Trowel & Error

Secrets of the African violet

Finding the balance that keeps them happy

By Nancy Crowe

Master Gardener Nancy Crowe wants to give her African violets story a happy ending.They pose provocatively near the entrances of stores, just waiting for someone to come in and fall under their spell. Every time I am face to face with these beauties, I tell myself: “Step away from the African violets.”

My track record with African violets has not been good, so it made sense to avoid them for their sake and mine. Recently, I was given a gift — an absolutely beautiful African violet with purple blooms and full, dark green leaves. There it was, in my house and under my care. The time has come to find some African violet mojo and, I hope, pass it along.

I have a couple of self-watering, ceramic African violet pots. These are two-piece affairs; you put the plant in the unglazed top part, which fits inside the water-filled, glazed bottom part. Theoretically, the ceramic regulates how much moisture the plant receives. I have not had much luck with these so far. The reviews of these pots on the Web are mixed; some say the ceramic lets in too much moisture; others, too little. An alternative is the plastic Oyama planter, in which the plant sits in an inner pot and draws moisture from the outer pot through a layer of perlite.

I ended up ordering a reservoir wick pot that, as of this writing, has not arrived. For now, the plant is in its nursery pot on top of some stones in a saucer. I add a little water to the saucer every day or two — enough so that some moisture can be wicked up through the soil, but not enough to leave the pot actually sitting in water. The soil seems to be staying evenly moist. African violets, I am told, do not like their leaves to be wet — so watering from the bottom is a popular method.

The container is just the beginning. The next step will be to get some African violet potting mix. Yes, you can make your own with plain old non-specialized potting mix, but this plant is going to have every advantage I can give it. Ditto for the other item on the list: African violet fertilizer. The Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service (see publication HO-10) says any fertilizer formulated for blooming plants will do — but if baby wants her own special food, she shall have it.

Light is essential to good blooming. Purdue’s extension counterpart at Clemson University suggests placing African violets within three feet of a north- or east-facing window that receives at least four hours of bright, indirect sunlight per day. (Yes, stand at that window for four hours and see how much light comes in. Only three hours and 45 minutes’ worth? Go stand at another window for four hours.) Turn the plant occasionally so each side gets a shot at some sunlight.

Blooming may be the trickiest aspect of caring for African violets. Aside from the factors above, the African Violet Society of America suggests pot size and humidity can also affect blooming. These plants do best in smaller pots; the pot should be only a third of the diameter of the leaves. If the air is very dry, the flower buds may dissipate before you even see them. Another theory the AVSA puts forth is that African violets quit blooming if they get too comfortable. Repotting, or tapping the pot firmly on a hard surface, may get a complacent African violet motivated again.

Then there’s the method my friend’s grandmother used to get her impressive African violet collection blooming: threats. Whatever she said to those plants has been lost to history — but it worked.

My latest African violet adventure is just beginning, but I’m anticipating a better outcome. Any effort with living things is always a work in progress.

Nancy Crowe

Posted Mon, 04/01/2013 - 11:19 am