African Violet Culture

Here we hope you will find information to help you grow beautiful Violets.  Below are specific topics you can choose from as well as general care information.


Identifying bloom and leaf types

African Violet Care

Soil – African Violets have very fine root systems, so they are easily drowned.  They require a lot of oxygen around the roots to remain healthy.  The most common cause of death in AV’s is root or crown rot caused by over-watering; these are caused by too wet conditions which allow a fungal disease to rot the roots or progress up the main stem, killing the plant.  Crown and root rot symptoms often mimic the symptoms of a plant which needs watered—drooping, dull leaves.  This is because the roots are dying and are not able to absorb water.  Often the grower will then water the plant more, thinking it is thirsty—this just speeds the death by drowning.

“African Violet Soil”, commonly sold in garden centers and discount stores, is comprised mostly of peat and is far too heavy for the home grower who does not have commercial greenhouse conditions.  Most cases of crown and root rot occur in this type of ‘soil’.  The easiest way to avoid this problem is to amend your soil.  A good, common recipe for AV soil-less mix is what is called the “1-1-1” recipe:  1 part good quality sphagnum peat moss, 1 part horticultural vermiculite, and 1 part perlite.  This mix provides no nutritional value so you will need to fertilize.  This will be discussed later.  The peat and vermiculite will absorb water, keeping the mix moist.  The vermiculite and perlite, because they are shaped in little chunks, provide many little spaces for oxygen to circulate around the roots, greatly reducing the chances of the roots rotting.  Every grower will have different conditions in their home so you should experiment with the recipe to find the best ratio that will work for you.

Light – African Violets require bright, indirect light for approximately 12 hours a day.  East facing windows can be optimum but other windows can be adapted as well.  Direct light is usually too strong for AV’s and can scorch the leaves but if you are limited to growing in a west or south-facing window you can use blinds or sheer curtains to limit the plant’s exposure to direct light.

Many growers find that artificial light is the most practical way for them to grow.  AV’s lend themselves well to this sort of growing because they are so undemanding in their light quality.  AV’s will grow just as well under cheap cool white florescent bulbs—expensive grow bulbs are not required.  An inexpensive way to start is to get a table top light stand or even a full-sized stand at your local Lowes or Home Depot.  Many growers find that the shelf unit commonly carried at these stores (5 shelves high and 4 feet wide) is a terrific way to start.  Inexpensive shop light units fit perfectly on these shelf units.  Standard sized violets prefer two 40W bulbs placed 12 to 14 inches above the foliage.  Miniature varieties prefer the bulbs to be 8 to 10 inches above the foliage.  This is only a guideline—you may find that your AV’s prefer the lights closer or further, depending on variety.  Darker leaf varieties tend to require more light than the lighter leaf varieties.

Fertilizer – If you are using a good quality soil-less mix recipe, you will need to provide food for your AV’s because the mix will not.  Until you have more experience and are up for some experimentation, the safest way to go is to get a good quality balanced fertilizer.  By balanced it means the three numbers in the fertilizer formula are all close to being the same.  The numbers stand for the percentage of Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium, always in that order.  Optimara sells a balanced AV fertilizer with the numbers 20-20-20.  There are other brands as well but a balanced fertilizer will give you both good foliage and good bloom.  AV’s like to be fed every time you water with a weak solution.  If you are wick watering, the fertilizer needs to be diluted to at least half-strength.

Watering – This is the trickiest part of caring for your AV’s.  Too much water and you will drown the delicate root system.  Too little and the plant will survive but not thrive.  AV’s prefer a mix that is evenly moist without being wet, at all times.  It can be tough to provide just the right conditions without a little practice.  There are two basic ways that AV’s can be watered:  at intervals by hand or continually with a wick.

– Watering by hand is probably the most common method of watering for the casual grower.  You can top water by pouring your water into the top of the pot like any other house plant but this will tend to compact your soil.  You can also bottom water by pouring the water into a saucer and allowing the plant to sit in the water for about 15 minutes and absorb the water up through the drainage holes.  Take care not to allow the plant to sit in water too long or you will have the same issues as over-watering.  Allow the soil to dry out slightly (to a depth of an inch or so from the top) before watering again.

– Wick watering (or capillary mat watering) is a method by which water is delivered continually to the mix, never allowing it to dry out and eliminating the need to check your plants and water by hand.  With wick watering, a wick (often nylon string or acrylic yarn) is inserted into the mix through one of the drainage holes in the bottom of the pot.  About 4 inches of string is left dangling out of the pot into a reservoir filled with fertilized water.  The string or yarn will ‘wick’ water up its length and moisten the soil at a steady rate keeping the mix evenly moist at all times.  With capillary mat watering the concept is the same but the pot (with or without a wick) is set onto a moisture retaining material or mat which is kept wet by allowing one end of it to drape into a reservoir of water.  The mix will absorb water from the mat through the drainage holes and keep it moist.  Because AV’s prefer to be evenly moist at all times without the stress of drying out, many growers find that they tend to grow faster using a wicked method of watering.  It is also more carefree and can allow you to leave your AV’s for extended periods of time without worry.

