these enigmatic plants in my garden, until I read How to Grow Native Orchids in Gardens Large and Small by Wilson Wall and Dave Morgan.
Suddenly, a world of orchid growing opportunities opened up – in containers, meadows, woodland borders and rockeries. The authors recommend 14 species that are particularly suited to garden situations, from the spectacular bee orchid (Orphrys apifera) which often appears in lawns, to the delicate greater butterfly orchid (Plantathera chlorantha) with its preference for calcareous soils in partial shade.
Orchids for meadows
Orchids are especially attractive to pollinating insects, so they are an ideal addition to a garden meadow area. The authors suggest choosing orchids based on your garden soil type as a way to develop a sustainable population. For open meadows, there is a wide choice including the heath spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza maculata) and green-winged orchid (Anacamptis morio). In damp areas, try the southern marsh orchid (Dactylorhiza praetermissa) and northern marsh orchid (Dactylorhiza purpurella), which thrive in wetter conditions.
There is also advice in the book for establishing a successful meadow. Growing the semi-parasitic yellow rattle is one key ingredient as it weakens vigorous grasses. Low-growing perennials such as hawkbits, mouse-eared hawkweed and red clover are recommended to accompany the orchids and create a naturalistic meadow.
Orchids for orchards
How many of us dream of our own orchard - I certainly do. I have three espalier apple trees along the fence that make up my ‘orchard’ and now I intend to underplant them with broad-leaved helleborines (Epipactis helleborine) and common twayblade (Neottia ovata) to add to the woodland effect. The authors suggest wood anemone, wood sorrel and cuckoo pint as accompanying perennials that are shade-tolerant but not so prolific as to overpower the orchids.
Orchids for rockeries and damp areas
Rockeries are ideal places to establish the free-draining, alkaline growing conditions preferred by many sun-loving orchids. Chalk fragrant orchids (Gymnadenia conopsea) and pyramidal orchids (Anacamptis pyramidalis) thrive in these conditions and combine well with dianthus, campanula and saxifrage. In boggy areas, try marsh helleborine (Epipactis palustris) and even common spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) which the authors have seen growing happily on the edge of a pond.
Why grow orchids?
I had imagined that growing orchids would be a niche occupation involving a vast amount of specialist knowledge, but reading How to Grow Native Orchids has convinced me this is not the case. The information in the book will help anyone to grow orchids, even in containers, and the benefits are wide-ranging. Not only are these fascinating plants beautiful additions to your planting, an established colony can also redistribute windblown seed to other gardens and even local wild areas, helping to boost the perpetuation of the species. And when your orchid colony begins to thrive, you’ll know the soil has well-developed fungal networks – ideal conditions to support healthy ecosystems throughout the whole garden.