Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

GARDENING: Out of Africa

These violets are the perfect houseplant

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African violets have been gracing our homes since early in the last century. The reason for their popularity is simple -- they are easy to grow and flower almost non-stop.

Their colours range from white, blue and purple to red, coral or pink. Some flowers have bi-coloured petals or different coloured edges and can be single, semi-double or fully double in size. Leaves also show an amazing variety of shadings from light to dark green and from solid greens to streaks of white, pink or tan. Plants range in size from micro-minis, minis, and semi-minis to standards and trailers.

Propagation couldn't be simpler -- just snap off a leaf, root it in water or a damp potting mixture and in short order you will have a plantlet that's identical to the mother plant. By following a few pointers you can have these cheerful plants blooming in your home.

The growing medium should be light in texture and well draining. Most violets grow in regions with a shallow soil depth, mostly made of leaf litter. Whatever soil mixture you use should contain plenty of perlite, vermiculite and peat moss. This allows water to run through easily and ensures the roots are surrounded by air.

Most plants are killed by being kept too wet. Plants can withstand a certain amount of drought but will perish quickly from overwatering. Keep the soil moist, not wet, and let it dry slightly before the next watering. It's better to have frequent light watering than one drenching. Water should be room temperature or slightly warm from the tap. Cold water will shock the roots and can cause spotting on the leaves.

African violets take very well to wick-watering or self-watering pots. This method provides a steady supply of water and nutrients when fertilizer is added to the water. The one downside to this method is the possibility of overwatering. To avoid this it is extremely important the soil mixture used is very porous. Plants grown this way still need to be repotted on a regular basis to provide fresh growing material and to avoid a build up of fertilizer in the soil.

Plants can be watered from the top or the bottom. If your plant pot is sitting in a saucer or some other container, make sure to empty any remaining water after a short period of time or you risk root rot.

Since their natural growing area is dappled shade high in the mountains of Tanzania, African violets can't withstand direct, hot sun. Bright, diffused light or artificial light is best. If growing in a window, make it an east or shaded south or west one. Morning or late afternoon light is best, not the middle of the day or scorching sun. About 12 hours of light per day is optimal as plants also need a period of darkness.

Feast and famine feeding in not good for any living thing. A well-balanced 10-10-10 or 20-20-20 fertilizer used at quarter to half strength at every watering is the best method. About once a month, use plain, unfertilized water to flush out excess fertilizer salts. Bloom boosters are not normally needed unless you are bringing your plants into flower for a show. It's always better to under-feed, rather than over-feed, your plants.

Indoor temperatures ranging anywhere from 15 C to 26 C (60 F to 80 F) are best with the optimal temperature being 21 C (70 F). A slight drop in nighttime temperatures is fine.

Repot on a regular basis. If the pot is too small move up by one size only. Shallow, wide pots are better than deep ones as most roots grow outward rather than downward. Pots that are too big or deep stay wet longer than they should and this promotes root rot. While clay pots can look attractive they aren't necessarily the best. Clay can dry the soil out quickly and roots become stuck to the sides, making repotting difficult. While plastic pots don't breath like clay ones, they are easily cleaned and sterilized. Plastic containers are more easily over watered than clay but if your soil is light enough there should be no problem.

When you re-pot, gently shake off a little of the existing soil and then add some fresh soil. If your plant has developed a bare main stem from the normal die off of the bottom leaves, simply slice off a portion of the bottom section of soil and roots. When you drop the plant back into the pot it will now sit lower down and new soil can be added to cover up the bare stem. Eventually new roots will develop along the length of the freshly buried stem.

Debris left on the plant or soil can attract insects and breed diseases like mould and fungus. Remove dead blooms and leaves as soon as possible. Soak pots and utensils in a mild bleach and water solution. If using a knife or tweezers on your plant, dip it in the bleach solution before moving on to the next plant. This will cut down on any chance of transferring diseases between plants.

Never add a new plant to your collection without keeping it in a separate location for a least a few days. It's much easier to treat one plant for bugs or disease than your entire collection.

The leaves of African violets are covered in fine hairs. This makes them soft to the touch but also a great dust magnet. Use a very soft make-up brush to clean the leaves by cupping them with one hand and brushing in the same direction as the hairs.

Violet plants also like a nice warm bath occasionally. Most people believe the old myth that African violets will just drop dead at the first hint of water on their leaves. Do you think African violets in the wild never get rained on? You can use a spray bottle filled with warm water or hold the plant under a gentle stream of water at the sink to rinse off the leaves.

Give the plant a little shake to get rid of excess water and let it sit on the counter to dry. It's best to do this early in the day so the plant is not wet overnight.

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Plants that are best-suited for long-term indoor display should exhibit a pleasing form and texture and be able to thrive in our dry indoor environment during the winter months. African violets are ideal houseplants in cold climates.

Members of the genus saintpaulia, African violets are named in honour of Baron Walter von Saint Paul-Illaire, who discovered the plants growing in Tanzania in the late 1800s. Their almost year-round blooms come in an endless array of colours and petal shapes thanks to the vast number of cultivars available today.

African violets are even suitable for dimly lit spaces where natural light may be insufficient for healthy growth just by adding artificial lighting, such as fluorescent lights.

African violets, with their velvety, spoon-shaped foliage, are considered to be the world's most popular plant -- a fact exemplified by the numerous African violet clubs and societies across North America. In Canada, the African Violet Society has 16 local affiliate societies and holds an annual convention and show each spring where accredited judges award highly sought after ribbons and prizes.

Today's contributor is Bonnie Batchelor, president of the Winnipeg Chapter of the African Violet Society.

The Winnipeg African Violet Society (WAVS) meets at 8 p.m. on the fourth Monday of March, April, May, September, October and November at 400 Stradbrook St. Membership is only $6. For more details, email blbatchelor@hotmail.com.

***

Mark your calendar for the sixth annual Gardening Saturday Tradeshow and Educational Symposium, March 23 at the Canadian Mennonite University, 500 Shaftesbury Blvd. Featuring 80 exhibitors, floral displays, demonstrations, workshops and Food Market. Online registration now available. Visit www.gardensmanitoba.com

-- Colleen Zacharias

gardenfundamentals@gmail.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 16, 2013 F11

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