With my mother being a “farm girl” from central Saskatchewan who loved to have the house filled with tropical houseplants, I have been surrounded by them my whole life, and I suppose that I was “destined” to grow orchids, as I have had some pretty close contact with well-know orchid establishments without even knowing it:
► As a young child, I lived a couple blocks from Walter Off and Waldor Orchids in Linwood NJ. I knew about the greenhouses, but didn’t give it another thought.
► My father was transferred to England in the 60’s, and we lived quite close to a preeminent grower and breeder of orchids, Black & Flory. I went by it every day on the way to school, but again – no interest.
► Later we moved to northwest Washington DC, and the Maryland suburb of Kensington was a high school stomping ground. I had a friend who lived a couple of blocks from Kensington Orchids, but I had no idea it existed.
► I had a friend at college named Roger Huntington, and about a year into our friendship, I learned he was Merritt’s son. (Merritt owned Kensington Orchids and held several executive positions in the AOS.) Later, Merritt gave me discounts whenever I visited while home for the Holidays!
My orchid growing began when I was a Ceramic Engineering student at Georgia Tech. After about a year of volunteering my time at the public greenhouses in Piedmont Park – now the Atlanta Botanical Gardens – the orchid grower there gave me a big, “floofy” purple cattleya. It took me about two years to kill it via the typical root rot-desiccation cycle torture, and at the time, I simply “did not kill plants,” so I was determined to learn more and got addicted like everyone else. Needless to say, in the 45+ years since, I’ve learned that I am a very effective plant killer… (Isn’t it true that you’re not an orchid-growing “pro” until you killed your weight in plants?)
During my professional career in the chemical industry, I had many opportunities to travel internationally, and put together an extensive collection of orchids from around the world, mostly purchased from street vendors and shipped back to myself on my import permit (Pre-CITES). That travel schedule (averaging 13 flights a week for 3.5 years at one point) led to a great deal of experimentation surrounding keeping plants healthy and happy during my absences, and that’s what led to the development of Semi-Hydroponics.
First Rays came into being by accident – literally – courtesy of a greenhouse heater and alarm failure on a 7°F night in January of 1994. That 20-year collection of plants from around the world was a total loss. After a few months, I purchased a new heater and alarm system wrote them off as business expenses, even though I had no idea how I’d make a business out of orchids.
Shortly thereafter, I divided the first couple of replacement plants I had purchased at the Philadelphia Flower Show, created a text-only web page listing them, and offered the extra divisions to the internet orchid community via a post to the Comp-U-Serve Gardening Forum. Within three hours I had two orders, and I knew how I’d make it a business.
First Rays is now in its 27th year of operation, although a lot smaller than it was at its peak, before I retired from my “real job”. To me, the best part about the business is the exposure it has provided, allowing me to meet and communicate with folks from around the world on the fascinating subject of orchids. Sharing the obsession is second only to growing the plants.