Dactylorhiza fuchsii

Orchid Meadow hardy orchids nursery grown from seed



General Care .. Dactylorhiza .. Anacamptis, Ophrys, Orchis, Serapias .. Epipactis..Cypripedium

Orchis anthropophoraHow to grow hardy orchids in your garden or wildflower meadow

Hardy terrestrial orchids make wonderful displays in the garden. They are a must for any wildflower meadow - see Meadows - and can also be very successfully grown in flower borders, rockeries, raised beds, bog gardens, and in large outdoor containers or pots. Unheated well-ventilated greenhouses are also ideal, especially for raising young plants.

They have a reputation for being difficult plants to grow, but by following cultivation advice, and with a bit of care and practice, beginners can soon have success. Experienced gardeners will have few problems. All the photographs on this page are of plants growing in my garden. If I can do it, you can too!

Orchis anthropohora

orchids in rockeryGeneral Care
The basics for most hardy terrestrial orchids are summarised thus:

1. sunny or partially shaded position
2. freely draining but moisture retentive, low fertility soil
3. avoid extremes, eg waterlogging, winter wet, drying out
4. frost hardy in many cases
5. feed only with very dilute liquid fertiliser

Some people are lucky enough to have suitable conditions for orchids to grow naturally in their gardens, for example unkempt lawns on the thin soils above chalk, or woodland edge type habitats. Suitable growing environments can be created artificially, however, with the chance that the orchids will self-seed and spread.

Dactylorhiza praetermissaDactylorhiza

These species are mostly easy to grow if a few important requirements are met. They are suitable for many garden locations including wildflower meadows, raised beds, flower borders, bog gardens, and large pots.

Although known as "Marsh" orchids, and sometimes favouring very wet areas in the wild, they grow perfectly well in moist garden soil without necessitating the creation of bog conditions. When growing well they multiply vegetatively into clumps and may also self-seed if soil conditions are right.

The shoot appears in early Spring giving a low rosette of leaves from which a spike emerges with flowering in June. Thereafter top growth dies back, while underground the old tuber dies but a new dormant tuber has already formed for next year. This is like a miniature parsnip but with multiple lobes or fingers pointing down, and with several wiry roots. There should be a healthy bud at the top of the tuber.

Dactylorhiza praetermissa

Potting Up: this should be done as soon as the tuber is delivered. Many different types of soil are tolerated but the ideal is free-draining yet moisture retentive, with a loose structure. A suitable mix is about 60 - 70% organic matter component opened up with about 30 - 40 % mineral components.

Dactylorhiza purpurellaThe organic matter could be simply a humus-rich soil, or a variety of other materials such as John Innes no. 2 or 3, multipurpose potting compost or well-rotted leaf mould. Use of peat-free materials would be desirable, provided they work!

For the mineral component use either fine horticultural grit or horticultural sharp sand, or preferably a mixture of the two.

Other ingredients such as perlite, limestone chips (except for acid soil loving species), chipped bark etc can be incorporated as refinements.

Plant the tuber with the roots spread out and the bud uppermost, approx. 4 to 6cm below the surface. Increase pot size with tuber size. At maturity pots should be at least 20cm deep, ideally more, to accommodate the long roots. Dress the surface with fine grit to prevent neck-rot in Spring. Water in and allow to drain.

Dactylorhiza purpurella

Dactylorhiza maculata tuberPlanting out: When planting direct in the ground, make a rather large planting hole relative to the tuber, eg approx 15cm wide by 20cm deep. If the surrounding soil is too compacted, as may happen with a small planting hole, the roots will have difficulty in growing out.

Use the same planting technique and compost mix as above. Some of the existing soil can be mixed in, but be careful to retain good drainage characteristics. In a meadow, a thin layer of the overlying turf can be replaced as a top dressing, or use grit as above, until the plant is established.

Aftercare: Never allow plants to completely dry out, nor be waterlogged. Good drainage is essential. Water generously when actively growing in Spring, but more moderately in Summer and Autumn. Keep fairly dry in winter, withholding water during the coldest weather.

Dactylorhiza maculata tuber

During active growth, plants can be fed occasionally with a very dilute liquid feed, such as a seaweed-based fertiliser. Always feed cautiously as too rich a feed may kill the plant. Partial shade or full sun are usually both acceptable locations, the ideal depending somewhat on the particular species. Orchids native to the U.K. are hardy and only need protection from very severe frosts. When using pots or containers, however, these must not be allowed to freeze solid. Good ventilation is important if greenhouse grown. Stale, humid air can cause plants to die by damping off.

