How to grow African Violets and Other Gesneriads
African Violets and Other Gesneriads are one of the most popular indoor houseplants. They can bloom all year long, and come in an abundance of colors, sizes, and types. Other gesneriads such as episcias, chiritas, streptocarpus, gloxinias, and sinningias to name a few, have different blooming characteristics, and are also exciting to grow. Treat these other gesneriads as you would any African violet, giving them similar care.
African violets are easy to grow and are very forgiving to the amateur horticulturist. Their needs are simple and easily met. With proper light, feeding, watering, temperature and soil, they will reward you with a profusion of colorful blooms.
Adequate light is one of the most important factors in promoting African violet blossoms. Place the plants near any window that has bright, but filtered, light. A word of caution: too much direct sunlight can burn the foliage. African violets will also do well under fluorescent lights. If you are using a light stand, use double tube fixtures and run the lights for about 12 to 14 hours a day, placing the plants so the foliage is about 8 to 10 inches below the tubes. If you have a cubical in an office that is illuminated by fluorescent lights, you may put your plants on top of the partitions.
Lack of fertilizer or feeding too infrequently is one of the principal reasons for failure to bloom. Mix a commercial African violet fertilizer at a quarter the amount called for in the manufacturer’s instructions. If the directions call for 1 teaspoon per gallon of water, reduce the amount to 1/4 teaspoon per gallon. African violet fertilizers typically contain 12-36-14 parts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium that is optimum. Any well-balanced fertilizer will do, but avoid fertilizers with high urea nitrogen content. Read the label and be consistent in your fertilizing regiment from week to week.
Over-watering is perhaps the easiest way to kill an African violet. They will tolerate drought better than being left to stand in a saucer of water to rot. You may water from the top, the bottom, by wicking or matting. Use room temperature water when the top of the soil feels dry to the touch. Watering once a week is usually sufficient. Reverse osmosis units or rainwater are fine sources of water for your plants. If your house has a water softening system, do NOT use tap water on your plants. The added salts in the water will damage and most likely kill them. Use untreated water obtained from an outdoor spigot that is usually bypassed from the water softening system, but check.
The ideal temperature to maintain for optimal growing conditions is from 60 to 80 degrees F. Generally speaking, if you are comfortable your plants should thrive. Fresh air with gentle circulation (a ceiling fan works nicely and inhibits powdery mildew), and humidity of 40 to 60 percent is ideal. Variegated varieties often require cooler temperatures to maintain their variegation and do well on the bottom shelf of the plant stand where it is cooler.
Most of the potting mixes sold today for African violets are composed primarily of peat moss, perlite, and vermiculite and are technically soil-less. Natural soil is generally too heavy for delicate, fibrous-rooted plants like African violets. You may choose a commercial soil-less mix and amend it by adding other materials to better suit your potting needs. Below are a few soil recipes from award-winning growers.
Hortense Pittman’s Texas formula: 5 gallons sterilized fine peat moss, 5 gallons coarse horticultural grade vermiculite, 2 gallons coarse horticultural grade perlite, 1 cup crushed horticultural grade charcoal, 5 quarts of water, 1 teaspoon frittered trace elements, and 1 cup of pulverized dolomite lime.
Marie Burns’ Show mix: 5 gallons Baccto African Violet Soil, 3 gallons coarse horticultural grade perlite, 1 gallon sterilized fine peat moss, 2 gallons coarse horticultural grade vermicu lite, 6 cups horticultural grade charcoal, 1 cup dehydrated cow manure, 2 tablespoons Ferban, and 10 tablespoons dolomite lime.
Fisher’s Soil Formula from Canada: 2 quarts sterilized clay loam (garden loam or top soil), 2 quarts perlite, 2 quarts medium or coarse vermiculite; 2 quarts fine chip horticultural charcoal, 8 quarts sphagnum peat moss (screened to remove sticks or buy fine screened). Mix separately the following: 1 cup bone meal, 1 cup calcium carbonate OR dolomite lime powder (not granular), and 1 tablespoon Fermate or Ferbam. Combine the above ingredients with about a half a gallon of water.
A properly groomed African violet is a healthy African violet. Keep dead leaves and faded blossoms removed. With a soft brush, remove any soil particles and other debris, or damp-wipe the foliage with a soft wet sponge. Contrary to popular folklore, the foliage can be washed under a gentle stream of tepid water. Pat away any excess water with a soft sponge or tissue, especially any water that may have collected in the crown of the plant. Allow the plant to dry in a warm draft-free place, away from direct sunlight.
Pest and Diseases
African violets and other gesneriads are very palatable plants and more than 50 species of insects and mites have been known to feed on them. The most common pests are thrips, mealybugs, and mites. It’s advised that you quarantine any new plants for several weeks after purchase and inspect them for pest before adding them to your collection. Many pesticides on the market have not been specifically tested on African violets and may damage your plants. Always read the label to make sure any pesticide can be safely used on African violets, and follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully.
For additional information about African violets, the following websites are recommended:
AFRICAN VIOLET SOCIETY OF AMERICA, INC. http://www.avsa.org
MID-ATLANTIC AFRICAN VIOLET SOCIETY http://www.maavs.org