Updated: Feb 20
Whether you call it a Wardian case, a terrarium, an orchid cabinet, or an orchidarium, if you dig miniature orchids and need a controlled environment for them, I highly recommend building one of these for your home.
I had wanted a display case/orchidarium for a long time, but was worried about the expense and the logistics of making and keeping one. I was especially keen on the idea because while I have two large orchid carts in other parts of the house, I didn't have a display space for blooming orchids on the main floor of my home. In the winter, the humidity in my house is abysmally low, so I would usually end up just keeping blooming orchids in their grow tents. That wasn't any fun!
Having a display space on the main floor of my home would mean I get to see these beauties more often, and guests could see them too (without being pulled upstairs or downstairs). Lastly, my miniature orchid collection had grown and was taking up too much horizontal space in my tents. An orchidarium with hanging space for mounted orchids would fix a lot of problems...and mean I could buy more orchids! (He he.)
My interest and confidence in creating an orchidarium was piqued while cruising Instagram one day--Brandon Flye (@brandons_orchids) had DIY'd this stunner from a cabinet he bought from Ikea. Ikea has several sizes of cabinets, but this one is by far the cutest. I contemplated buying one, but at $170, I wasn't sure it would automatically fit our lives--and secretly, I knew if I got one, I would immediately want a bigger one. Other orchidariums I've seen are fancier, with built-in foggers and other cool bells and whistles, but they run well over $600. I had confidence in creating functional orchid spaces from DIYing two orchid carts in previous years (see my blog post if you'd like the details!), so I was pretty sure I knew what I'd need for such an endeavor. I also wanted to try to keep it on the less expensive side of the spectrum, so the seed was planted.
I sent the image of Brandon's cabinet to my friend the Orchid Enabler and she ooohed and aaahed over it too. She also wrote back that she had an old display case in her basement--she had used it as her first aviary for small birds--and asked if I wanted it. DID I??!! Why yes, oh my gosh yes.
The orchidarium in its raw state was part painted brown, part unfinished wood, had sliding glass doors in front, and glass sides. My friend and her husband had created a removable chassis on top, and mounted a 2-tube 24" T8 light on it, with a screen on top and a peg board in back for air circulation for the birds. I replaced the screen on top with glass, and painted all wood surfaces white. I used spray paint on some surfaces, but the peg board I painted with a brush and anti-mold paint. My husband then attached a large piece of thin wood to the back so the orchidarium would be mostly, but not totally, airtight, and a piece of wood to the front face of the chassis. (Contrary to popular belief, you don't need these spaces to be airtight; they hold humidity quite well anyway.)
The orchidarium is placed in my front entry/library, in the nook under the stairs. It was originally a bit too short for the space (you couldn't see the orchids at the top of the cabinet without bending over, and it would be more comfortable to take care of if I could sit in a regular chair to perform maintenance). So my husband also built a black rectangular base for the bottom of the cabinet so it would be the perfect height. The final dimensions for the glass-enclosed display space are: 3 feet wide, 29" high, and 14" deep. With the base and light chassis added, the total is 53" tall.
I placed a sheet of plastic across the bottom so I wouldn't have standing water on wood if I oversprayed water or fertilizer. The cabinet also came with wire shelf braces (near top) that I now hang orchids on. Within a week or two, all the other pieces for the cabinet were scrounged or bought. I wanted a blurple light to balance out the T8s (together offering the orchids full-spectrum light), and I definitely needed small fans to keep the air moving, as well as a seedling heat mat would provide the day-night temperature differential most orchids want.
I recommend these items for a fully-functional orchidarium:
Seedling Heat Mat ($13-25, several types available; for $35 you can get one with a thermostat). I plug this into the same timer the lights are on, but don't use a thermostat. With a heat mat, my orchidarium has a low of 60 (winter nighttime room temp in my house) and highs in the high 70s when it's on during the day.
Small fans, at least two. I recommend AC Infinity because they are whisper quiet and humidity proof. (I have two 3" fans in here; I've used their 5" fans for more than 3 years in my orchids carts. They're on 24/7 in my orchid carts and in the orchidarium.)
Lights: I mix the 2 foot T8s that were previously installed with a short blurple. (A full-spectrum LED should offer your orchids the right spectrum of light for growing and blooming.) I had a bendable-armed blurple I wasn't using, so I stuck it in the chassis, just resting on top of the glass. I keep it on a separate switch, because I don't like blurple light, and I turn it off when company is over, when I'm maintaining the orchids inside, or when I just can't stand the purple glow (mostly at night).
Get a few hygrometers (temp/humidity gauges) and place them about the cabinet. You will have different microclimates, even in such a small space! For instance, on top of the heat mat, there's at least a 15 degree day-night difference. But up high, the difference is only a few degrees. Humidity is generally lowest at the bottom of this orchidarium, and highest at the top. And remember that the strength of the lighting drops precipitously the farther away your plants are from the source. In this cabinet, I've never had it drop below 60% humidity, even when everything is dry. After a quick spray, the humidity increased to 70-75% near the bottom, and is often in the high 80-90% range at the top.