Potting/Repotting – African Violets like to be root-bound before they will produce good foliage and bloom.  The rule of thumb for potting your AV’s is that the pot size should be 1/3 the size of the plant.  This seems small compared to how we normally pot our houseplants but your AV will thank you for putting it in the correct size pot.  Measure your AV from the tip of one leaf across the plant to the tip of the one on the opposite side.  If your plant is 9 inches across, it should be in a 3 inch diameter pot.  If your plant is only 5 inches across (a baby standard or a miniature variety) the largest size you should put it in is a 2 inch pot.  AV’s prefer pots that are wider than they are tall.  These pots are commonly called tub pots or azalea pots.

Your AV will reward you will great foliage and bloom if you repot it regularly.  Standards should be repotted every 6 months to a year and minis and semi-minis should be repotted every 4 to 6 months.  This will remove any built up fertilizer salts that remain in the soil and will stimulate root growth which will in turn stimulate foliage growth.  Treat the roots gently when you repot (if you are using a light mix amended with vermiculite and perlite it is easier to gently remove it than compacted peat).  If your plant suffers from some repotting shock (droopy leaves) seal it in a plastic baggie for a few days.  The extra humidity will help perk it up again.

Pests – Unfortunately it’s almost impossible for any avid AV grower to completely avoid all pest problems.  The most important thing you can do for your collection is to isolate any new plants for at least 3 months before introducing them into your collection.  If you absolutely do not have another room or window sill you can keep the new plants on, at least keep them sealed in a baggie for the required time.  It is better to have a little inconvenience than to find that your entire collection has been infested by a pest brought in by a new arrival.  Here are some of the most common pests of AV’s

– Thrips- this is both the singular and plural form of the word.  Thrips feed on the pollen of AV’s and when that is not available will feed on the green plant material.  Thrips are very small but can be seen with the naked eye.  They are long and thin and can be seen moving quickly on the surface of the bloom.  Often the first sign that you have thrips is a ‘pollen spill’ on the face of the bloom.  Because the thrips are feeding on the pollen it will often spill out of the anthers and onto the bloom.  Thrips are very common outdoors and can easily be brought indoors on your clothes or on any cut flowers brought into the house.  Thrips can cause distorted blooms and leave brown trails on foliage.  Thrips can be eradicated by mixing ½ tsp of RID lice shampoo in one quart of warm water in a sprayer.  Disbud the plant (thereby removing the thrips’ food) and spray all surfaces of the plant and into the surface of the soil where they lay their eggs.  Repeat once a week for 3 to 4 weeks.

– Mites- cyclamen and broad mites are the most common mites to be found on AV’s.  Mites cannot be seen with the naked eye and need at least 20X magnification to be seen.  Mites feed on the tender new growth in the center of the plant.  Mite damage can appear as stunted, distorted center leaves, distorted blooms, and tan-colored center leaves that are hairier than normal.  Mites can only be successfully eradicated with a proven miticide and you should only use one that is proven not to damage AV’s.  Both Avid and Kelthane are commonly used miticides for AV’s.  With both you would need to either dip the plant or carefully spray all surfaces once a week for 3 to 4 weeks, following the mixing directions on the miticide.

– Soil Mealie Bugs- these are soft-bodied white ‘rice-like’ insects that feed on your AV’s root system.  These can be seen with the naked eye but are difficult to pick out because they often blend with little bits of perlite in your mix.  Soil mealies leave a white web-like material among the roots, along the sides of the pot, and often down the wick and into the reservoir if you wick water.  One common way of killing soil mealies is by using a systemic called Marathon, which is mixed into the soil and lightly watered in.  It is supposed to completely eradicate the infestation in one application if done correctly.

Some General Tips and Tricks

– It is a myth that AV’s do not like their leaves to get wet.  In fact, your AV will love you if you occasionally give it a bath under tepid gently running water to remove any dust and dirt build up.  Take care not to get water into the center of the crown (the growing point where the new foliage emerges) as it can rot the crown.  If you get water into the center simply take the edge of a paper towel and sop up any water that might have gotten in.  Do not put the plant back into the window or under the lights until it is dry.  Water drops on the leaves will magnify the light from the sun and become little magnifying glasses, burning the leaves.  This is one of the reasons for the myth.

– Groom your plants regularly; they will thank you for it.  Generally you will find that most bloomstalks come from the first three rows of leaves.  To stimulate growth, remove older outer leaves so that your plant doesn’t have to support them with nutrients.  Your plant will put its energy into more blooms and foliage.  Remove any spent blooms or dying outer leaves so that there is no rotting plant material to promote fungal growth.  Also remove all suckers (a new plant growing where a bloomstalk would normally grow) promptly–they compete with the parent plant for light and nutrients.

– If your plant is putting up a large flush of bloom but lacks good foliage, try disbudding.  If you disbud your plant for a month or two it will put all of its energy into foliage growth.  It will also generally put out a larger flush of bloom when you stop disbudding (this can be timed for show or if you just have a special even coming up and would like a nice plant to show your friends).