watering African Violet


Only for Gray-Haired Ladies?

I’m coming out. Today. Let me explain.

Decades ago, when just starting getting my hands in the dirt, I — perhaps other people, perhaps it was even true — thought it was only gray-haired ladies who grew African violets. As it turns out, a number of years after I had started gardening, I was offered an African violet plant (by a gray-haired lady). Back then, before I had accumulated too many plants, I was less discriminating than I am these days. I accepted.

I figured I could provide the special conditions African violets demand, according to what I read in numerous publications. “Proper watering and soil moisture is critical to your success,” I was told by one publication. I could provide the needed consistently moist soil with a potting mix especially rich in peat, compost, or some other organic material. I could monitor the plants thirst by lifting the pot to feel its weight or by periodic probing its soil with my electronic moisture meter. watering African VioletI could of course be careful to avoid leaf spotting by not spilling any water, especially cold water, on the leaves. Watering from below would do the trick, with periodic leaching from above to prevent buildup of salts. They also like high humidity.Pebble tray of African violets

Other requirements of African violets that were and are stated are temperatures 70-90 degrees (F) by day and 65-70  degrees at night. I was also admonished to keep an eye out for pests, including aphids, cyclamen mites, and mealybugs, and symptoms of disease. Root rot, for example.

Oh, and regular feeding should be administered except when resting (to the plants, not me).

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Mine Aren’t Frilly

    And now, with a bow to my feminine side, a little something about African violets, houseplants that have traditionally been thought of as old lady’s flowers. Still, I’ll admit it, I like African violets. They offer so much for what little effort I make in growing them.
    Mainly, what they offer is flowers, and at a time — now and throughout fall and winter — when flowers are at a premium. I have only one variety, but if I was really into African violets, I could be choosing plants with white, pink, blue, or purple flowers, or blue with white picotee, or white blushed pink, or . . . any one of a number of flower colors and color combinations. And then there are varieties with ruffled, scalloped, quilted, or variegated leaves. And plants that range from few-inch wide miniatures to over a foot-wide large.
    My African violets are standard issue blue-flowered, flat-leafed, medium sized plants.
    As I said, I put little effort into growing them.
    If you study up on growing African violets, though, you’d think them very exacting in their requirements. For starters, they’re said to need special potting soil, well-drained but, with the addition of extra peat or sphagnum moss, consistently moist. They’re said to need bright light, preferably a north or west facing window, or fluorescent, but not too bright. Direct sun will allegedly burn their leaves. Avoid getting water on the leaves or it will leave a dark spot. Avoid getting water at the base of the plant (the crown) or it will rot. Avoid overwatering. Avoid underwatering. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention: Avoid cold water.watering African Violet
    Moving on to the air around the plants . . . avoid chilling the plants, moving them away from cold windows at night or stuffing some newspaper between the plants and the window. But also don’t keep the plants too warm.  Also, ramp up the humidity by growing them in the basement or setting them above trays filled with pebbles and water.
    Whew! That’s effort. I don’t do any of that. I use the same potting soil for African violets as for all my other plants (except succulents), from tomato seedlings to fig trees to bonsai Ficus. My plants sit happily in south and west windows, some in a cold room with nothing to stop the flow of cold from the the glass. My watering is whimsical, leaving them sometimes sitting in too much water and other times in bone-dry soil. I pay no special attention to water temperature or to whether or not water gets on the leaves.
    My African violets are growing and flowering just fine.

Leaves into Plants

    Perhaps my African violets grow too well because every a couple of years or so they get so overgrown that they’re spilling up and out of their pots. Then it’s time for one of the coolest things about growing them, and that’s propagating them.
 Rooting African violet leaves   I do so by cuttings, but not by the usual stem cuttings. African violets hardly have a stem; the crown, or whorl of leaves, is a foreshortening stem, too short for a stem cutting. I propagate them with leaf cuttings, typically taken in spring. Nothing complicated here: Just pull off some leaves and poke the leaf stalks (petioles) into a rooting mix of potting soil or equal parts peat and perlite. Water thoroughly, make a plastic tent or use an upturned, clear jar to maintain humidity, and move the whole setup to a bright location (definitely not full sun this time, or plants might cook!).

African violet leaves, rooted

African violet leaves, rooted

    All that’s needed is patience. In a few weeks, from the bases of the leaf stalks appear new shoots, on their way to becoming whole, new plants. Fascinating.

Leaves into Plants, Another Way

    A few years back I sowed dust-like seeds from a begonia plant. The seedlings matured into a few plants that were mounds of green, dripping all summer long with fire-engine red blossoms. I cloned the plants with stem cuttings, which took up a lot of space and were slow to root. So, I’m thinking, why not leaf cuttings for the begonias also, this spring?
    Begonias can be multiplied by cutting the fleshier parts of leaves into triangular sections, each with a major vein, and sticking each triangle upright in a rooting mix. Or, another approach is to cut across the large veins on the undersurface of a begonia leaf, then lay the whole leaf on the rooting mix, pinning it down to maintain contact with the mix. In either case, with moisture, a clear tent, bright light, etc., roots and new plants develop. Again, fascinating.

Any Cell Can Do It

    The reason that I or you can make a whole new plant from part of a plant is because of totipotence. This ten dollar word tells that any cell in a plant, except reproductive (egg and sperm) cells, houses identical genetic information, and that information can give rise to any other part of a plant, even to a whole new plant. It’s up to the skilled gardener to provide the conditions that prompt a plant part to develop into a whole new plant.