Ophrys apiferaAnacamptis, Ophrys, Orchis, Serapias

These species can mostly be grown similarly to Dactylorhizas (see above), but with a few important differences. These are winter green species ie the shoot appears in Autumn or Winter forming a low leaf rosette. This survives through the Winter then enlarges in Spring, flowering between April and July. The top growth dies off in Summer leaving a dormant replacement tuber. Dormant tubers are round, oval, or turnip-shaped, with no roots, and usually quite small, eg 1 - 3 cm diameter. The bud is initially tiny but soon enlarges as the shoot begins to grow. Roots develop eventually at the base of the shoot.

Ophrys apifera

Anacamptis morioThe main difference with these species is that dormant tubers should be kept fairly dry but cool in Summer to prevent rotting. If growing in the ground, a well-drained location is necessary. If in a pot, cease watering altogether and allow it to dry out. Alternatively tubers can be harvested and re-potted in a dry mix, or stored in an envelope or in clean sand. In the latter cases, though, check to see if the bud has started to grow - they must then be re-potted or re-planted.

Potting up and planting out: use similar methods to those for Dactylorhizas, but with an increased proportion of grit / sand in the compost (eg around 50%). Do not water pots until the green shoot appears. Planting out is probably best done in Spring when in active top growth.

Anacamptis pyramidalis tubers

Anacamptis morio

Aftercare: water sparingly during Autumn and keep fairly dry in winter, withholding water during the coldest weather. Water generously once growth accelerates in Spring, but never allow to be waterlogged; good drainage is essential. Stop watering completely after flowering when the foliage starts to die off.

The species native to the U.K. are hardy and only need protection from very severe frosts. When using pots or containers, however, these must not be allowed to freeze solid.

Anacamptis pyramidalis tubers

Epipactis giganteaEpipactis

Epipactis species can mostly be grown in the same way as Dactylorhizas (see above). They are winter dormant species, ie the shoot appears in Spring forming a leaf rosette. Flowering occurs in June, July, or August depending on the species. Afterwards the top growth dies back.

Underground, instead of a tuber there is a rather thin, stick-like rhizome, which forms branches. Large numbers of long roots arise from the rhizome, and one or several dormant buds form. These give rise to the new stems in Spring, so that a mature plant can form an impressive clump of flower spikes.

Epipactis gigantea rhizome


Epipactis gigantea

Potting up and planting out: techniques are as described for Dactylorhizas, except it is best to give more space to the rhizome to allow for expansion of the root system, ie use a fairly large pot or planting hole. The same compost mix can be used as for Dactylorhizas.

Aftercare: The watering regime is as before; damp in Spring, moist in Summer and Autumn, and fairly dry in winter. Do not, however, allow to completely dry out at any time of year.

Epipactis gigantea rhizome

Location depends on the species, many preferring partial shade. However those of smaller stature may need a more sunny spot , as in the wild.

Cypripedium reginaeCypripedium

A brief note on growing Cypripediums, which is a specialist subject in its own right. Many very detailed approaches are available elsewhere, see Links, so there is merit in a simplified account. They are primarily woodland orchids with similarities in habit to Epipactis. Around 65 species are known from temperate regions of the Northern hemisphere, and many artificial hybrids have been created.


A branched rhizome spreads horizontally just below the soil surface, with many roots growing downwards. They are winter dormant, the shoots appearing in early spring with flowering usually in May or June. Plants multiply vegetatively if growing well, forming spectacular clumps with large flowers. Growth to flowering size is slow, typically taking at least 5 years from seed.

Cypripedium reginae

A gritty, free draining compost should be used - eg similar to that for Anacamptis etc above, with around 50% or more mineral component. The rhizome should be planted with the buds only just below the surface, and then dressed with a layer of grit.

The seasonal watering regime is as for Dactylorhizas, never letting the root system dry out completely. Particularly important, though, is to avoid winter wet. Do not water plants during near freezing temperatures, and it may be advisable to routinely cover them from rain in winter.

While most need a partially shady location, a few species need complete protection from direct sun. Also a sheltered postion is desirable, as a sudden cold spell in early spring can damage developing flower buds. A dilute liquid feed is beneficial.