Thursday, August 9, 2012

African Violets Like It Rough

Every once in a while I may stray from a regularly scheduled homestead post.  This may happen because something of importance or irrelevance may have strayed directly into my lap and it's something I know you just gotta know.  It will always be something I know about, or can make fun of, or both.  Otherwise, it would be a complete waste of time. 

So, my wife's parents were by last weekend.  They had just spent a week up at Lake Tahoe with my father-in-law's immediate siblings (it's a BIG family) and were on their way home to the Bay Area.  We're sort of on the way (minor detour) and we always welcome the opportunity to spend some time with them. 

Prior to their Tahoe week, one Aunt and Uncle (in the immediate circle) exchanged vows for their 50th anniversary.  It was a touching ceremony and HUGE family event, bringing the tens of thousands of relatives together from all over the universe for one sweet spanking soiree.

There's a lot of love and laughter in this family I married into, a LOT of family too.  I am sincerely honored to be a part of it, and after thirty-seven years I almost remember some of their names.

There is an African Violet in our guest room that looks exactly like the one below.  Exactly.  Same pot and everything.  Blooms like this a few times a year.  The blooms last for weeks and weeks.

And Mom was dismayed when she saw it because she has this absolutely lovely and healthy African Violet on her kitchen table that never blooms.  So she asked my secret(s) which I shared with her and shall now share with the world, or at least the four or five of you individuals out there who may care.

Besides being an old poop fart and fledgling homesteader, apparently I seem to have garnered an aptitude for African Violets.  Couldn't tell you why.  I also bake cakes.  And change tires, socks and light bulbs.  I do a lot of other things too, some best not mentioned here.  Let's stick with the African Violets.

African Violets like it rough.  My lovely wife came up with that title, and she knows about rough.  Like my beard for instance.  Or how she plays poker.  She's rough about that stuff.

There's a shoot house howdy plethora of extraneous irrelevance out there in space land about these devilish little darlings, a ton of do's and don'ts and whatzits.  Do I have to list them all here?  If I went to every site that had complete waste of time laundry lists of do's and don'ts and listed them it'd be like having to deal with African Violets like they do and I'd probably go insane as if I haven't already anyway.  

It'd be like walking to the store to get a cookie.  I just want a cookie.  Maybe two.  OK, a few bags.

And so the sidewalks and streets are enveloped in a carnival type atmosphere and they are full of all kinds and flavors of variations and nuisances.  And everybody thinks you've got some cookies.  And you don't.  You're on your way to the cookie store. If you had any cookies you wouldn't be going to the store to get some.  How annoying.  

So you finally get to the cookie store and they don't have the kinds of cookies you want, and you have to settle for something else.  Probably with something healthy in it.  Like fruits.  Or vegetables.  Or bugs.  And probably sugar substitutes.

When I want a cookie, I want a cookie with more sugar in it than Bavaria has limes.  I want a cookie that has enough sugar in it to cover Teddy Roosevelt's mustache on Mt Rushmore like snow.  I want enough sugar from that cookie coursing through my veins so that I can't stop dancing like Snoopy on a sunny day.

So when you finally walk out of the store a little person in a rain coat kicks you in the shin and steals all your cookies anyway.   And you never saw it coming. 

I think that sums it all up.

Go to any site about African Violets and they'll have a laundry list of do's and don'ts.  Don't water from above, water from below.  You must have perfect soil mixtures, perfect temperature, perfect light.
Stand up, sit down,  Katmandu.

I suppose some of all this hyperbolic nonsense and grief must work, for them, and that's okay, but a lot of it sure looks like a lot of time-consuming bother to me.  I got a couple acres of a whole bunch of stuff I'm trying to deal with around here every day , I don't have time to massage their leaves and tickle their toes. 

African Violets like it rough, at least mine do.  James Dean rough.  Marlon Brando rough.   The morning after big party rough.

I don't do most of any of the stuff  those African Violet pundits speak of, AND, I do a lot of stuff they say you shouldn't. 

Here's one of our violets.  I think it looks pretty darn happy.

