These charming little plants usually bring great pleasure, but sometimes they are frustrating.
The comparatively large numbers of people who waylay me with African violet problems might suggest that they are one of the hardest plants to grow successfully, but as they are so popular and widely grown the percentage of complaints would be relatively small.
When poor results are reported I query the aspect first. People generally claim that their failing plants have the good light and freedom from draughts so often recommended but there are also some intangibles here. As many experienced growers will agree, these plants often do well in one spot and poorly in another with seemingly identical conditions.
If you’re really keen you could check for the best position by getting several similar plants and keep one in each of the most likely places for a season.
In any case, as a starting point choose positions just far enough from a window to escape direct sunlight. I get good results by placing plants about 30 centimeters from a south window, which misses direct sunlight entirely.
Sunlight diffused by sheer curtains works well with east or west windows but I have seen cases where all-day sun diffused this way has been too strong. If this is a factor the foliage will be short, thick, and clumpy, sometimes with pale sandy colored areas.
The same symptom often shows when they are on balconies where direct sunlight reaches them.
On the other hand in too shaded areas the leaves look rather thin and drawn.
The foliage is also a good indicator of moisture needs. When too dry it becomes limp and tends to fall slightly at the edges or if over-watered is inclined to look excessively waxy. However, these differences are more subtle than the light influence and can vary to some extent with aspects.
It is understandable that there could be some confusion about how much water is needed, as recommendations differ. Professional growers may advise that the soil should be kept moist at all times. This may apply in heated and brightly lit glasshouses but I prefer to water only when the soil feels dry.
Also, an African violet is the one plant that I do not saturate when watering; I give enough just to dampen the soil, particularly if the container is without drainage.
A large plant in one of those flat violet bowls about 20cm across would get about a third of a cup of water. I spread it. slightly tipping the bowl in both directions as soon as it is poured on the compact surface.
How often you need to water depends on room temperature. It may be every day during summer heat and only once a week during the cooler months – in other words, water whenever the soil is dry.
It also pays to give the plants tepid water. It has now been conclusively proved that tap cold water can shock the plant and retard growth. Some people keep the water at room temperature in an indoor container which is refilled after watering.
Alternatively, run in just enough hot water to take the chill off but not enough to feel obviously warm.
Your African violets can also get hungry, but before rushing to feed them appreciate that overfeeding can have more serious effects than starvation.
There are several African violet foods that give good results if applied as directed, or you can use the complete soluble foods, preferably at about half the normally recommended strength every three to four weeks, except in winter if the plants are then dormant or without flower.
The only reservation with the soluble plant foods is that most contain relatively high percentages of nitrogen which can cause over-leafiness at the expense of flower if they are used entirely. This can be overcome by sprinkling a third of a teaspoon of superphosphate around the edge of the container about every three months.
Alternatively, using the slowly soluble plant pills or slow-release Osmocote suits African violets – they usually contain enough elements without any need for superphosphate.
In hot dry climates and also in any room with a heater or air conditioning, the atmosphere may become too dry for African violets to grow well.
A popular way to overcome this is standing the pots on trays with water in the base and a layer of pebbles to keep the pots just above the water (except of course for containers without drainage holes).
Aquariums or fishbowls are excellent for African violets as they protect from drafts and keep the atmosphere moist.
FAILURE TO FLOWER
Most strains of African violets will flower for many months when conditions and treatment suit them. Flowering often ceases through the cooler months.
However, it is sometimes difficult to start them into flower again. This can be due to excessive leafiness, so if this seems to be the case take off, say, every third leaf, and particularly a few of the small ones at the top. Also, remove any runners or new plantlets from the base of the plant. Next, try feeding with superphosphate.
Plants become less productive when they eventually develop a woody crown or center stem. Before this occurs it is a good idea to have some new ones coming on.
Strike new plants from the leaves you have thinned out. This can be done by standing them with the tip of the leaf stalk in water or in a damp mixture, two parts of coarse sand with one of peat moss.
Plastic seedling punnets are handy for this as the leaves can be rested along the edges with tips of the stems just buried toward the center. Four or five centimeters of the stem (up to 2in) is sufficient but cut them cleanly with a razor blade or very sharp knife. Cover the glass or jar with aluminum foil, punching holes in it so that the leaf rests on top and the end of the stem just touches the water.
Tiny plantlets will gradually form around the cut stem. When these have made several sets of leaves and are large enough to handle they are carefully separated from the stem and spaced an inch or two apart in trays of the mixture.
Then as they develop they are potted on into African violet soil, which is now available in several proprietary brands.