More Indoor Gardening Adventures with African Violets

Benny's Garden 16 Mar 2017As promised in my last entry, I will continue my indoor gardening adventures. The topic today will be the first of many discussing the quintessential African violet.

African Violets

It would be difficult to imagine any indoor garden being complete without a couple (interpret as dozens) of African violets gracing a window ledge or two or three. As an indoor gardener, we come by our obsession to grow these plants rather honestly. Raise your hand if your mom or grandma had African violets in the house. I thought so. Okay, you can put your hands down now. 🙂

Despite my mom’s success, it took me years to understand the nuances of growing violets. They are supposed to be easy plants but I actually find them difficult to this day. I recall a time when I thought I would be clever. I bought a pot of gargantuan proportions (think a size big enough to grow a ficus tree) and then I collected some rocks. The idea was to create a habitat similar to that of the native habitat of this beautiful, gracious, unassuming, amazing flower. Yes, the pot was giant but that was to accommodate the rocks and then I would sort of “squeeze” the flowers into the rock crevices and then I would have an amazing centerpiece for all to behold. Visitors would exclaim “Wow! I love what you have done here! Look at all these beautiful flowers growing as they would in the wild!” I would then smile inwardly. The joy for me would not be the accolades but the fact I could mimic a habitat. As a gardener – indoors or out – isn’t this our ultimate aim? Well, sadly, the venture proved very unsuccessful. Watering was a problem. Either the soil would be too dry or too wet. Looking back, I suppose I should have filled half the pot with perlite. That probably would have helped a lot. Now that I think about it, I am sure it would have helped tremendously. I may try this again one day but not before I master the art of growing these plants perfectly. By that I mean, I grow them without any issues and even get to the point where I can propagate my own plants. Once I have that down, I will revisit this idea.

Interlude:

Of course, by the name alone, we know these plants come from Africa – but where? I always envisioned an open forest floor dappled with enough sunshine to allow these plants to grow, thrive and multiply. Not true actually. This humble violet’s native habitat is within the rain forests of Tanzania specifically in the Nguru mountains. I learned this after reading probably one of the best written articles about this beautiful plant we all love and enjoy. Not only does it shed some light on the violet’s native habitat but it also raises awareness of its plight in the wild. I strongly encourage you to read it. You will be happy you did — particularly if you love African violets. Here is the link.

This image says it all when trying to determine how to best grow these plants. They grow in small nooks and crannies and love being root bound. In fact, it is my understanding that the plants will not bloom if they are not root bound and now that I think of my own successes and failures, this theory does seem to hold true.

Courtesy Andrew Evans, National Geographic. I want to thank Andrew VERY kindly for not only his amazing words but also for his generosity in allowing me to use this photo. This photo represents a dream for me — a dream that I too can observe these plants in the wild. Andrew, I will be forever grateful for your article. I read it over and over when I need inspiration or when I contemplate giving up on the idea of growing these plants.

Why do I have Such a Hard Time Growing African violets?

Well, to start, I believe I treat the African violet as I would an atypical houseplant. I have killed many by over watering. I have killed many more by under watering. I have grown in normal pots, specialized ceramic pots that have an outer pot for water and an inner pot that gradually soaks up the water over time and now I use Oyama pots. Even though the Oyama pot is superior in every way I learned that I have been using the pots incorrectly. Like the ceramic African violet pots, there is an outer container where you place water up to a certain line. You then plant the violet in the inner pot and again the idea is that it soaks up water as it needs it. Well, on the inside of this pot is a recess where you are meant to put in some perlite. What happens if you don’t do that? The soil clumps in that recess and one of two things will happen. Either the water will not penetrate through that clump or it will hold onto water like a sponge. So, you will end up killing the violet either by dehydration or by root rot. You see now perhaps why I consider these plants difficult!

Time for Some Education!

This past weekend, the Rocky Mountain African Violet Council had their annual spring show at my local garden center Tagawa Gardens. Oh! How I do love a visit to Tagawa! Having the African Violet Council there was a bonus. I gingerly made my way to the area where the African Violet show was set up. I quietly asked if there would be anyone who could help me determine the problems with my violets. I brought three of my worst. One had a very long neck due to many of the leaves dying, another had crumpled leaves and looked pathetic and the other, a trailer, had many dead leaves around the bottom, I thought for sure it was well on its way toward death.

A very nice lady named Sharon assisted me and then took me over to one of the more senior members of the group and I was told I over potted one, watered another too much and didn’t water another enough. As I listened, I consoled myself with thoughts of “but, I am trying so hard”. I then softly said “Can you help me?” and Sharon sprang into action. The first thing I needed was smaller pots. Her enthusiasm excited me. We bolted into the store on a mission. I purchased some small 3 ½” pots, soil and perlite. We then went back to all the tables, cleared a spot and began our surgical work.

I explained that I was contemplating throwing the sadder two violets out so if this experiment didn’t go well, all was fine. We removed the worst of the three, cleaned off the roots and then decided it would be best to cut off nearly all of the stem – roots included. With a snip, it was done. We then sprinkled some rooting powder on it and she explained I would need to put a baggy over it when I got home as it will gather its water from the humidity in the bag since it had no roots to gather water from the soil.

Violet at home in a baggy

Here are some photos highlighting the process:

Preparing the violet for surgery by removing leaves and scraping the neck.

Down to the bare minimum of leaves

Look! No root rot!

Once surgery was complete, the small, fragile violet was tucked into a pot and all that is left now is to hope it makes it through. That would be a tremendous blessing if it did.

We then worked on the other two violets. Here is the trailer getting its spa treatment of dead leaf removal:

Sharon removed all the dead leaves she could. We then set it aside and prepared the pot – properly by filling the recess with perlite.

And the violet in its improved home:

Sharon put me in charge of potting the final violet. This violet had a salvageable root system but I did remove several leaves and ran by thumbnail over the neck.

Here it is nearly ready to be potted up:

There we have it! All three violets are now in an upstairs room where I have a mini humidifier running 24/7 trying to mimic their native environment if only just a little bit. I will keep you updated as time goes by. I will close for now but before I do, I want to share with you the progress of my seeds!

What you see below are (in order) lobelia, alyssum, tomato, ancho peppers, tomatoes. I am still learning the nuances of growing plants from seeds and already I have lost some but I planted so many, all should still be fine. Further, I should not have started peppers and tomatoes in the same tray as the ground covers due to the different needs of the plants. Still, this is farther than I got last year so I remain hopeful. Thank you all very kindly for reading and if you liked what you read, please share or leave a comment. Until next time, many blessings and Happy Gardening!

And now for some photos and what else but photos of violets!

A little bit of an artistic flare on this photo

Oh! I forgot to mention, I bought a new violet when I was at the garden center. How could I not?! This beauty is named Ness’s Dream Maker. Well suited to its name wouldn’t you say?

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