One cool, artistic type thing you can do with them is match the color of the blossoms with the pot it's in, as well as the decor of the room.  Your options are endless since you can pretty much get a violet in any color under the sun.  Blue. Yellow.  Pink.  Magenta.  Purple.  Burgundy.  Violet.  Blended colors.  Single malts.

There's six African Violet's like this in our kitchen greenhouse window, scattered among a few teapots.  Three this color, three a little darker purple.  Different color pots.  My wife's keen decorator eye of course, my keen "smack 'em around" attitude with the greenery.  They're usually all blooming at once, which is really quite lovely.  This is our last bloomer of this go round, as a matter of fact, I just had to split the other five.  They all had from one to three off-shoots, and I now have seven more violets.  (I gave one to Mom.)

If you listen to and believe those other experts, I should have been in a sterilized room, wearing one of them sterilized suits.  Using some sterilized everything.  I should have been humming Brahms or Mozart instead of blasting Eat a Peach by The Allman Brothers.

I simply sat on the back deck step, took them out of the pot and ripped them apart.  I tore 'em up.  Like a phone book, or a canary.  Big time wrestling rough.  Then I juggled them like chain saws and tea pots, all one at a time.  Then the clowns and monkeys showed up and I had to sit down for a while.

They like it rough, like Kathleen Turner "Do me a solid Runkle" rough.  Rough baby rough. 

Seriously (I hope), I dug my fingers in the pots and took out the plants.  They were all still rather adolescent, their root structures only took up about half of the pot.  Once out, I took them apart right at the base
of the plant and top of the root structure, trying to retain as much of the soil as possible around the roots.  Once apart, I put the babies aside and re-planted the originals.  Here they are today:

As I said, pretty much any color under the sun.

You can certainly keep multiple plants in the same pot, it depends on what you're trying to do.  You know, the decorative look, that creative schwung fey sort of thing.  The typical sized decorative African Violet pot
( 4-5" diameter, 4-6" depth) is the perfect size to maintain a single healthy violet for years.  I think it gets a bit crowded after that. 

For one thing, you don't get a nice, fat cluster of blossoms in the center of your plant (like the two at the top of the post).  You get from two to twenty smaller, scattered clusters depending on how many babies have sprouted.   But it depends on your preference.  Period.

You can always toss the multiple plant into a larger pot and let her rip.  I once put a solo pink violet into about a ten inch diameter pot that was about six inches at it's deepest point.  It frolicked in my wife's office in Santa Cruz with a well-lit, indirect, north-westerly, sunny sort of point of view for a couple of years, and responded well to the larger pot.  The leaves would have served Adam and Eve and there was constantly a long lived, large and robust cluster of pink blooms.  Conclusion: A larger pot yields a bigger plant.

Unfortunately, the move to Portland was too much for it.  (OK, you do have to be careful with them sometimes, like when you move them seven hundred miles in early spring.)   Over the Siskiyou Mountains.  Through the rivers and trees.  All that snow.  All those gas fumes.  No potty breaks.
And then it got motion sick...

On the other hand, the violet below also made the journey.  It's the same plant as the first photo.  It thrived on the Central California Coast, where we bought it.  It survived the trip to Portland and did fine up there.  It did not like the journey here to the foothills, a much more arid climate.  It moved three times in four years, or something like that.  I still get confused.   It did one move OK, but the last two kind of beat it up.

When we got to this house it was reduced to stubble.  Like my face most of the time.  Four or five dilapidated leaves.  Hadn't bloomed for a couple of years.  It looked like Stallone does near the end of all his Rocky movies, blind, broken and bloody, and then, some how, some way...

This is the first time this plant has bloomed since moving here in 2009.  This one likes it Rocky rough.  All around the edges. 

I will say this, it took a lot of love, care, and patience to bring it back to this state.  But it's an integral part of the guest room decor and had to be saved.  It currently receives indirect northerly light.  And now...

When I re-pot, I size the root structure (ball) to the interior of the pot, and then fill in potting soil loosely all around it, bottom and sides.  I just use a basic potting soil, nothing special, but definitely one WITHOUT added fertilizers.  If I want to add fertilizer I'll dang do it myself!  I'll shake the pot up, level it out, add some more soil.  Then I'll SATURATE the pot with water. Sprinkle on more soil as it settles.  Hit it again with water, enough to wet the additional soil.  And then let it drain thoroughly.

