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The Homeowners Column
Growing African Violets
Extension Educator, Horticulture
When I was a kid I remember an older lady down the street with rows of African violets in her windows. As I was pilfering a cookie or two from her, I marveled at the intense colors of the flowers with their collar of fuzzy leaves. My grandmother also grew these gargantuan African violets. In my tiny kid brain I assumed African violets must be a right of passage into garden gurudom. Only experienced gardeners that had acquired many years of knowledge were able to get these beauties to bloom indoors. Well I am here to tell you, African violets are not just for grandmothers anymore.
There are so many different cultivars now. African violets come in a wide range of flower colors, sizes and foliage types. Flower colors include about every color of the rainbow as well as bicolors and multicolors. Flowers may be single or double petaled or fringed edged. Sizes range from large to the "oh so cute" miniatures.
African violets have even been in space. In 1984, Optimara, one of the premier African violet producers, launched 25,000 Optimara seeds into space aboard one of NASA's space shuttles. The seeds remained in space in the Long Duration Exposure Facility orbiting the Earth for nearly six years. As a direct outcome of their space travels, Optimara developed the EverFloris Violet. They are known for their abundance of flowers that never stop blooming. They have as many as 20 blooms instead of the typical 5 to 7.
Most of the newer cultivars do bloom regularly throughout the year. Some cultivars do have a short rest period between blooms. Even the hard to bloom cultivars that require excellent light will bloom a couple times a year. If violets do not bloom, it's not because you are not old enough. It's more likely a problem with the growing conditions.
Here are a few tips:
Keep plants evenly moist. It is best to water from below using a saucer or use a wicking system. Water on the leaves can cause leaf spot. Use lukewarm water. It's best not to use softened water. Soil should not be soggy or dry extensively. Dry soil is a common reason why African violets fail to bloom.
Soil should be well drained. Soilless mixes work well.
Temperatures should be about 72 degrees F. Temperatures should not go below 60 or above 80.
Insufficient light is probably the number one reason violets fail to bloom. They like bright light but not direct light. If you happen to have access to a light meter, they need 10,000 to 12,000 lux, or about 900 to 1100 foot candles. African violets grow well under fluorescent lights suspended 12 to 15 inches above the plants. Leave light on no more than 16 hours a day. Light source must include wavelengths in the red as well as blue range. A combination of cool white and warm white bulbs works well as do grow lights.
Fertilize violets regularly. Any complete water-soluble fertilizer can be used. Avoid any fertilizers containing urea since this may harm roots. Check label for recommended intervals and rates. Many growers prefer to fertilize with each watering.
Repotting may be needed as the plant ages since the lower row of leaves eventually dies creating a "neck". If there is a neck, cut off an equal portion of soil from the bottom of the rootball. Replant into same size pot or one inch larger so that the bottom row of leaves is now right above the pot rim.
Locally check out the Margaret Scott African Violet Society. They usually meet once a month at the Anita Purvis Nature Center in Urbana. Contact: Carrie Nixon at 244-9417 or 867-2290. Also check out the African Violet Society of America at http://www.avsa.org/