Member Snapshot: Ron & Lee Formby

Our Member Snapshot for this month is Ron and Lee Formby. Ron was recently honoured by the ANOS Sydney Group with a Life Membership award for his outstanding contributions to the club. He kindly shares with us his passion for growing native orchids.

Q: How did you become an orchid enthusiast?

Ron:  Many years ago I was given a plant of Cymbidium tracyanum and whilst trying to identify the black spots on its leaves, an interest in other colour forms was kindled.  So the start of a collection of cymbidiums ensued, trouble is you don't need a whole lot of cymbidiums, to take up a whole lot of space.  I can't quite remember how I got into natives but I remember way back when, a photo of Den. Elegant Heart 'Vibrant' on the cover of Wal Upton's book “Dendrobium Orchids of Australia” caught my eye … it was love at first sight, I was hooked! To this day I still have a penchant for Elegant Heart and its offspring.


A blessing back then was that Sid Batchelor (Yondi Orchids) lived at Baulkham Hills; a visit needed only a slight deviation from course on the drive home from work. At one stage I was after a couple of seedlings of Sarcochilus falcatus the 'big white form', and Sid suggested I approach Mike Harrison.  A meeting at Mike's place soon followed during which he recommended I join a native orchid society, and proposed Sydney Group (I got the seedlings). Eventually Lee and I ventured along one night to a meeting of ANOS Sydney Group, and there up front where Andrew now stands, to my amusement, was Mike.  Slowly we became acquainted with the cluster of very talented members … David Butler, Neil & Meg Finch, Bernie Fletcher, Sid Batchelor, David Banks, Darryl Smedley, Gerry Walsh … of course Mike, there were many more.  To this day I still find it hard to believe the depth of knowledge, experience and talent that existed in Sydney Group.


Over the years though, what I personally consider my most fortuitous meeting was approaching David Butler, when trying to get my hands on a piece of Den. kingianum 'Boundary King'.  This still exists in my collection today.

Den. Brinawa x speciosum

Q: Which are your favourite native orchids and why?

Ron:  Still the native dendrobium hybrids, especially the "Hot/Colds", I must admit I always have and always will be an absolute "colour junkie".  But more and more I am acquiring what hopefully will evolve into quality yellows and golds.  But if a breeder has seedlings with a riot of colour or strongly coloured pod parent, crossed with a quality speciosum, I'm on the phone.  Currently there are a whole lot of seedlings in my collection with 'Windermere' genes in them.

My favourite species first and foremost is Sarcochiuls falcatus, particularly the "purple chin" var. montanus or whatever the latest conversation is.  I never tire of venturing into the backyard on a bright day, and getting a whiff of vanilla essence perfume!

Den. Stunning x Ray's Spot

Q:  Approximately how many “plants” in your collection?

Ron:  Have never counted them, but compared to a lot of other growers my collection is relatively small.  My better plants (the ones I know personally), are hung.  But like others, I suffer the perennial problem of wishing I had "a bit" more bench space.  Although when it comes to re-potting, I wish my collection was even smaller. 

Currently after a more severe cull than normal last flowering, I actually have space.  Which I consider only a temporary aberration.

Q:  How often do you water your orchids?

Ron: All my plants grow under 50% woven shade-cloth in Western Sydney, with an extra layer of 50% permanently affixed to the south western facing side, after its first Summer.  An extra layer of 50% is added to the roof in Summer when temperatures start to get unreasonable.  Conversely a layer of Solarweave, the white tarpaulin type stuff, is added over the roof in Winter for protection from cold winter rains, and for when Jack Frost visits. 


Depending on weather of course, I consider myself a reasonably heavy waterer during Summer.  Every second day or so in the evening, sometimes 

every day, although I also "mist".  Nothing better than arriving home in the early evening, at the end of a hot day, than wandering down the back to the shadehouse, to see how the inmates have fared. Plugging my ancient "Fogg-it" nozzle (the purple coded one) into the end of the hose and blasting clouds of water mist into every corner of the shadehose.  Can't help feeling that I get more enjoyment out of it than the plants.  I also get the utmost pleasure watching the shadehouse thermometer plummet.

During Winter with the Solarweave in residence, approximately once a week in the morning, and at times once a fortnight. 

Q: Do you fertilize your orchids?

Ron:  Over the last couple of years I have used Basacote controlled release granules sparingly through the mix when repotting.  Seasol is also used immediately after repotting.

Den. Gillieston Jazz

Dendrobium Tosca

But I also fertilize when I feel a bit guilty, with HSO12, and Nitrosol occasionally.


Not very often, actually hardly ever!, almost never!, honest! … what's that I hear?, shock, horror … NITROGEN!!!.  A weak solution of Aquasol, with a dash of Epson Salts and just a smidgen of Iron Chelates helps to give the seedlings a nudge.  I keep meaning to get with a programme but these days' other things seem to intervene.


Only recently to alleviate the drudgery of fertilizing, I enlisted the services of one of those Siphon Mixers, and am now wondering why I hadn't done (trusted) it sooner!  My intention is to head down the "weakly/weekly" path.