Obviously, if you do this correctly, water will overflow the attached basin of your designer pot and surely the unattached designer tray.  Plan ahead and don't leave your violet on the marble coffee table in the living room, the mahogany end table in the library or the leather saddle in the master bedroom.  A kitchen sink is a good place.  A bathtub.  A bathroom sink.  Outside is good.  But not in the street.  Stay out of the street.

If you do this outside, like I did, utilize the soft morning light.  Or indirect light.  Or shade.  They can take a little sun, but prolonged exposure to direct sunlight will fry them.  Like toads on acid.   

All right, these are things I definitely now know that are bad for African Violets: direct sunlight, snow, salt water taffy and  tsunamis.  Probably flames.  And being locked in the hall closet for weeks.  I'm certain there's a few others... ya, I just checked my brain, there's about 6000 more.  For the sake of time, sanity and probably national security; any natural disaster is bad plus 5999 other things.

If you do this re-potting and saturation thing (outside) correctly ants will need an ark.  Worms will need scuba gear.  Beetles could surf.  Beach Boys music would waft upon the breeze.  Memories of an incredible  summer in California would flood the perimeter of...wait a minute, where was I?

Once the adults were all properly re-potted, I turned my attention to the babies. Same technique, smaller plastic pots.  They're transients yet.  Anybody need an African Violet? 


This photo was taken at day two.  It's been over a week.  They're all doing fine, all mothers and babies.

They like it rough, like Barbara Streisand in Yentle.

Depending on the plant I'm re-potting, many times I'll give them a dose of Vitamin BI, until today, because when I did my customary research before touting something I discovered several sites stating it's about a 50 year old myth that B1 prevents transplant shock:

The Bottom Line
• Vitamin B-1, aka thiamine, does not reduce transplant shock or stimulate new root growth on
plants outside the laboratory
A nitrogen fertilizer is adequate for transplanting landscape plants; avoid use of “transplant
fertilizers” that contain phosphate
• Healthy plants will synthesize their own thiamine supply
• Healthy soils contain beneficial microbes that synthesize thiamine as well
• Difficult-to-transplant species may be aided by application of auxin-containing products in
addition to nitrogen, but read the label and don’t add unnecessary and potentially harmful
chemicals (this includes organics!)
• Adequate soil moisture is crucial for new root growth; be sure to irrigate new transplants
frequently and use mulch to reduce evaporation

What can I say, this is a voyage of discovery for everyone, including me.  So, I'll probably forgo another purchase of B1 and try something like Blood meal, Cottonseed Meal, PVFS Liquid Fish, Fish Meal, and/or Pelleted Fertilizers, for starters.

Besides fourteen grit sandpaper rough (which would take the shell off an abalone) and treating them like Patrick Willis of the 49ers does to opposing teams, what do I really do to African Violets?

I let them dry between watering.  That's probably the most important thing, and all the pundits will agree.    As a matter of fact, it's better to go long than short.  You'll kill them straight away with too much water.    And then when I do water I saturate them as above.  Tsunami strength saturation.  And I only water them in the morning, which limits any potential mold or mildew.

I also use plant food with every watering, potted plants can't get nutrients any other way.  My in-ground plants, herbs and vegetables all get compost and organic stuff, like fish emulsion and worm tea.  (They will soon be getting a chicken manure swill, currently under development.)

My indoor "ornamental s" all get steroids (plant food), Miracle Grow for some and for the African Violets I've used Schulz's for years.  $5.39 at  Seven drops to a quart of water.  One quart per plant.  Saturate.  Drain.  That's it. 

How often do I water?  When they're dry.  About every 14-18 days (season depending) at the coast and Oregon.  About every 7-10 days here in the Sierra Nevada Foothills.  About every 2 hours if you live in the Sahara desert.

I water from the top.  Sometimes I warm the water from the tap to room temperature or so.  Sometimes I don't, if I feel mean and stuff.  Sometimes I take out my aggressions on my violets.  They like it rough.  Cold water rough.   Kid Shelleen  rough.  (Lee Marvin's Oscar winning performance in Cat Ballou.)

