African violets have gained a reputation for being difficult houseplants. But if you think of them as guests visiting from a far off land, and meet their needs at least half way, you’ll then find they’re really not all that demanding. There’s just a little culture shock at first. And if you’re willing to invest a minute or two every other day, checking in on the well being of your African violets, you’ll find yourself rewarded with colorful blooms all year long. Here’s how:
A QUICK LESSON IN GEOGRAPHY
African violets originate from… wait for it… Africa. No big surprise there, right? More specifically, they call places like the cloud forests of Tanzania their homeland. And the term cloud forest sounds an awful lot like rain forest, doesn’t it? Well, both are lush, humid, jungle-like environments. But rain forests occur in lowland areas that see plenty of rain and flooding, while cloud forests sit well above all that, up among the clouds. Being up in those elevations means this environment is continually saturated, but with greater drainage that keeps things from getting too wet. Since Tanzania is located near the equator, it also see long hours of daylight year round, with little change in average temperature or rainfall from one season to the next. In short: African violets are adapted an environment that is the polar opposite of our northwestern climate (and furnace-heated homes).
GIVE THEM THE RIGHT LIGHT
Light is probably the most important ingredient in keeping African violets healthy. They like plenty of bright light, as long as it’s not hot, direct sun beating down on them. For those of us in the Chicago area, this means we sometimes move our houseplants to south-facing windows in wintertime to maximize every hour of daylight . But these plants aren’t that picky; as long as you don’t banish your violet to a deep, dark and forgotten corner it should survive for many years. Even an office environment with fluorescent lights overhead will keep them alive… but not necessarily blooming. They do need to see at least 8 hours of light every day in order to produce flowers. And 10-14 hours of light is even better; the more light they get, the more they’ll bloom.
Unlike cold-hardy perennials, a period of winter dormancy is not part of the natural growth cycle of an African violet. And they definitely do not like cold weather. As long you keep them in temperatures that stay between 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit, they’ll be happy. But be sure to avoid letting any of the leaves come in contact with cold winter windows.
There is a common misconception that African violets should be only watered from below the soil level, as these plants can’t tolerate any moisture on their leaves. But this isn’t entirely true. Think about it: they come from a continually warm, humid, jungle environment – humidity is exactly what they crave. What they really don’t like is too much water all at once. African violets like their soil be be a little damp at all times, but never too wet. And they prefer moist, warm air that can be difficult to provide in homes during winter months. But when in doubt, let their soil dry out a day or two before watering again, rather than sentencing the plant to death by drowning. And once again, African violets aren’t fond of cold temperatures. In general, most houseplants get a shock from cold water, but with tropical houseplants and violets, this is particularly so. Always use room temperature water for your houseplants. For more information about over-watering houseplants, be sure to read this article: killing your houseplants with kindness.
Houseplants in small containers should always have good drainage, and potting soil is designed to address that issue. Potting soil isn’t really soil at all, but rather a mix of lightweight, organic materials that don’t readily compact or retain too much moisture. Commercially available potting soils labelled for African violets or succulents are ideal, but any quality product will work. Just be sure to avoid lower quality potting soils, which are not only less expensive but also much heavier in weight than the better brands. That extra weight is useless material like clay and topsoil that will do more harm than good in a small container. And unless you happen to live in the Garden of Eden… avoid using soil from your own back yard.
If the label on your potting soil indicates that fertilizer has already been added, then don’t even think about fertilizing for about six months. But once that timer runs out (and assuming you want to keep your plants ever-blooming) then you’ll need to make one of two choices:
Option 1: Liquid fertilizer labelled specifically for African violets works great. The label will indicate how many drops of fertilizer should be used for any given watering. Never use more than this amount, as over-fertilizing will harm any plant. And here’s the secret they don’t mention on the label: rather than fertilize once every week or two, as suggested, you can add fertilizer at 1/4 to 1/3 strength with each and every watering. The idea here is to water more frequently than once or twice per week, but with less water and fertilizer per application. This keeps the plant constantly well-nourished and looking vibrant.
Option 2: If your plant has over-grown it’s current container, this sounds like a great time to transplant and replace that old dirt with some fresh, new potting soil. It’s not for no reason that African violets are sold in small pots: they do better when they’re a little root-bound. This forces them to focus on developing top growth instead of roots, resulting in bigger leaves and better blooms. You’ll only want to transplant to a container that is an inch or two larger than the previous one, and violets never need anything larger than a five inch pot.
A PINCH TO GROW AN INCH
Left un-pruned, an African violet will tend to stagnate. Preening and pruning are the final key to keeping your plant blooming as much as possible. If you pinch off flowers as they begin to fade and die away, this stimulates the plant to keep producing new blooms. Don’t wait till after a flower dies off completely – you need to be bold and thin them as soon as they show signs of decay. It’s an ongoing chore that rarely ever takes more than a minute or two, every few days at most.
But there’s one last tip, and one that’s not always mentioned: you’ll want to pinch off the leaves as well, as soon as they show signs of turning yellow or brown, or developing any dark spots. This allows the newer, smaller leaves below to rise up and shine. You can pinch them off farther down into the plant,otherwise the remaining stem will just wither and fall off anyway. And as with culling the spent flowers, constantly pruning ugly leaves stimulates the plant into perpetual growth.
ON THE BRIGHT SIDE
Now, if all that reading above makes it sound like African violets are finicky plants indeed, I’ll leave you with these comforting thoughts: just about any African violet you purchase today is a commercially-grown hybrid. They’ve been bred to be hardier than their original, native ancestors. And they’ll survive the occasional neglect. It’s really more a question of how often you want to see them flower…