Q: What are the common pests that attack your orchids and how do you control them?

Ron:  My main nemesis is the Greenlooper caterpillar, I prefer Dipel if I haven't run out of it, although I always seem to have Carbaryl on the shelf.  My much preferred method of retribution is to crush them, between thumb and index finger or under foot, I find this method much more rewarding than spraying.

I also get visited occasionally by the odd Dendrobium Beetle or two, and spray Confidor (actually the cheaper Hortico forgery), as a precaution and hopefully prior to their arrival.  But there again I prefer the "crush method" for entertainment.  For spots etc., Mancozeb is enlisted at the prescribed rate.  Occasionally other chemicals are applied for a specific problem but those mentioned previously are my main stays.


Q: What was the most memorable orchid collection you’ve visited?

Ron:  Over the years I have been impressed by many orchid collections, the few that stand apart would have to be Henk van den Berg's, not just his collection the whole back yard, the Bonsai's etc., I have told many I reckon he trims his lawn edges with a scalpel.

David Butler's continues to be a pleasure to visit for his down to earth approach to orchids, and most other things.


Although a surprise entry of recent times was John Hurst's.  After a couple of years of John inviting me over for a cup of tea, and a look see.  A few months ago we set a day … I was impressed … his collection is so healthy, and literally "spotless" (the black kind).  But quite distinctive, due to the amount of fungicide residue on his plants.  I have joked with John, that's the way he "marks" his plants for those "Judges”.

Q: Which is your favourite nursery to purchase orchids from?



Ron:  For flasks – Almost exclusively David Butler, although these days David is devoting most of his time to Sarcochilus.

For seedlings – Days past, Yondi (Sid Bachelor), Orchid Glenn (Ken Russell), most definitely Down Under Native Orchids.  Couldn't go anywhere within the vicinity of Kilaben Bay near Newcastle without auto pilot cutting in.  Honestly on their insistence, we got Neil and Meg out of bed (IT WAS STILL DARK!) for a morning coffee, on one of our trips to Brisbane.  To pick up an order of the latest and greatest.

Den. Burgundy Dream

A very generous momento of my visit to John Hurst's

Now under the guidance of Grahame and Callyn, I am getting reacquainted with D.U.N.O..  Recently we called in to pick up an order from Graeme, on a weekend away.  His parting comment was "…you'll be back!" … bludgers got me pegged already!  I have over the years bought from most nurseries (past and present) selling natives, either during an arranged visit or by mail order.


Whilst writing this I am awaiting delivery of an order I placed with The Hanging Garden (Balnarring) for several of their Den. Rock Candy seedlings, once more quality speciosum on colour (it's tragic).  But the regular victims would also have to include Tinonee Orchid Nursery (Ray Clement) and the Australian Orchid Nursery (Wayne Turville).

Q: What was the worst mistake you ever made growing your orchids?

Ron:  Probably not completely sealing my shade house when I built it.  Because we had only just moved into our existing house I had to keep the "Social Director" happy with an aesthetically pleasing version.  Previously I had grown my then smaller collection under quite a large pergola BBQ area, which according to Lee anyway, also served as an entertaining area

A tad more "rustic" these days (late afternoon)

Q: What would you advise novices thinking of or just starting out growing orchids?

Ron:  Get around to shows and take note of the orchids that appeal to you, join a club and get involved.  Possibly the best and also the worst thing that I ever did as the "new kid on the block", was volunteer for Editorship of our newsletter. Through it though I also got directly involved with members of the club.

Even back then (as now) articles were a constant nightmare, although Gerry Walsh could always be relied upon for his amusing "A Bit About" pearls of wisdom.


If you see seedlings in a catalogue or online that you simply must have, never be afraid of getting plants sent through the mail, they travel extremely well.  Several of the nurseries have turned packaging into an art form.


Oh!, Lee suggested that I inform the newer "newbies" that the correct pronunciation for Den. bigibbum, you know the one, the "Cooktown Orchid" them north of the border have it as their state flower.  Is actually pronounced "by-gib-bum" not "big-ee-bum" … just between you and I, Meg Finch (early on) graciously enlightened me!

Q: What do you like about our club ANOS Sydney Group and what activity do you enjoy the most?

Ron:  Although membership has declined over the years from the heady heights of years gone by.  The depth of knowledge and experience that still exists within the group, and the willingness to pass that knowledge on I still find quite refreshing.


I enjoy it when the commercial guys show up for a chat, and give everyone an insight into the parents they are breeding with, and the direction they are headed.  Plus, due to timing, by the time you read this I have relished my "annual hit" of KFC at our Christmas Party, c'mon December!


Q:  What is on your orchid wish list?

Ron:  To get down to the "Melbourne Orchid Spectacular" with a detour via the Mornington Peninsula, and a look see at AON before Wayne pulls the pin in a couple of years.


Q:  Is there anything else you may want to add?

Ron:  Having previously stated sourcing my plants from all over Australia.  The other half, the "Social Director", for some strange reason, has always considered a visit to any orchid nursery synonymous with lunch at a local establishment.

Photos by Ron Formby