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Indoor Gardening Made Easy: African Violets for Beginners

Indoor Gardening Made Easy: African Violets for Beginners

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African Violets are now a traditional indoor potted flowering plant gifted to the world from the tropical regions of Africa in the 1800s. It is a frequently gifted (and appreciated) quintessential houseplant because they love the same conditions as us, and they remain compact.

Typically, you can expect the entire diameter of the plant to reach a maximum spread of 12” with a single crown. They can grow multiple crowns, but as you’ll learn in this African Violet care guide, it is not the best of ideas to have more plants in a single container.

Think of the crown as a hat that sits on the top of the leaves. That is the look to grow for. It should not have two hats.

If your does, you’ll soon discover how to divide it and repot it in the right potting mix to create a gorgeous display of botanical beauty.

Light Is Pivotal for African Violets to Flourish

African Violets are fussy with their light requirements. The light it receives absolutely must be indirect light. Direct sunlight will scorch their delicate leaves.

Light is needed in abundance to keep these healthy. In most areas, you will need to supplement natural light with grow lights of some type. That is because this plant ought to get between 12 hours to 16 hours of sunlight per day.

In some parts of the world, there just are not that many hours of sunlight in the day. In the summer, sure. Winter care though, good luck.

Grow lights do not need to be anything fancy. T12 fluorescent tube lights can be used, but you do need to be careful with the heat those produce. They should be placed at least 10” over the plant to avoid the heat from the bulb burning the leaves.

The safest type of grow light for winter care of African Violets are LED grow lights. Small compact LED lights that sit approximately 10” to 12” over the plant.

Signs of Insufficient Light

  • The leaves turn a blue-green color
  • Stems grow thin and leggy
  • Petioles are longer!

That last part is what to be vigilant of because spindly petioles are better able to twist toward a light source.

If you don’t know – the petiole is the stalk of a leaf stem that attaches to the plants main stem. The thinner and longer these are, the more likely you will get upward leaf curl, which can put the crown of the plant in total shade preventing it from blooming ever!

Signs of Too Much Light

It is not uncommon to have yellow leaves on an African Violet at the base of the plant. That is the oldest leaves. These last up to one year before yellowing, at which point they should be removed by pinching the leaves off.

When direct sunlight discolors the leaves, the yellowing is darker and is more akin to burning, which is effectively leaf scorch from the exposure to direct sunlight.

The best light source for African Violets is a northern or eastern facing window. That’s an ideal placement for the plant to benefit from the softer ambiance of the morning sunlight.

The Ultimate Guide to Watering African Violets

Alongside light, the next absolute fundamental to get right is the watering. Not just the frequency, but the quality too.

Like growing any new plant for the first time, the question arises of how often to water an African Violet?

There is so much that impacts the water transpiration rate that is impossible to put a precise figure on it. African Violets show you when they need a drink, but only if you know the signs.

That, we’ll get to, but first, the quality of the water is important. Without knowing that your plant is getting quality hydration for its nourishment, it will be easy to keep on watering, resulting in drowning it. Too much water can (and will likely) lead to an African Violet dying.

African Violets like to have slightly acidic water or neutral. The precise range is 6.7 to 7.0.

If, like many plant parents you turn to tap water, you may be using water outside of the pH range required. The EPA guidelines for water pH has a range of 6.5 to 8.5. That is a huge differential.

The only way to know the quality of your water is to test it. A straightforward method is to use a pH test strip.

If your results show the pH is too high, you can add in something acidic to lower the pH, such as lemon juice, or there is commercially available pH down solutions which are just highly acidic liquids. A common one for plants is phosphoric acid. You will not need a lot.

Know this too… water acidity can differ throughout the seasons. If at any time your African Violet shows signs of struggling, whip out a pH test strip and see if the water quality has changed.

If it has become too acidic, it will cause the plant to be malnourished because it will be unable to consume the essential nutrients from the potting mix to make it thrive. Instead, it’ll sit their doing nothing.

It can survive on water alone, but without the additional minerals being released from the potting mix, it will not bloom, and growth can be stunted too.

Rainwater Is Not Always Beneficial Either!

Rainwater harvesting is becoming ever-increasingly popular for two reasons. It is eco-friendly and saves money.

But it is acidic. The normal pH range of rainwater is 5.0 to 6.5. However, it is not always clean (as in pure) rainwater. Depending on where you are collecting the water runoff from, it can have contaminating substances in it.

For example, harvesting rainwater from a roof runoff system can lead to harvesting water that is contaminated with bird droppings and also any chemical decomposition washing off from the roofing materials.

Just like you should never drink water from a stream without treating it first, the same applies to the natural water you hydrate your plants with. It needs an alkaline solution added to it do neutralize the rainwater.

The two most common and cost-efficient solutions to add minerals to rainwater is either calcite, or more widely available is lime.

How Much Water Do African Violets Need?

