How to Grow African Violets
Do you live in a dark apartment or condo with no outdoor space for a garden? No problem! You can have a wealth of flowers indoors thanks to the miracle of African violets.
What are African Violets?
African violets (Saintpaulia ionantha) are small flowering plants that are native to the woods along the eastern coast of Africa. They are not true violets but were called violets because the flowers resembled the violets familiar to the Europeans who "discovered" them in Africa.
African violets are perennial tropical plants that, depending on the variety, grow from 6 to 16 inches. The flowers have five single petals. In the wild, they come in purple, light blue or white.
Thanks to the efforts of plant breeders, the color palette of the flowers has been expanded to also include red, pink and lavender. The flowers themselves can now be double, semi-double, bicolor or picotee. Even the leaves have been bred so that some are now variegated.
African violets have become popular houseplants because their native shady forest habitat makes them perfect for homes that receive very little sunlight or have north facing windows. They are easy to grow and propagate.
How to Grow African Violets
Use Soil Formulated for African Violets
African violets can be grown in regular potting soil but they do best in mixtures specifically designed for them which is lighter with more drainage than regular potting soil. Or you can make your own using potting soil and add equal parts peat moss and either perlite or vermiculite for drainage.
You can use either plastic or clay pots. If you use clay pots, line the rim with aluminum foil to protect the leaves. Clay absorbs water and the wet rim will rot your leaves.
When potting your plants, only fill the pot with soil to within ¼- to ½-inch of the rim. This will prevent the water from spilling out of the pot when you water your plants. The space between the top of the soil and the rim of the pot holds the water until it can be absorbed by the soil.
Maintain Proper Humidity
African violets like high humidity and our homes are very dry. You can provide etra humidity by putting a glass of water next to your plant or placing the pot in a humidity tray. A humidity tray is simply a galvanized tray full of gravel with water on the bottom. The water should not reach the top of the gravel or come in direct contact with your pot. As the water evaporates, it creates humidity around your plants.
Provide the Proper Amount of Light
Light is critical. African violets do best in a north-facing window, especially in the summer. If they get too much sun, their leaves will burn so avoid southern exposures. You can place your African violets directly on your windowsill, but during the winter, you should either move your plant from the window at night or place a piece of paper between the plant and the window at night to prevent your plant from getting chilled. African violets like night-time temperatures of 65°F to 70°F. Day time temperatures can vary between 70°F and 90°F.
If your plant starts to get "leggy" with long weak stems and thin leaves, it's not getting enough light. Fortunately, African violets do well under lights. Don't spend a fortune on fancy fixtures and gro-lights. Regular fluorescent shop lights work just as well. Suspend them 15- to 18 inches above your plants. They should get 6 to 8 hours of light per day. Invest in a timer to control your lights so that you don't forget to turn them on and off.
How to Water African Violets
There is no best way to water your plants. You can water either from the top or the bottom of the pot. If watering from the top, don't let the water splash on the leaves. Water the soil directly. A lot of people like to water from the bottom. Simply fill a saucer under the pot and allow the soil to absorb the water through the drainage hole. This allows the leaves to stay dry. A big drawback to this method is that it causes salts to build up on the pot and the top of the soil which can damage your plants. Once a month, water your plants from the top to wash away the salts. And always use room temperature water, never cold water. African violets are tropical plants. Cold water can damage them.
How to Fertilize African Violets
You can apply a regular houseplant fertilizer such as 20-20-20 every 4 to 6 weeks. Most people use a liquid fertilizer because it is easy. Another good choice is slow release fertilizer which you can just sprinkle on top of the soil. Make sure that you apply it when the soil is moist, not dry. If you like, you can stop fertilizing during the winter months and only use it during the active growing season, spring through fall. If you are growing under lights, you should fertilize year-round. This is because the lights are on for the same amount of time each day so the plants don't have a rest period as they would during short winter days.
How to Grow African Violets From a Single Leaf
Propagation of African violets is simple but requires a little patience. You can either propagate from a single leaf or you can divide the crowns.
To propagate from a leaf, choose a healthy, full-grown (but not old) leaf and break it off at the stem of the plant. This should leave you with a leaf on a short stem. Dip the cut end of the stem in rooting hormone and place it in a soilless mix which should be kept moist but not soaking wet. Roots should develop within 4 to 6 weeks but you will not see any new leaves for another 4 to 8 weeks so be patient. Avoid fertilizing while the new roots and leaves are developing. Wait to fertilize until you are transplanting the new plants to their permanent pots.
How to Divide African Violets
A faster way to propagate your plants is by division. African violets grow from crowns. When you are repotting your plants, you may notice that new plants are growing off of the crown. You can carefully cut these new crowns away from the old crowns preserving some of the root system and plant them in their own pots. Cover all the pots with plastic bags to create a humid environment while the plants grow out new root systems.
Brighten up your dark north-facing window with colorful African violets. And when your friends admire them, simply break off a leaf for them to take home and grow their own plants.
© 2013 Caren White