All told, this cabinet cost about $140 for me (I gave my friend $25 for the cabinet with lights; paint was $20; blurple flex light was $20, heat mat $18, timer $20, wood and pegboard $20, fans $15). I admit that I got a fabulous steal in the cabinet with half the lights installed for $25! If you are building from scratch, or from a similarly low-priced semi-built option, I would estimate you'd pay $180-$200.
You may also want an assortment of do-dads: spray bottles with water and different fertilizers; glass bottles or small shelves to set orchids at different heights, etc. I use pure water, liquid MSU formula, and dilute MaxSea at different times. A plastic tray is also useful for transferring several small mounted orchids to the sink and back.
A few other thoughts before I get to a list of orchids that have done well in my orchidarium!
BEWARE OF BUGS AND VIRUSES. I have a strict quarantine and repotting regimen when I incorporate new orchids into my collection. I used to also virus test every single orchid. I have backed off testing everything in recent years, but the lesson is the same: it is of UTMOST importance that you place healthy, bug-free plants in your orchidarium. Part of the aesthetic is that the plants are very close together, and the mounted ones are stacked one above the other. This could be a serious breeding ground for mealys and other terrible critters, and spreading lethal viruses through your collection is even more awful. So keep on top of your game, whatever that means for you.
A NOTE ON LIGHTING. There are so many excellent grow lights out there, and so much conflicting information about them! After a reading a few books and several articles on the topic, as well as just watching my plants respond to different lighting scenarios over the years, here's my thoughts:
--You can spend a lot of money on lights, but you don't have to.
--A mix of one 2-tube basic warm white T8 or LED shoplight and one bar of a blurple light is a perfect mix for this size cabinet, and likely the most inexpensive set-up you'll find. When several orchids I had put in the cabinet started spiking within a few weeks of being placed in their new home--and the parade of blooms I've had since then--I'm convinced this is the right approach for me.
--If you'd like a bit of lighting theory (PAR value for plants), examine the chart below:
If I was starting from scratch, I would be tempted to buy one of the last two lights pictured here (but only if they came in warm white). Since most inexpensive LEDs are either white (and aren't made for growing plants) or blurple (and are made for growing plants, but are terribly ugly), it's a tough choice. But because they also perfectly complement each other in terms of filling out a complete lighting spectrum for orchids (imagine layering the Classic Grow LED on top of the Warm White LED), I use both. Again, the blurples are on a separate switch when I want to look at my plants, care for them, or take pictures of them.
ALRIGHTY THEN, LET'S GET TO THE ORCHIDS!
This is a low- to medium-light orchidarium, with relatively high humidity, a good day/night temperature differential (60-75 F winter temps, higher in the summer), and good air movement. That means many orchids will do well to live in it, and most others (cooler or warmer growers) that you might want to display while they're in bloom will fare just fine as well. Pretty much everything pictured here lives here, with the exception of the orange Guarianthe aurantiaca (it needs higher light and temps, so is only on display for now).
In general, here's what loves the orchidarium:
--regular and mini paphiopedilums (especially mottled-leaf varieties)
--many aerangis and angraecum
--many mini maxillaria (especially Maxillaria variabilis! also schwartizana, caespecifica, and uncata)
--stelis, lepanthes, masdevallias and other pleurothallids
--ontolezia and other tolumnias
Some specific species that have gone wild in here:
--Aerangis luteoalba, Aerangis mystacidii
--Epidendrum conopseum (previously known as Epi. magnoliae, Bartram's Tree Orchid)
--Gastrochilus retrocallus (previously known as Haraella odorata)
--Gomesa echinata (prefers a cool down for part of the year, the rest is in here)
--Gomesa radicans (previously known as Ornithophora radicans)
--A mounted Cattleya Small World does better in this cabinet than potted anywhere else I've tried. I think it needed less light and higher air movement!
--Phalaenopsis (Sedirea) japonica. I've grown them cooler and with more light, but they haven't done nearly as well as in the orchidarium.
For companion plants, the list of possibilities is very long. But I don't keep anything other than orchids in here, except for short stays of carnivorous plants Drosera capensis and Pinguiculas when I occasionally need to take down fungus gnats.
My orchidarium is by far my most fun growing space, and the easiest to take care of (because I can sit while arranging my pretties!). I do have a few upgrades I'd like to perform, however. First, the peg board and wooden back have me scared that they might one day become a hideout for bugs. I hope to replace them with a welded wire back to hang the orchids on (painted white), with a piece of glass behind it. No bugs could surreptitiously hang out on that! Second, I've bought, but haven't installed, 24" white LEDs to replace the T8s. The light they give now is still good, so I'll wait a bit longer on that.
Happy DIYing and growing your favorite miniature lovelies!