We've heard it a million times.
That houseplant we have so much trouble growing most likely died because we gave it too much attention. "They thrive on neglect," is the most common way to put it.
My husband says it all the time about his orchid collection. When someone asks how he manages to grow orchids in northeast Ohio and get them to bloom year after year, he says, "I leave them alone."
Well, that may be true for some plants, and even for some people, but I have never found it to be true with African violets. You know what I'm talking about; those plants that we love to bring home and put in our kitchen windows where we can see them every day. We give them water when we're standing at the sink washing dishes and we feed them "blooming plant food" once a month. But they still get covered with spider mites, whitefly and powdery mildew until they are nothing but shriveled up leafless stems with no flowers.
This is what happened to me as a newlywed, anxious to put some color on my windowsills. Sure, I could put out knife-sharp sansevieria (mother-in-law's tongue); or the ever-growing but exceedingly boring dieffenbachia (dumb cane). OK, maybe you like yours, but they don't bloom very well and pretty much just sit there with brown-edged leaves that we cut off only to have what's left turn brown as well.
But the African violet is a different story. We can walk into the garden center and see them in all shades of pink, purple and white. There are variegated varieties and some with candy-cane petals of blue and white, pink and white and even red and white. There are those with smooth blossoms and those with ruffles. And to make it even better, there are tiny miniature plants with tiny miniature flowers and giant plants, those in the trade call "standards" and although I've never grown one, there are even trailing violets that cascade over the edges of their containers.
But I don't care what anyone says, African violets don't thrive on neglect and are perfect for those who like to fuss over their plants on a regular basis.
I propagated my first African violet many years ago when I was a stay-at-home mom and had plenty of time for things like that. I'd read in a houseplant book that it was easy. Just stick a leaf in a pot of sand, put it under a light and keep it moist for about three months. And that's pretty much how long it took. I borrowed an unused grow light from a friend (we won't go into why my friend had a free-standing grow light), and set it up under the cabinets on a kitchen counter. After what seemed like an unreasonable amount of time, one morning I happened to look at the pot of sand with the single leaf sticking halfway out and noticed teeny-tiny leaves poking up all around. They were very small, but could easily be identified as African violets. I was so excited, I called my neighbor to come over and see my accomplishment. She humored me by admiring the baby plants and I knew by her tone that she really couldn't care less, but I didn't care. I had made baby African violets and I was proud.
I don't know what happened to those baby African violets. I don't remember if I planted them in individual pots, gave them away or if they all died. What I do remember though is the day I saw those babies and how I felt when I realized I had successfully grown new plants from just one leaf.
I don't grow African violets now. They are too much bother for me, a busy working woman with many other things going on at this point. But here are some of the tips you might need to know if you don't mind putting in the extra time to grow these lovely little plants.
l African violets prefer a special kind of container. Yes, that's right. We just can't put them in a regular flower pot and expect them to be happy. They are shallow-rooted plants and therefore should be planted in a special African violet container. These containers are about the same width as a regular flower pot, let's say four to six inches in diameter, depending on the plant, but they are not as tall as a regular size container. You can find African violet containers at your garden center.
l Because the container is shallow, it needs a wider, deeper saucer underneath to catch excess water. African violets like to be a little moist, but leaving them sit in water will cause crown rot, the most common reason for African violet demise. Be sure to empty the saucer about an hour after watering to avoid this problem.
l African violets love humidity. If your plants are in a window that is overtop a furnace register, they won't be happy with the dry air. They naturally grow low to the ground beneath taller plants in the rain forest where the air is warm and moist. To keep the humidity up around your plants, place them on a tray of pebbles. Keep warm water in the pebbles so the water can evaporate around your plants.
l Although they like moisture in the air, they don't like it on their fuzzy leaves, so don't water directly from above. There are two ways you can water your plants; either by filling up the saucer and letting the water wick up through the bottom of the pot, or by using a watering can with a long nozzle so you can get under the leaves to water near the crown.
l African violets like light, but not direct light or their delicate leaves will burn. In winter, put them in an east- or north-facing window that has the sunlight filtered through a sheer curtain. In summer, when the sun is higher in the sky, they can be moved further from the light source, but should never be kept in an area where the light is inadequate.
l Feed your plant. All blooming plants need nutrients. There are plenty of good African violet plant fertilizers on the market. Buy one and follow the manufacturer's directions.