DIY Orchid Cart
I had been dreaming of creating a new orchid space for a few years before I actually pulled the financial trigger for one. The place in my home was picked out: our back entry room, with shaded natural light from the southeast and west. My orchid space needed to share room with play space and kid toys, winter boots, our washer/dryer, and a few other things, so it also needed to be vertical. I also wanted my orchid condo to be on wheels, so I could easily clean the wood floor, and more importantly, tend to the orchids at the back of the shelves.
My first dedicated orchid cart led to a second. And my original light set up has been modified over the years. I've described the evolution of my orchid carts below; if you want just the takeaways on what works best for me now, skim down to the end.
Now, I must admit that I had a precursor to my first real orchid condo. I DIY'd it almost a decade before to serve as a seed-starting palace, but the orchids soon colonized it. I bought the shelving unit at a big box store in town. It was cheap, flimsy, had no wheels, and the shelves were hard to adjust, but it did the job. At the same time, I bought four T12 shop lights with adjustable chains at a local hardware store. I had a few seedling heat mats that did double-duty for hot-growing orchids. Here's my old set up:
My previous DIY orchid condo was 72" high x 36" wide x 15.5" deep. It did the job for a while, especially for low-light orchids like phalaenopsis and some paphiopedilums. If I lowered the lights to be just two inches above the orchids, I could also keep medium-light orchids on it for the winter months, but this meant that I couldn't grow any orchids taller than about 8" on it. I kept the orchid shelving unit in my small office upstairs. (It was cramped!) The downside to this orchid apartment is that it wasn't mobile (I had to remove orchids at the front to get to orchids at the back), it wasn't pretty, and it was small.
Assembled in 2009, my original orchid cart was done on the cheap. It cost a total of $260:
Five-tier shelving "system" (plywood & steel): $34
Four 48-inch T12 shop lights: $60
Eight Agrosun 48" grow light T12 florescent tubes: $143 (I found out later I didn't really need these, but they sure made the plants look pretty and green! When the bulbs wore out, I replaced them with one "warm" bulb, one "cool" bulb in each fixture.)
Timer, extension cord, do-dads: $23
(Optional: seedling heat mats, varying in price, $20-$40. I later acquired a standing columnar oscillating fan as well, $30.)
For the past few years, as I have been growing more serious in my orchid habit, the T12 lights are simply not strong enough, nor energy-efficient enough, for my liking. After almost 10 years, the plywood had begun to break down (even though I covered it in clear plastic), and the thin steel frame didn't seem solid enough. I realized that if I was going to get serious about my orchid habit (more specifically, serious about blooming my orchids), I needed to bulk up my set-up. (A detailed American Orchid Society webinar was extremely useful in walking me through the technicalities of successfully Growing Under Lights.)
Enter the Orchid Muse Orchid Cart 9000, a really sweet ride:
So, I began to explore my options. There are a few nice orchid cart kits out there; the one I liked the most was the Floracart Stand. But in 2018 at $866 for the cart and T8 lights, plus $30 for the humidity cover, plus $130 for shipping, I was looking at over $1,000 for a new home for my orchids. Yikes. In truth, having a full-time job and a young kiddo, I was almost sucked in by the ease of ordering a fully-operational system. But once I realized that I really wanted T5-HO lights, not T8s--not an option on any of the carts I found--my decision was made. It was time to DIY this badboy. Start your engines! (Later, I would convert to LEDs and LED blurples...read on....)
After scoping out the two small hardware stores and one big-box store in my tiny rural town, I was sad to realize that almost everything I needed could only be bought online. (Ah well: all the better for blog readers to have links, I guess.)
My hot new mobile orchid condo cost a total of $660 (in early 2018), and was outfitted with two 4-tube T5-HO lights, and one 4-tube white LED light. I feel like bought a Ferrari! (Maybe I should spray paint it red?) Here's the breakdown:
Four-shelf heavy-duty chrome cart on wheels (72" tall x 48" wide x 18" deep): $112
Two T5-HO 4-tube fixtures: $133 each (I bought two, not three, because I wanted one shelf to be for lower-light orchids. I'll use the old T12 fixture on the cart until it dies, then I'll buy a LED florescent shoplight (which I can buy in town, thankfully).
