Keeping African Violets Vibrant Los Banos CA

African violets grow under trees in their native habitat. They get shaded most of the day, though warmth and long days along the equator give them lots more light outdoors than we receive inside.

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Keeping African Violets Vibrant

With some houseplants, you have a love-hate relationship. You love them when they grow and bloom, and you hate them when they don’t.

There is no rhyme or reason, but the more people claim certain plants are as easy to grow as moss in the woods, others dig in and turn their noses up at them — both the plant and the claimant.

All types of people fall in love with African violets when they spy the cute little plants in the grocery stores. The plants just cry out, “take me home.” There is nothing poisonous about African violets except their cuteness. Most plants in the stores are full of buds and blooms surrounded by spokes of dark green furry leaves, creating the perfect image of colorful flowers lying on a mass of green.

But more African violets probably end up down the garbage disposal or buried in the garbage can than any other plant.

To complicate matters, if the plant doesn’t out-and-out die, it just sits there continuing to put out new leaves but nary a single bloom. Day after day, year after year, the plant just seems to get taller, and the leaves get smaller until you mutter something under your breath and the plant disappears under the sink.

Yet, African violets aren’t really finicky plants. Once you know their secret, it’s like getting sheep to march in a straight line.

That secret: light.

African violets grow under trees in their native habitat. They get shaded most of the day, though warmth and long days along the equator give them lots more light outdoors than we receive inside.

Most gardeners don’t realize that the north side of the house during the summer may get more light than a south window inside during the winter.

That’s mainly due to the fact that glass reflects a good deal of light. Throw in curtains, sheers or shutters, and the amount of light drops even more. There might be enough to keep the plants green, but that’s about it.

For flowering, you need more. Brightness is important, but duration can substitute for low light. Plants can adapt to lower light intensities, but it may take them a year before they send up a few flower buds. Give the plants as much as light as possible if you want to keep them blooming.

(Most African violets are not continual bloomers, but prefer a three-month bloom and one-month rest cycle. Keeping them blooming continuously may cause the plant to not bloom at all.)

Start by moving plants closer to the window. They don’t like cold winds, but if the window is tight and double-paned, that should protect them.

If putting them in a southern or western window isn’t an option for the winter, consider supplementing their light with florescent bulbs. The downside is that the artificial light needs to be within 12 inches of the plants to do much good.

Going the incandescent route may produce more flowers, as infrared promotes flowering more than the ultraviolet in florescent bulbs. The trouble with incandescent is the amount of heat they put out. If you stick the plants within 12 inches of an incandescent bulb, you cook the plant. Give the plants at least two feet.

Light, while crucial, isn’t everything. You need as loose a soil as possible so you don’t overwater the plants. Many African violet growers will take a loose houseplant soil and mix equal parts with vermiculite, perlite and peat moss. You’ll get soil that drains quickly and prevents you from overwatering.

Another problem is allowing plants to sit in water for a bit, thinking you’re helping the soil stay wet. In reality, you’re allowing the soluble salts in water, particularly calcium, to build up in the soil. Calcium buildup, and fertilizer salts will damage the roots. The plant starts wilting, and in turn you water more, exacerbating the situation.

Take plants to the kitchen sink, run warm water from the top down, and let the plants drain in the sink. Then move them back.

Nature waters from the top down. Nature also wets the leaves, but she does so with warm water. Cold water will cause spots. Fill a pitcher with water and let it come to room temperature before giving plants a drink.

During the winter, don’t overfertilize with a nitrogen plant food. If plants aren’t getting the right temperature, humidity (they like it humid) and light, fertilizer isn’t going to help. Encourage new leaf growth between April and November.

David Robson is a horticulture educator for the University of Illinois Extension. For more gardening information or for your local extension unit office, go to www.extension.uiuc.edu/mg. The Sangamon-Menard Unit Sangamon County office can be reached at 782-4617.

author: David Robson