African Violets need very little water. The soil should be dry to the touch before watering. Generally, a well-cared for African Violet will only need a little water added once weekly.

What is more important is how you water the plant.

How to Water an African Violet

The leaves on African Violets are extremely sensitive. Water should not touch the leaves. If you are using a small watering can, push the leaves to the side so you can direct the spout at the soil.

Add a little, then rotate the plant, so that water is added equally around the soil, rather than pooling on one side.

When the leaves get wet, it usually results in yellow or brown spots on African Violet leaves. This is not dangerous in itself. What the disastrous risk is from watering African Violets from the top is excessive moisture accumulating on the crown.

Too much moisture on the crown of the plant exposes it to a host of dangerous pathogens that can lead to crown rot and pythium rot. Both are potentially deadly to African Violets.

Another and preferred method is to use the soak method. Bottom-watering.

For this method, the plant is placed in a saucer, bowl, or shallow container with at least one-inch of water. The soil will soak in the water, but the essential part is knowing when to stop it from drinking.

The plant should only be in the water for a maximum of 20-minutes. After 10-minutes, check it. As soon as the top of the soil mix feels moist, remove it from the water.

One other thing of importance with watering African Violets is to use tepid water. Do not apply cold water, or scorching hot water. Water should be luke warm to avoid temperature stress. Cold water can also lead to ring spotting on the leaves.

The Temperature Requirements for African Violets

Although African Violets are by their nature tropical plants, they can tolerate lower temperatures. They thrive in the same conditions as us, appreciating temperatures between 65oF (18oC) and 80oF (26oC).

The drop in temperature between day and night is where problems can creep in. These plants do best with minimal temperature fluctuation, preferably around 5-degree and 10-degree swings, but never dropping below 70oF (21oC).

Cold Draft Damage

Given that African Violets are often placed near northern or eastern windows, drafts or cold spots overnight can stunt growth and stop African Violets blooming.

Cold damage will really set in if the plant is exposed to a temperature below 60oF (15oC). At those temperatures, expect to see drooping leaves on an African Violet, and likely any existing flowers wilting too.

A unique characteristic of temperature shock is the plant growing lopsided. One side grows bigger than the other. The side with stunted growth will be side closest to the window.

If you see this happening, it will be the drop in temperature overnight causing one side of an African Violet to stop growing.

The solution is to simply move it farther away from the window, or to a spot without a cold draft.

Areas to Steer Clear of Are

  • Too close to windows
  • Frequently used doors
  • Radiators
  • Fires
  • Electrical appliances

Each of the above can contribute to air temperature fluctuations around the plant.

Humidity Recommendations for African Violets

Humidity is not a huge concern for African Violets. Low humidity will not kill them. It will prevent them from blooming.

In their natural habitat of the tropical jungles of Tanzania and Kenya, the humidity is extremely high year-round at approximately 80% relative humidity. You do not need to keep your room humidity that high though. They do fine with relative humidity above 50%.

Winter care of African Violets are when you may need to use alternative methods to hydrate the air if you want it to bloom year-round.

Otherwise, the plant will only flower in the summer months when the air has enough moisture but, in the winter, when the air becomes dry from heating your home, without adding moisture into the air, there is less water available.

The leaves on African Violets have stomata (small pores) that let moisture evaporate through the leaves. This is called transpiration.

As moisture is released through the stomata, the water is replenished from the soil. The warmer the temperature, the faster the transpiration process becomes.

Symptoms of Low Humidity

  • Brown and crisp edges on the top leaves
  • Upward leaf curling (depending on the species because some varieties naturally cup)
  • Flower buds not opening
    • if they do, they will be smaller than usual

Easy Ways to Increase Humidity

1 – Grouping a few African Violets together

Plant display units are terrific for these compact plants. The benefit from a collection is the increase in transpiration naturally elevating humidity directly around the plants, without radically increasing the relative room humidity.

2 – Use a humidifier

This can be as simple as placing a small mister near your plant, or depending on the number of plants you have, a room humidifier may be better suited.

3 – Double pot your plant

This method is discreet and ideal for a single houseplant. It is not specific to African Violets. All you do is use a pot that is at least 2” wider in diameter than the pot the plant is in, then line the base with gravel or sphagnum moss.

Those materials hold water well, and release it slowly to the plant directly above it.

The Right Fertilizer to Use

Fertilizers are tricky to get right. Every plant needs a different diet. African Violets need to have a very specific feeding routine because despite their minute size, they use an incredible amount of energy because they are a year-round flowering plant.

To keep them in bloom, they need regular feeding.

The only type of fertilizer to use with African Violets is water-soluble, or in tablet form, provided it is dissolved in water.

These are easier to feed your plant too if you use the recommended bottom-watering technique to let the plant soak in a saucer or bowl of water. Two birds, one stone. Water and food in one.