Light pulleys/grow rope hangers: $8-10 each pair
Six black heavy-duty standard garden trays (to hold orchids so they don't slip off the cart when I'm moving it, and to catch any spilled water): $49
Humidity tent (crucial for my dry climate in winter): $40 (I could have DIY'd a humidity tent, but I found a thick, high-quality one with zippers and ties and the $40 seemed worth it.)
Two small fans to move the air: $17 each
I loved my new Agrobrite Hydrofarm T5-HOs. So do my orchids! At 18" from the tubes, the light measures at 28,000 lux (2,600 foot candles)--great for medium-light lovers like angraecum, brassavola, bulbophyllum, cattleya, coelogyne, dendrobium, leptotes, maxillaria, neofinetia, and oncidium. At 12" from the tubes, the output is 50k lux (4,645 fc), or medium-high light. And at 6" from the tubes, my ultra high-light lovers get 79k lux (7,300 fc). Bring on the blooms!
Later, I realized that many of my plants we receiving too much light, and often, too much heat. This was an easy fix: pop out one or two T5 bulbs, and hey presto, problem solved. I might eventually dedicate one full shelf of the cart to high-light loving carnivorous plants like nepenthes, sundews (drosera), and pinguiculas. Everyone loves T5s!
Fast forward two or three years, and the landscape of indoor plant lighting changed. LEDs are cheaper and available in all sizes and colors. I've also learned more about PAR value for plants, and which types of lights provide the best growing spectrum for the energy used. I still use my T5s, but now they're in a southeast window for very high-light lovers. I use them mostly in the winter when I need boost of light and heat. (My massive Maxillaria tenuifolia, jade tree, and other beloved plants LOVE it.)
I've now shifted almost completely to using a mix of warm white LEDs and blurple LEDs. This is because they compliment each other in terms of PAR value: the plants receive exactly the spectrum of light they need. It's also because they give off very little heat (whites almost none; blurples a bit more).
Take a look at the Warm white LED scale, and overlay the blurple LED on it. I bought them separately because they were the cheapest this way, and I don't want to keep blurples on all the time. Warm white LEDs are easiest on my eyes, and give a nice boost to the middle of the spectrum of light for plants. But normal white LED shoplights (the cheapest kind) peter out on the ends, and orchids need more blues and reds to grow and bloom well. So for most of the shelves on my 4' carts, I have 4' two-tube LEDs, plus one 2' blurple strip. I don't like the look of blurples, and I can't really examine my plants under them, so I keep them on a separate on-off switch and turn them off when I'm working with them. So far (more than six months in), the 2' blurples are working like a dream--so many more spikes and blooms now!--and I like that my lower-light orchids can be moved to the edges, whereas high-light orchids like to bask in the middle of the shelf, where the light from the whites and the blurples in the brightest.
Here's my warm tent (minimum temp 65 F) with the blurples on and the humidity tent zipped down.
Here's my cool tent (minimum temp low-mid 50s) with the blurples off and the humidity tent zipped up. Notice that I dim the white LEDs where needed by clipping scarves or plastic sheeting over them. If you can get them, I recommend the replaceable "frosted" warm white standard LEDs. The built-in non-frosted LEDs are too bright, ugly, and wasteful.
Truthfully, the moment I set up my new ride, I was thrilled. Even my husband asked "How is it that that you ever got along without this thing?!" I wish I hadn't waited. But I'm also glad I took my time, weighed the options, and knew exactly what I needed before I bought anything. I'm also happy that I've allowed myself the leeway to adapt my tents to what my orchids and I need. Because these sports cars are going to be vvvrooming around for a long time.
Links to products mentioned above:
(Floracart) Humidity Tent