Fruit for My Mouth, Flowers for My Eyes

As I write this, on December 1st, the Rabbi — that’s the Rabbi Samuel fig — is still ripening fruit in my barely heated greenhouse. That’s commendable. Not so commendable, however, is the flavor; cooler temperatures and sparse sunlight have taken their toll. The drooping fruits look ripe and ready to eat, inside and out, but they are no longer worth eating.

End of the fruiting season for Rabbi Samuel fig.

End of the fruiting season for Rabbi Samuel fig.

On the other hand, another fruit, Szukis American persimmons, hardly look edible but still have rich, sweet flavor. Outdoors, fruits of this variety of American persimmon cling to bare branches. Their orange skins once stretched almost to the point of breaking over the soft flesh within. Now, alternate freezing and thawing temperatures and drier air have sucked moisture and temper from the flesh, so the skins have shriveled and barely cling. Their darkening does nothing to increase the fruits’ visual appeal.

Szukis persimmons, starting to look ugly, but still honey sweet

Szukis persimmons, starting to look ugly, but still honey sweet

The ripe fruits are hard to distinguish, by eye, from the almost ripe fruits. The latter still retain some mouth-puckering astringency which has given American persimmons a bad name. An unripe persimmon “will draw a man’s mouth awrie with much torment” wrote Captain John Smith 400 years ago. I give Szukis’ branches a slight shake and only ripe fruits come raining to the ground, at which point the Captain’s further words ring true: “When [persimmon] is ripe, it is as delicious as an apricot.”

Can’t Help Wanting African Violets

New leaf cuttings

New leaf cuttings

Man can’t live by bread alone; a feast for the eyes is also in order. Well, maybe not a feast, but an appetizer, some winter flowers. Probably the easiest and most longlasting of winter blossoms are those of African violet. Okay, okay, I know that African violets have been mostly associated with doilies, lace curtains, and other appurtenances of old ladies (nothing against old ladies).

Generally, I don’t even like the color violet. But African violet’s flowers do brighten up a windowsill that looks out upon a gray and brown landscape.

Plantlets forming at bases of leaf cuttings

Plantlets forming at bases of leaf cuttings

Now that I’ve gotten my secret attraction to African violets off my chest, let’s talk horticulture. African violet’s whorl of leaves, like those of many low-growing perennial flowers, is actually a compressed stem, one that has been telescoped down so that each leaf and associated node originates just a fraction of an inch above the next lower leaf. But there is some distance between those nodes, so over time the stem does slowly elongate, rising higher and higher out of the ground. And side branches occasionally sprout forth from the leaf axils. The result of all this is that the potted plant becomes, over time, so overgrown with layer upon layer of leaves that the plant no longer can gather enough energy to flower well.

African Violet in all its glory.

African Violet in all its glory.

The solution to this problem is to make new plants and then chuck the old ones. All that’s needed to make a new plant is a leaf from an old plant and patience. So a few weeks ago I plucked a few leaves (a few, for insurance) from my old, overgrown African violet and plunged their stalks into a moist mix of peat moss and perlite. A plastic bag covering and held above the leaf cuttings by some twigs provided the needed humidity until roots could develop to keep the leaves turgid. Bright but indirect sunlight fueled, via photosynthesis, new root growth, and within a few weeks, resistance to a gentle tug on the leaves told me that roots had developed.

I removed the cover and now little plants are poking up through the ground alongside the leaf stalks. I’m going to transplant my rooted cuttings into larger pots and should, in a few weeks, be enjoying flowers. By then, I’ll have my knitting also ready.

11th Hour Apple Tree Planting

On to less gender stereotyped gardening: tree planting. Picture the day before Thanksgiving, November 26th. A wet snow is falling and beginning to whiten the ground. In my garage are two sturdy, bare root apple trees, a Hudson’s Golden Gem and an Ashmead’s Kernel, recently arrived from Cummins Nursery and needing planting.

Fortunately, I prepared the plantings site a couple of weeks previously with a 4-inch-deep, broad circle of leaf compost, the most immediate purpose of which was to keep the ground from freezing. Rushing to beat out the snow, I pulled enough compost aside to make space to dig holes, spread tree roots out in each hole, backfilled the soil, sifting it around the roots by pressing with my fingers and bouncing the tree up and down, and then settled all into place with a couple of gallons of water per plant.

I like autumn for tree planting. Roots have opportunity to grow in still warm soil (especially if mulched) while stems won’t grow and need water until spring. The soil is crumbly and soft, in good condition for digging and planting. And autumn planting leaves one less thing to do in the flurry of spring gardening.

However, winter temperatures and furry creatures can be a hazard to autumn-planted trees. The first line of defense, to fend off  mice and rabbits and moderate temperatures on the trunk, is a spiral plastic tree guard. An 18” high cylinder of 1/2” hardware cloth provides further defense against mice and rabbits. Beyond that, a higher and wider cylinder of 2×4 fencing should fend off deer and my puppy Sammy. (Past puppies considered newly planted trees as playthings, fun to tug out of the ground.) And finally, the well-furnished, new tree goes into winter with some perfume, a deer-repellant spray, any of which is effective if applied before the plant gets nibbled and renewed monthly.

I expect to harvest the first apples from the new apple trees expected in 3 years.