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Portable orchids

Published Oct. 16, 2005

Sidney Bennett Lyon, sometimes called Ben, found a whole new lifestylewhen he and his wife, Frances, moved here from Chevy Chase, Md. "We moved here Valentine's Day, 1974," he recalls vividly, maybe because he's romantic.

This white-haired, trim gentleman, soon to be 83, carefully carried several potted orchids inside when freezing weather was forecast just before Christmas. One white hybrid cattleya, in full bloom in a 12-inch pot, now reaches nearly 42 inches across. Lyonestimates its weight at 40 to 45 pounds, adding with a laugh, "It may not weigh that much, maybe the fact that I'm getting older makes it seem heavier."

The first of 35 large white flowers with yellow throats opened Christmas Day, Mrs. Lyon says. "It was a wonderful Christmas present.

He believesin Santa Claus now," she says of her husband.

Mrs. Lyon says the white orchid plant with five or six blooms was a gift from her sister-in-law at Christmas a year ago. "It came from a beautiful little place, Beach Tropicals at 305 First St., Indian Rocks Beach. We thought it was wonderful then. It has grown an awful lot."

Their orchids thrive in pots on the ground under the shade of a loquat tree on the north side of their waterfront home.

Lyon says he tried hanging them from the branches but "too much breeze dried them out." So the pots simply sit on the ground until they begin to bloom. Then they are brought into the living room to watch and admire as the flowers open.

Mrs. Lyons recalls that they received the hardy loquat tree as a gift when it was a small plant. "A friend of ours gave us a little-bitty plant. We thought it was a house plant. That's how much we knew." Now the tree, with several trunks, fills the space between their house and next door and must be trimmed back often.

"We laugh at the way our life changed down here," Mrs. Lyon says.

Formerly interested in playing bridge mostly, she says she even created her own recipe to make jam out of the loquats each year. "I had never made jam in my life. It turned out fine." Her husband says he picks the lower fruit for their use and lets the birds enjoy the rest.

After Mrs. Lyon had back surgery, Lyon took over the care of various potted plants on the patio along with the landscape plants and lawn mowing. Their landscape in the Washington suburb was beautiful, filled with azaleas, she recalls, but they found that "azaleas do not do well here on the salt water."

Lyon says he has had "pretty good success" with flowers on a bird of paradise and also with orchids. "From my point of view I see that they are watered regularly and fed. The rule of thumb depends on weather and temperature."

He feeds the plants once a month during spring, summer and fall. He uses Dr. Chatelier's water soluble plant food.

Lyon says he moves the orchids "once in a while if they're getting too much shade." He has thrown some out too, he says.

He says he has fungus problems "because they're not in bright sun any time." He sprays with Dithane M-45 as needed.

Lyon explains that he didn't pay much attention to gardening in Maryland. "I didn't have time. I was in the contracting business."

He worked with stone, concrete and marble, he says. His company did "a lot of the inside marble work for the Jefferson Memorial," he says, and the interor slate and terrazzo work at the Pentagon.

Mrs. Lyon recalls the fun of seeing and speaking to Washington officials during the many years she worked at the famous Mayflower Hotel. Starting as a stenographer in 1926, she advanced to convention manager and ended as purchasing agent. World War II took them to Illinois, where her husband became a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, but they lived across the Wabash River in Indiana. "I got to be a Hoosier," she recalls.

The Lyons will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary in June.

When they moved here they learned after the first couple of freezes that the landscape is easier to manage with hardy plants and only tropicals that are easily portable.

Lyon explains, "I found out what would stand cold and what wouldn't. The secret is don't have anything that won't (stand the cold). It minimizes the amount of work of taking them out and replanting after cold weather."

What works for Lyon: Landscapes with mostly hardy plants.

Brings orchids and other tropicals indoors when a freeze is forecast.

Fertilizes once a month during spring, summer and fall with Dr. Chatelier's Plant Food.

Controls fungus problems by spraying Dithane M-45.

We laugh at the way our life changed down here."

- Frances Lyon orchid grower with her husband.