A good NPK ratio to use is 14-12-14. That is 14% nitrogen, 12% phosphorous, and 14% potassium.

The fertilizers to avoid are so-called bloom boosters, because they are abundant in phosphorous and lack the necessary amount of nitrogen and potassium to support the plant’s health.

You can tell any type of this plant food by the higher middle number that represents the percentage of phosphorous the food contains.

Producing bigger blooms is of no use if you don’t provide the nutrients required to grow and strengthen the root system. Bloom boosters will give an abundance of blooming, but it will be short-lived.

African Violets can live and bloom for decades, but to live that long, they need a balanced diet. You can give them that with a 14-12-14 balanced fertilizer.

The majority of water-soluble fertilizers will need to be diluted, usually to a quarter strength. Each bottle will contain specific instructions and care precautions for safe use on the label.

Always read the label and follow the manufacturer’s instructions for the safe use of fertilizer.

Determining the Right Pot Size and Type

African Violets do best when their root system fills the pot. They are shallow-rooted plants so they do best in a pot that is wider in diameter than it is in depth. Especially with trailing African Violets that are more adept at growing in hanging baskets.

African Violets are single crown plants. Trailing African Violets have three or more crowns.

For single crown plants, the pot size recommendations are determined by the type of plant you are growing.

  • For a Standard African Violet, use a pot that is 3” to 4” in diameter.
  • For a Dwarf/Mini African Violets, use a pot that is 1” to 2” in diameter.
  • For a Semi miniature African Violet, use a pot that is 2” to 2.5” in diameter.

If you aren’t sure of the type of African Violet you have, the rule of thumb for selecting a pot size is to go with one that is a third of the diameter of plant.

The Perfect Potting Mix for African Violets

The potting mix is absolutely essential to get right. It needs to be a well-draining potting mix and provide plenty of aeration for the roots.

Standard houseplant mixes will rarely suffice because of the amount of peat used, causing the soil to compact. Compact soil reduces oxygenation, which can be a contributing factor to root rot.

To avoid such drastic diseases, two ingredients are essential. Vermiculite and perlite. Alternatives that can be included in a potting mix are peat moss, coco coir, or coco peat.

Peat moss can retain as much as 70% water. To add aeration into the mix, use equal parts vermiculite and perlite. A good ratio to use is 50:25:25, or, 2 parts peat moss, 1 part vermiculite, and 1 part perlite.

Of huge importance is to use a soilless mix. This mimics the native growing conditions of these plants, which is in the crevices of mossy rocks at ground level (Helpful to remember for the growing conditions you are trying to replicate).

If buying a brand label African Violet potting mix, do not go by the name “African Violet mix.” Most are terrible. Judge the mix by the ingredients. At least half of an African Violet mix needs to contain perlite and vermiculite.

How and When to Repot African Violets

African Violets look their best when they are repotted frequently. Once to twice yearly. Preferably every six months.

The reason for such frequent repotting is to avoid the plant growing a neck.

The base layer will always have the oldest leaves, but those should be at the base of the plant pot, and not towering above it.

The longer the plant remains in the same pot, the taller it will grow. It grows a neck and that detracts from the rosette pattern and affects the blooms.

When repotting, use the same pot size, and the same potting mix so as to avoid transplant shock.

The goal when repotting is to lower the plant’s size, effectively cutting its neck off without trimming the top of the plant. The trimming is done below the soil surface from the base of the soil mix.

Remember that these are shallow rooted plants so the healthiest part of the root system is near the soil surface.

With the plant removed, whatever size of neck the plant has grown, trim the same amount off the very base of the soil. For example, to lower the plant by a half-inch on top, trim away a half-inch of soil from the bottom.

When you place the plant back into its pot, the lowest row of leaves should be in line with the rim of the pot.

How to Divide African Violets

African Violets ought to be single crown plants. It is what keeps the rosette pattern intact. Once mature though, they can develop multiple crowns, which is essentially multiple plants. If these are not divided, it will result in cramped conditions in the pot.

If you feel your plant is outgrowing its container, it is likely to be because there is more than one crown. Cramped conditions lead to tight crowns and that affects blooming, sometimes to the extent that African Violets stop flowering altogether.

The fix for that is to divide the plant.

Division of African Violets requires precision because of how delicate the roots and the leaves are.

Gently remove the plant from the pot, and place the soil mix in water to loosen it up. When the soil is only moist, it is difficult to work with. Once wet, use your fingers to separate the leaves.

Each leaf will be attached to a single stem, and each of those trace back to a single center. Push that apart, being careful to minimize damaging the roots any more than is necessary.

Once the plants are separated, pot them up in containers remembering to use a pot that is one third the size of the plant. Stay with the same soil mix as the mother plant had, and pack the roots into the soil, then add plenty of water to help the roots recover.

Just one African Violet can create an entire collection, provided you get the care aspects nailed.

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