THERE”S A JOKE in orchid growing circles, according to Bill Gardiner.

You can, so the joke goes, get hooked on orchids, just as you can hooked on beer, women and cigarettes – the difference is you can”t get off orchids.

It”s fair to say Bill is well and truly hooked. He”s always had green fingers, but was bitten by the orchid bug in the late 1990s.

Since then, he”s built his collection up to about 200 plants, all kept in greenhouses at his home near Sudbury in Suffolk (he asked us not to say exactly where, because some of the plants are so precious).

“They look fantastic at this time of year,” says Bill. “When the weather”s cold and damp, you can go into the greenhouse and still have a lovely display.

“There are, he explains, more species of orchid than any other plant – well over 20,000 in the wild, many native to jungle areas in Central and South America, Indonesia and Thailand.

“There”s nothing quite like them,” says Bill. “There”s the variety – and then there”s the sheer beauty of the flowers.

” Some will flower only once a year, or even less. Some will only flower for the briefest of periods – a day or so. “You could come home from work in the evening and have missed it if you grew those”.

HARD TO GROW

The different types vary so much that orchids can be harder to grow than a lot of plants – and he admits it can be a challenge at times. Even for an award-winning gardener like Bill – whose father was a market gardener and whose grandfather was a cowman, who reckons “growing things is in the blood” – it can be a frustrating business.

” The challenge is trying to get everything right,” he says. The most important thing is to keep the humidity up, typically between 40 and 60%. Temperature and humidity is crucial, but so are light levels and watering.

” Most of my spare time is spent in the greenhouse,” says Bill. “Although if you ask my boys, they”ll tell you I spend all my time there,” he laughs, referring to his 18 and 22-year-old sons.

Prices today of rare orchids can still hit “several hundred pounds”, he points out. “I”ve heard of some Japanese buyers who are prepared to pay a few thousand, although the mad prices of the Victorian era are gone,” says Bill.

Back then, propagating and growing techniques were less advanced and the plants had a tremendous rarity value. “Plant hunters brought them back and no one would have seen them. A plant could make as much as a family house then.

” Bill recalls how he first got into the hobby. “One or two appeared in a garden centre and I thought: I”ll try that. I bought one – and instantly killed it!” he remembers.

Later, he became a member of the Royal Horticultural Society, who had an orchid show in London. “I bought two or three at that and things went from there.

” He won three rosettes the first year he went to the Newbury International Orchid show. “That was thrilling.” challenge Bill, who is a member of Suffolk Orchid Society, reckons if he had time he”d like to start breeding them – he currently buys in seedlings. “That would be a whole new challenge.

” He”s looking forward to the World orchid conference in France next month, an event which will draw people from across Europe. Looking further ahead, he”d love to visit the Eric Young Orchid Foundation on Jersey. “There”s probably nowhere else like it where so many varieties are gown to such a high standard.

“It”s just so exciting,” Bill explains, “when the flowers first open up – you”ve no idea exactly what the colour will be. Every one can still be different. They”re a little like human beings, the same two parents can produce lots of children but no two are ever exactly alike.”