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A breath of fresh air: Orchid plants should head outdoors for the summer months

  • Bill Hutchinson of Amherst shows one of his orchids that recently won first place in a competition.<br/> <br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Bill Hutchinson of Amherst shows one of his orchids that recently won first place in a competition.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Bill Hutchinson of Amherst makes hangers for his orchids at his Larch Hill Greenhouse.<br/> <br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Bill Hutchinson of Amherst makes hangers for his orchids at his Larch Hill Greenhouse.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Bill Hutchinson of Amherst attaches an orchid to a stake at his Larch Hill Greenhouse.<br/> <br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Bill Hutchinson of Amherst attaches an orchid to a stake at his Larch Hill Greenhouse.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Orchids pots sit in hangers made by Bill Hutchinson at his Larch Hill Greenhouse in Amherst..<br/> <br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Orchids pots sit in hangers made by Bill Hutchinson at his Larch Hill Greenhouse in Amherst..

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • A Vanda Orchid hangs close to the roof to receive enough sunlight at Larch Hill Greenhouse in Amherst.<br/> <br/>SARAH CROSBY

    A Vanda Orchid hangs close to the roof to receive enough sunlight at Larch Hill Greenhouse in Amherst.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Bill Hutchinson of Amherst shows one of his orchids that recently won first place in a competition.<br/> <br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Bill Hutchinson of Amherst makes hangers for his orchids at his Larch Hill Greenhouse.<br/> <br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Bill Hutchinson of Amherst attaches an orchid to a stake at his Larch Hill Greenhouse.<br/> <br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Orchids pots sit in hangers made by Bill Hutchinson at his Larch Hill Greenhouse in Amherst..<br/> <br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • A Vanda Orchid hangs close to the roof to receive enough sunlight at Larch Hill Greenhouse in Amherst.<br/> <br/>SARAH CROSBY

With the arrival of spring, many people are finalizing their garden plans and preparing to move their house plants outside. Among the types of plants that require a more delicate touch is the orchid, and with more than 6,000 of them in his possession, Amherst resident William Hutchinson certainly has that touch.

Hutchinson, 83, owns the Larch Hill Greenhouse on Jeffrey Lane in Amherst, and has been growing and caring for orchids since 1951. His own preparations for the change of seasons is under way, and he has a wealth of tips to share.

One of the first steps he takes is putting up shade cloth along the roof of the greenhouse in anticipation of longer, sunnier days.

“If they didn’t go up, the plants would cook,” said Hutchinson. “They actually will die; they’ll be burnt to death when you’ve got something that magnifies the effects of solar radiation like this,” he said.

Around Memorial Day, he will begin moving many of the plants outdoors onto a wire-rack structure in his yard, where they will remain shaded and gradually be introduced to brighter light. This, he said, conditions the plants so that they won’t die from overexposure to the sun. He also waters them every few days.

“It’s very common to put your plants outside for the summer, but the problem that most people have is that they put them on the ground — which means every crawling thing in the world is going to move into them — and you can’t count on Mother Nature to water them,” said Hutchinson. “Most people think, ‘Well, they do fine in the jungles,’ but really about 90 percent of them die,” he said.

The wire racks keep the plants off the ground, which keeps bugs out for the most part, but some still make it up the poles, and it is necessary to spray the plants a couple of times over the summer, Hutchinson said.

He also said that the medium the orchids are planted in, traditionally a mixture of tree bark chips, should be changed at least once a year, to prevent the plant’s roots from rotting.

“What happens is that your roots rot, and the plant looks wilted, and everyone starts giving it more water, which just makes the root rot even worse,” he said.

Another common mistake is that orchid growers will over-fertilize their plants, he said.

“People look at an orchid and they’ll say, ‘Well, it’s really not green, it’s sort of yellowish,’ but that’s the way they grow in nature. If it’s really bright green, you’re giving it too much nutrient,” said Hutchinson.

With good care, he said, orchids will live a long time.

He likens the plant’s life span to that of a human being. “With good care, a person will last longer. It’s the same with orchids,” he said. “I have some that I bought in the ’60s.”

No easy task

Hutchinson noted that successful orchid growing requires a good deal of trial and error. He said most who have tried it have killed their share of plants.

“And if they don’t admit this, then they’re a liar,” he said.

Hutchinson’s greenhouse itself consists of three rooms, each with its own temperature and humidity level tailored to replicate conditions found in the various locales that the thousands of species come from.

The greenhouse’s vast collection includes plants from all over the world, with species from the Philippines, South America and Hawaii mixed in among others found in Australia and New Zealand.

His orchids can be purchased through Annie’s Garden Store and the Hadley Garden Center, and are on display at many local restaurants and businesses.

Hutchinson has been interested in growing orchids since his days as a student at the Massachusetts Agricultural College — now the University of Massachusetts Amherst — in the 1950s.

“I was a student of Mass State Aggie and you had to do a practicum as part of your training, and my practicum was in a greenhouse where there was a small greenhouse of orchids, and that’s where I got my start working on them,” said Hutchinson.

After returning from the Korean War, Hutchinson received a $250 bonus for his service from the Massachusetts governor’s office. He used the money to purchase a greenhouse.

“I had a friend that I had gone to ag-school with who had a greenhouse, and he wasn’t going to go that way, he was doing something else,” said Hutchinson. “So I bought it from him for the $250, which my wife always said was a lot of money, until (eight years later) the woman she worked for built one the same size for her husband and paid $15,000 for it,” he said.

The original greenhouse, which was made in the 1930s by a company called Lord & Burnham, has since been replaced by a newer structure that was designed in California and put up by Deerfield Greenhouses in Deerfield, he said.

Hutchinson holds a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in microbiology from Clark University, a doctorate in botany from the University of Massachusetts, as well as an associate’s degree in accounting from Holyoke Community College.

Along with operating the greenhouse, Hutchinson was a professor at Holyoke Community College, where he served as the dean of science, engineering and math.

In addition to being part of the Amherst Orchid Society, he is also a life member of both the American Ivy Society and the American Gesneriad Society.

“Some people say, ‘how do you do it, Bill?’ ” in reference to his involvement in the professional groups, “and I say, “Well, I just find the time. This is my relaxation.”

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