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Have No Fear Of African Violets

There's something about African violets that can intimidate even the most experienced gardener.

But the editors of House & Garden magazine say, "Have no fear!"

House & Garden magazine's editor Stephen Orr has a few tips to keep the exotic flowers growing for a very long time and he shared them on The Saturday Early Show.

The African violet is a tough little plant and can often live happily and easily for decades. It is also inexpensive and makes a great gift that will last a very long time.

The Saturday Early Show asked Stephen Orr some questions about caring for the African Violets and some common misconceptions of the plant:

African violets have a reputation as being difficult to grow. Is that really the case?

No, they're not hard to grow. In fact, they are hard to kill. The trick is making them happy enough to re-bloom regularly.

How many different types of African violets are there on the market today?
There are hundreds of varieties, with new ones being bred every year. Some of the different types are: Standard (variegated, ruffled, etc.), Miniature, Trailing, Chimeras (with unique color patterns and combinations).

Are African violets related to regular violets?
No, not at all. African violets are tropical plants from East Africa. That's why they make good indoor plants. They would never survive outdoors in most U.S. climates as a normal violet would.

You can buy these plants almost anywhere, including grocery stores and garden centers. What is the best place to buy African violets?
You're right, they are widely available but make sure that they look healthy and well-tended. A good mail-order source that has specialized in African violets for 50 years is called Lyndon Lyon Greenhouses.

What conditions do we need in our homes for African violets?
Simply put, they need strong filtered sunlight and they need some air humidity. Temperatures below 60 degrees F for any extended period will slow their growth. If the temperature is too high, plants will grow sappy and spindly, with too few blooms, that drop before gaining good size. Better a bit cool than too hot. The humidity is best around 40 percent to 60 percent. Humidifiers are great if you have an unusually dry house. Placing your plants on trays of moist pebbles would be a simple solution.

If you don't have enough natural light, can you use a grow light?
If you do not have good natural light, use fluorescent lights 12 hours a day. Cool white, daylight or tubes designed specifically for growing plants may be used alone or in combination. Distance from lights depends upon intensity and the type of tube, as well as the variety of the plant. Light fixtures should be adjustable, so you can raise or lower them to attain the desired height.

How often should we water an African violet?
Water only when the top of the soil feels slightly dry to the touch and every week or so, depending on the season and how dry your home is.

What is the best way to water them?
Improper watering is one of the most common reasons for failure of African violets. Always use room temperature water. Watering may be from the top or bottom. Never allow plants to stand in water after the soil has taken up what it can hold. After 15 to 20 minutes, pour off any water that is left in the saucer. Violets do not like wet feet!

When should you repot an African violet? How do you do it?
A good rule of thumb: the plant's diameter should be 3 times the diameter of the pot before moving up to the next size pot. Repot them the same way you would any plant, except you shouldn't skip pot sizes. (Do not jump plants from a 2-foot pot into a 4-foot pot). They like to be a little pot-bound.

What kind of soil do they need?
They need well-drained soil. Otherwise, they get root rot.

Should we fertilize these plants?
Lack of fertilizer or infrequent fertilizing is one of the reasons for lack of blossoms, blooms small in size and foliage that is pale or light green. Use a well-balanced fertilizer such as 15-30-15 at the rate of 1/4 teaspoon per gallon of water each and every time you water. Do not think because a little fertilizer makes them bloom nicely, more will make them even better! Excess fertilizer will burn the roots and may cause hard, brittle foliage.

What is the biggest mistake people make with African violets?
Most people over-water since the plants like water and humidity. The plants often grow in rocky crevices near rivers in their East African homeland. They like this sort of humid, moist but well-draining situation.

How long will African violets live?
They can live for decades given the proper care and repotting.

Here is a re-cap of Orr's suggestions to help African violets grow strong:

Light: Strong, filtered light or bright shade gives the most bloom, so use sheer curtains in harsh western or eastern exposures. The plants also grow well with artificial grow-lights.

Watering: Always use tepid water, never cold. Watering may be from the top or bottom. Don't leave the pot sitting in water too long or the plant will rot. Pour off excess water that isn't absorbed by the plant after 15 or 20 minutes.

Temperature: An African violet will suffer in anything below 60 degrees F. The best temperature for the plant is 70 degree F. Avoid drafts. Establish humidity for the plants by placing them on wet pebbles. African violets like humid rooms, so a sunny bathroom or kitchen window can work well.

Fertilizer: Well-grown African violets can bloom all year. Use a balanced fertilizer diluted to one-quarter teaspoon per gallon of water each time you irrigate.

Repot: They like to be a little rootbound. In the wild, they grow in soil pockets nestled in rocky areas. When the plant's width is three times the diameter of the pot, it's time to repot. Remove all dead leaves and flowers.

For more Information:

Lyndon Lyon Greenhouses, Inc.
P.O. Box 249
14 Mutchlet Street
Dolgeville, NY 13329

The African Violet Society of America, Inc.
2375 North Street
Beaumont TX, 77702

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