They seem to like that.  The warm water that is.  I will also rinse the leaves off under the faucet with warm water.  All the pundits in the universe will swear that is bad.  They swear it will kill the plant.  Every picture of every violet on this page has been showered.  I swear on a stack of Vonneguts.  

And now a caveat (and maybe part of my secret): we're on a well here without any chlorineIf you rinse the leaves off with chlorinated water you will end up with whitish water spots all over the plant, sort of  like the measles only different.  However, even this vicious attack won't kill your violet.  They like it rough.   Cowardly Lion rough.  Mennen Skin Bracer rough.

Chlorine will evaporate if you leave your full water can outside for a couple days.  (This is what I did when we were on city water.)  If you leave your water can unattended for a couple weeks all the water will probably evaporate too and you'll have to start all over.  Just something to think about.  Here's a couple more ideas on dechlorinating your tap water.

Remember, indirect sunlight.  And feed them.  You can probably keep the plant healthy and alive without steroids, but it's been my experience that those (steroids) will give you blooms.  My Christmas Cacti are the same way.  I stopped feeding them and they stopped blooming.  Started feeding again and wallah, blossoms. I use Schulz's brand of cactus food for them as well,  same formula as for the violets and everything.  I usually get two blooms each year, with each plant exploding in a panorama of color.

That's it.  My secret(s).  Obviously love your plants.  Any plant.  They know.  Love 'em and leave 'em alone.  Let them all dry between watering, it's better to go long than short.  (But not too freaking Sahara Desert long!)  Feed them each time per fertilizer instructions.

Just like your retinas will fry if you stare at the sun, so shall their somewhat fragile bodies burn.

If, after all this, your African Violet still does not bloom I suggest you move it to a new location.  Or shoot it with a gun and start over.  (Move it outside first.)  Or get it out of the closet and onto the kitchen window sill.  The more indirect light they receive the more apt they will be to bloom. 

And if you're never thought about growing an African Violet or other house plant, here's a website and at least one good reason why you might consider it:

"Here's a list of the top ten anti-pollutant indoor house plants rated best by The New
  1. The Feston Rose plant
  2. Devil's Ivy
  3. Phalaenopsis
  4. English Ivy
  5. Parlor Ivy
  6. African Violets
  7. Christmas Cactus
  8. Yellow Goddess
  9. Garlic Vine
  10. Peace Lily
Just because I have an affinity for African Violets and can bake cakes does not mean I'm infallible.  While I also make a mean fruit pie and Tiramisou, I have not yet mastered the piquantness of  a Strawberry Meringue Creme Fondant Souffle. 

I can't seem to be able to grow orchids or miniature roses either.  I kill the roses, straight away.  Every time.  Does not matter what I do, I kill them.

I can keep orchids alive, for years, and even though I feed them (and move them around) I have yet to have one produce a bloom in some ten years of attempts.(Needless to say I have not purchased an orchid for myself for decades.)  Until I can get a gift orchid to bloom our house shall be graced with African Violets.

A Couple African Violet Side Notes (for the serious minded African Violet person)

I will groom my African Violets by removing dead (or dying) blooms or leaves whenever necessary.  Simply get your finger in as close to the stem as possible (without creating catastrophic design) and snap either blossom or leaf right off the stem.

You can also propagate them easily, the most common method is by leaf cutting in spring.  

Any healthy, firm leaf will do. Remove the entire leaf with petiole (leaf stem) by snapping or cutting it off at the stem of the plant and trim the petiole to about 1 to 1 1/2 inches in length. Then make a hole in the growing medium (such as a half sand, half vermiculite mix) with a pencil, insert the leaf stem into the hole, and water thoroughly. According to Jones and Conover, (alias Smith and Jones) roots normally appear at the petiole base in 3 to 4 weeks under good conditions and leaves of the new plants appear at the medium surface 3 to 4 weeks after root formation. In two to six months, young plants start from the bases of the stalks, which you'll be able to repot once they've formed two to three leaves. 

Read more: African Violets | Garden Guides