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February spotlight plant of the month: African Violets

February spotlight plant of the month: African Violets


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…


January Gardening Calendar

January Gardening Calendar

January is a quiet month for gardeners in the Southern Great Lakes Region. The flurry of the holiday season has passed. Long nights and short days bring out the urge in some to nestle in and wait out the worst of winter weather. Others relish the season with outdoor activities: Ice hockey, ice fishing, skiing, and tobogganing are among the activities that residents of the region take pleasure in. For indoor types, college and high school basketball rules. For armchair quarterbacks, there are the playoffs leading up to the big Superbowl weekend.

While not much is happening outside, there are still gardening and maintenance chores that can and need to be tackled this time of the year:

1.  Trim the branches off your Christmas tree and use the boughs for mulch. Or, you can set the tree outside and add fruits and suet balls and other goodies for the birds and other wildlife to enjoy.

2.  Avoid walking on lawns when there is snowpack to prevent compaction and snow mold later in the season.

3.  Avoid the use of salt-based products on sidewalks and drives. Sand or cat litter provides good traction on slick spots without damage to lawn, ornamentals, or concrete.

4.  Inspect tree trunks for rodent and winter damage. If you haven’t already done so, time’s a-wastin’ to add tree wrap and mesh guards to prevent girdling and other damage by rabbits and rodents.

5.  Cleanly prune any storm-damaged branches from trees and shrubs.

6.  Inspect flowerbeds during the January thaw for signs of frost heave. Place the plants back into the ground, and when the ground refreezes, apply mulch.

7.  Check the cold frame for signs of trouble. On warm, sunny days, vent the cold frame.

8.  If the winter is not particularly snowy, check plants such as rhododendrons and other broadleaf evergreens for signs of dehydration. If the temperatures are above freezing and these plants are dry, water them. Also, reapply an anti-desiccant to your evergreens to prevent excessive moisture loss. Do this on a day above 40 degrees.

9.  Gently remove freshly fallen snow from evergreens to prevent limbs from breaking.

10. Start bringing in a few pots of forced bulbs for a touch of spring.

11. Remove snow dams from eaves to prevent damage to your eaves and roof.

12. Start ordering early from mail order sources for best selection.

13. Check seed-starting supplies. Replace old fluorescent or grow lights before the seed starting season begins.

14. On warm days, take a look at the bare bones of your garden structure. See where plants can be placed, which plants might need to be moved, and write down your thoughts and ideas for future reference when the planting season begins.

15. Check houseplants for heat stress. Maintain adequate humidity and light levels. Water appropriately.

16. Houseplants, especially tropicals, might suffer cold injury if they are placed too close to window panes during the winter. Move them back a few inches, and make sure their leaves are not touching the glass.

17. Continue to feed the birds! Think about adding a birdbath heater to the birdbath so birds can find a source of fresh water to drink.

18. Inspect summer tubers, corms, and bulbs. If they look like they are drying, spritz them with a little water. If they are in a medium such as sand or peat, moisten that as well. Discard any diseased or dead bulbs, etc.

19. Can’t afford a trip to Florida or Hawaii? Find out where you can take a day trip to a conservatory. Many large and medium sized cities in the region have indoor botanical gardens that offer a nice escape for those of us who need to see some green and smell the organic scents of growing plants and soil.

December Gardening Calendar

December Gardening Calendar




December is, as it is everywhere, a festive season in the Southern Great Lakes Region. It is a busy time for all: Shopping, decorating, and entertaining all take top billing this month. Fall changes officially to winter this month, but with the winter holidays, one hardly notices the official passage into winter.

Generally, our region has already experienced a good snowstorm or two by the official turn of the season. Some years, however, autumn lingers long into the month. By now, planting chores and winter prep are completed with the garden and yard. Many of the leftover chores are hold-overs from last month’s list. Yet, there are a few other things we can continue to do in the home, yard, and garden this month:

1.  Purchase some Christmas Cactus, Kalanchoes, Cyclamens, and Poinsettias to make your home more festive. Be sure to remove any foil wraps on the containers. These can hold water in the pots, which might cause the plants to rot from excess moisture. Make sure these plants are well wrapped before leaving the store for the trip home.

