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.

Flowers and Grapes

I thought the reason for the bags was obvious, but the eyes of just about everyone who steps out on my terrace turn upwards and then a quizzical look comes on their face. “Why are those bags up there,” they

ask. The bags enclose bunches of grapes hanging from the vines, and their purpose is to fend off birds, bees and other insects, and disease.

The payoff for tediously fitting slit paper bags around individual bunches, then stapling the folded over opening down around the stem, has come. Usually, not always; sometimes I open a bag and find nothing inside. But while many unbagged bunches are marred with bird pecking and black rot, the bagged bunches, at their best, reveal perfect bunches of plump, juicy grapes. We bag about 100 bunches each spring.
The longer grapes hang on the vines, the more apt they are to have a run in with birds or other ills. Bagged grapes, on the other hand, can be left hanging until they are dead, dead ripe, at their flavorful best.
How about flowers? I seem to have been ignoring them. In fact, the longer I garden, the more I look upon flowers in the same way as icing on a cake. They are a nice addition, but they are not the main show. Center stage around here is given to stone walls, arbors, trellises, fencing, the bark and tracery of branches of trees, and leaf shapes, colors, and textures. Their statements are bolder, less frivolous, and endure throughout the year .
Still, every year I do try out a few new flowers, and three annuals brought both beauty and endurance (for a flower) here this summer. All three have been blooming nonstop since late spring, and should keep up the show until weather turns frosty.
First is petunia. Not just any old petunia but new hybrids called Supertunias. These hybrids come in a


number of pastel colors, just like traditional petunias. They part ways with traditional petunias in their profusion of nonstop blossom. The blossoms always have an attractive backdrop because they are self cleaning — spent blossoms disappear into nothingness.

The second floral winner for the season is Xerochrysum bracteatum, sometimes classified as a Bracteantha species and sometimes called golden everlasting, or strawflower. I am growing the hybrid called Sundaze Blaze.
Bracteantha is, in fact, closely related to, and resembles, the more familiar strawflower (Helichrysum), looking like one that’s spreads its wings (petals, in this case) wider and larger. This native of Australia grows in just about all habitats there, except those that are shaded, so, as you might imagine, it’s a tough plant.
One more plus for Bracteantha is that it provides food for various butterflies, hoverflies, and native bees. Hoverflies are beneficial insects, so the bracteanthas indirectly may have


offered some protection to my grape bunches that were not bagged.

And finally, there’s Begonia benariensis, the variety Surefire Rose. I’m not a big fan of begonias, except for the Mandarin series, with their elongated, lance-shaped flowers and leaves all drooping decoratively from their pots. Surefire Rose, in contrast, is rounded: the leaves are rounded, the flowers are rounded, and the overall shape of the plant is rounded. With little enthusiasm, I plopped a few small plants I had been sent to try out into holes I made beneath a witchhazel shrub on the north side of my house.
Sometime around midsummer a critical mass of blossoms was reached. The red color of these flowers spilling out from beneath the witchhazel and onto the wall containing that bed would stop me in my track as I walked by. The show has increased in the intervening weeks.
As good as the show was from these annuals, they are, after all, annuals, destined to collapse in death with the first hard frost.


The begonias are tender perennials, so could be carried through the winter indoors if I dug up the plants and potted them up, or rooted cuttings. Easiest to preserve, literally, would be the bracteantha; like strawflowers, bracteantha dries well. I’ll give it a try.

Observation and note-taking are crucial to good gardening. Some gardeners have the observation part down, fewer write them down. Observations are pretty much useless once forgotten or mixed up.
One benefit of my writing this “Gardener’s Notebook” is that it affords me the opportunity — sometimes forces me — to write things down. I’m always trying to get my timing right for planting the greenhouse to ensure a steady supply of fresh greenery all winter long. With that in mind, two notes to myself: 
•Sow parsley on July 7th for transplanting into the greenhouse on September 17th.
•Sow kale and Swiss chard in the greenhouse for transplanting in the greenhouse on September 17th.