February spotlight plant of the month: African Violets
February is that month when every day seems to be in endless winter here in the Southern Great Lakes Region. Granted, there are a few “teaser” days, a preview of the coming spring. However, the norm for our area is a few more good cold snaps and snowstorms. Ice storms, cold rain, and windy days are not unusual, either. Many of our gardening ventures naturally turn to indoor pursuits. What better way to brighten up the remaining days of winter than with a few lovely ladies, the African Violets?
African violets are not that hard to maintain. Many people tend to think they are temperamental plants, but by giving them what they want and using a little common sense, nearly anyone can have success with them.
You do not need to buy the most expensive hybrid on the market. Here is one instance where dropping into the local discount store or supermarket can be a rewarding experience. Just be sure that the plant is healthy, disease-free, and that you don’t take any tiny varmints home with you. How to tell? Thoroughly inspect the plant. Check for aphids and thrips. Look at the joints of the leaves to the stems. If there are any cottony-appearing dots? Those are mealy bugs. They can be controlled, but why pay for headaches? Go to another retailer and buy pest and disease-free plants.
Keep your little tropical lovely protected from the walk to the car from the store and to the house. Now, check the container. If it is like most plants, that little violet will soon outgrow its digs. Go for a shallow pot, the next size larger in diameter. Not as shallow in height as a bulb pot, but a little less deep than a standard pot. Make sure it has at least two decent-sized drainage holes. African violets love moisture, but not to the point of drowning! Place some Styrofoam popcorn in the bottom of the pot or some pebbles.
Now for the soil: I don’t fuss with making my own mix. There are some relatively inexpensive African Violet soil mixes on the market; just pick a good one to use. Make sure it does not have any fertilizer added. You are buying this in February, and that little plant is in its resting phase. Add soil until about 1/3 to 1/2 full, take the plant gently from its old container, center it, and fill to the base of the plant with more potting mix. Now, the saucer you use must be deep enough to hold pebbles and water. It should be at least an inch tall. Add pebbles, and at this time, add room temperature water that has settled for a few hours. Water until the level is fairly high in the saucer. The idea is to water from the bottom. After about an hour or so, poke your finger in the soil. If it is moist, drain the excess until only pebbles are touching the bottom of the pot with a thin layer of water beneath to provide humidity.
Fortunately, African Violets like the same temperatures and conditions as we do. They do not like the temperature to drop below the mid-sixties and are not fond of the eighties. Keep them between 65 and 72 degrees F. throughout the day and night, and they will do well. Take care that they are far enough back from the window panes not to suffer from cold and frostbite, especially at night!
Remember to keep the humidity up. Check them every few days for dryness and water them as needed. Again, use water that has had time to dissipate the chlorine and water them from the bottom so that they will “wick up” the moisture. After an hour or so, drain the excess. This is the same routine as when you repotted them. Allow the soil to almost dry completely out between watering.
If you have a bright north or east facing window, this is ideal for these little girls. West works well if they are not smack dab against the window. African Violets need about twelve hours of bright light a day. If your home is relatively dark, you might have to supplement them with artificial light.
From early March until the end of October, fertilize with a good organic fertilizer every four to six weeks. Hold off fertilizing from late October until early March. Repot them when they start to become root-bound, and that should do it! The only other thing you need to watch for are pests and diseases. Isolate any infested or diseased plants from your other houseplants and African Violets. Cotton swabs dipped in alcohol can help to control mealy bugs if they are spotted before they become a real problem. For thrips and aphids, you can try insecticidal soap. Harsher chemical insecticides can be harmful to these delicate plants. Disease should not be a problem if you practice good sanitary techniques with these plants. Do not over water them, water from beneath, and do not allow water to collect in the crown of the plant. Groom the old dead leaves from your plants and provide good air circulation between your plants to ward off most disease problems.
If you haven’t had success with African Violets, this little bit of education should help! As I said, use common sense and good grooming, watering, fertilizing and lighting for them to perform their very best. They are happy-go-lucky ladies, from the classic purple and yellow-eyed singles to the really frilly prima donnas. They all require the same care, regardless of pedigree.
Instead of a dozen long-stemmed roses this Valentines Day, why not not give your sweetie a passel of posies of the African Violet kind? Well, maybe the roses AND an African Violet or two…