2.  Buy some amaryllis bulbs to grow on the windowsill. Depending upon variety, some staking might be required.

3.  Houseplants can suffer from the lack of humidity. Growing plants in pebble filled trays and saucers can help maintain humidity around plants. Set your plants on the pebbles, and fill the saucer or tray with water to just the top of the pebbles.

4.  If your roses aren’t protected, do so early in the month. Spray anti-dessicant on any exposed canes when the daytime temps are above 40. Mound soil, mulch, and leaves around the base of the plants to about 18 to 24 inches above the base of the bushes. this is especially true of hybrid teas, floribundas, and roses that have been growing in the yard less than two years, and any other marginally hardy rose. Some of the bush roses, such as the Explorers, Rugosas, Mordens, and Buck’s roses can overwinter successfully in our zones 5a to 6a region without protection. Again, if any variety was newly planted this past season or has been in the ground less than two years, protection would still be a good idea.

5.  Continue watering outside when the weather is above freezing, if there has not been sufficient precipitation and the ground has not frozen. Drain hoses after removing them from the faucets to prevent damage to hoses and plumbing.

6.  Try to take a daily walking tour of your yard, as the weather permits. Observe frost patterns in your yard in early morning. See where frost lingers, where frost does not hit, and write this down in your diary or journal. Often a surprise plant or two will be blooming in a protected spot. These are indicators of microclimates, and you can use this information when planning on where to site plants.

7.  Check the coldframe for any problems. Make sure plants are overwintering without the problems of standing water, field mice, disease, insects, or excessive cold. Prop it open on days that are sunny and above freezing to prevent excessive warming of your plants.

8.  Continue to keep birdfeeders filled. Birds offer a lot of winter interest, and by making your property attractive to birds, these helpmates might decide that your place would make a good home next year. Many birds migrate to the region from further north, but many birds make our region their year-around home.

9.  Take cuttings of holly and evergreen boughs indoors for Christmas decorating. Also fill outdoor window boxes with Christmas greens and decorative bows.

10. Keep fresh-cut Christmas trees in a cool, not freezing location. After bringing a tree home, cut 1 to 2″ from the base and plunge it into a bucket of tepid water with preservative added to prevent the cut end from sealing over. Don’t let the water run dry! When bringing a tree indoors for decorating, allow it to rest in the stand with water in it for several hours to allow the tree to “relax” its branches as it becomes acclimated to indoor warmth. Then decorate.

11. Gardening catalogs should start arriving this month. Start a list of items that you want to purchase for planting next spring. This is also a good time to take out any pictures you have taken of your gardens during the past growing season. You can see what you might need to add to your gardens and yard.

12. Potted Christmas trees should be placed in a cool, not freezing, area until brought indoors for decorating. These trees should not be brought in for extended periods. A day or two before Christmas and a few days after will not harm them. If kept too long indoors, they will break dormancy. After Christmas, take the tree out to the area where you prepared the planting site earlier (see October’s calendar), and plant it. Water well and mulch.

13. Continue to keep bird feeders full. Word will get around, and you will be amazed at how many visitors will come to call during the winter months if you provide a steady supply of suet and seed!

14. Remove any stray leaves that may have blown in around your plants. If they are not shredded, they can mat down around your plants and smother them or promote rotting.

15. Continue to apply mulch to your flowerbeds as the ground freezes to prevent freeze/thaw heave and premature breaking of dormancy.

16. Have a gardener on your gift list? A gift certificate to a nursery or garden center would be appreciated. You can also “gift” him or her with a gift certificate to a gardening-related mail order source. Another good idea would be a gift subscritption to a gardening magazine.

18. Most of all, have a Blessed Holiday Season, one and all!