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African violets are often purchased in a blooming state. Then, many of us wonder why they never bloom again. What have we done, or not done, to turn these dainty flowering plants into something that can only be appreciated for its fuzzy foliage?
Like orchids, African violets are much easier to grow than many of us think. If you create a favorable growing environment, they should continue to produce blooms year round with an occasional rest period. I have a half dozen African violets in the house that have reliably bloomed near non-stop for 15 years (the first one I had was left behind by the seller of a house that I bought.)
African violets, or Saintpaulia, are named for the German collector Baron Walter von Saint Paul-Illaire. In the late nineteenth century Saint Paul-Illaire was the first European to collect African violets from east Africa. The key to healthy, blooming African violets is to mimic its native environment: good drainage and adequate sunlight are essential. The best way to avoid over-watering is to supply violets with a light soil mixture that drains well. A three-part mixture of peat moss, vermiculite and perlite will retain moisture and slowly release it to the root system without saturating the soil and risking root rot.
A regular dose of diluted fertilizer supplies the plant with nutrients but chlorine and salt from soft water can play a toll on the root system. Use a 20-20-20 fertilizer at one-quarter strength at each watering. Before you prepare your dilution set out an open jug of water for several days to allow the chlorine to evaporate. Water your violet when the top of the soil dries out. You want to keep the soil moist without saturating the roots. Don’t leave them sitting in water for long. I grow homemade sprouts and use the rinse water as fertilizer for my violets and orchids, which provides some great micronutrients to the plants.
If spots appear on the leaves it is generally caused by cold water coming in contact with the leaves so use tepid tap water or let the water sit out to reach room temperature. To avoid getting the leaves wet use a watering can that has a tiny spout so you can maneuver the spout between the leaves, applying the water directly to the soil. Some growers water from the bottom or use self-watering devices for African violets. Self-watering devices work on a system of strings that absorb water from a container below the potted plant and carry water up to the soil where the string slowly releases moisture into the soil. This approach has advantages because African violets like the added humidity. I prefer clay pots so I use trays with pea gravel so I can keep a little water in the tray without the pot actually sitting in water.
For those of you using city tap water you may consider a once monthly “salt flush” to remove any salt build up in the soil. Flush the soil with a heavy watering, letting the water run through the drainage holes. This will help get rid of any residual salt build up and keep the plant healthier. We have a cistern so I rarely have this sort of buildup (you can see a white ring forming on clay pots as an indicator.)
Like many flowering plants, violets like to be pot-bound, which actually encourages blooming. The pot should only be 1/3 larger than the plant. Put the plant in a bright window where it will receive at least six hours of bright light each day. The more hours of bright light it receives, the more blooms it will enjoy. Too much direct sunlight may burn the leaves so bright light is preferred. The symptom of inadequate light makes itself apparent as the plant stem gets leggy and the leaves begin to “reach” for the light. A healthy African violet maintains a compact, rosette shape. You can use fluorescent light to increase the amount of light the plant receives during the short, overcast days of winter.
Regular repotting is necessary for good violet health. Fresh potting soil reintroduces nutrients for the plant and allows you to “sink” the neck of the plant as the old leaves die away. New roots will form from the neck and as new crowns appear these can be divided from the plant with a sharp knife and repotted as a new plant. Be sure to get healthy roots along with your stem cutting.