Growing African Violets My Way

African violet on an end table

Summary: “African Violets My Way” comes from the personal growing experiences of Evelyn Pelt… a long time grower of the wonderful house plants. This is one way I have gained so much knowledge in learning how to grow all types of plants… enjoy.

In the most enjoyable place in my house, my home office-plant room, the windows are filled with African-violets. They are arranged in a decorative manner and are on view all the time. My way is to have African-violets right in front of me most of the time.

Though it is only 11 by 13 feet and has a northeast exposure, my plant room has the look of a little greenhouse and serves almost the same purpose. I enjoy it and so also do visitors who, I notice, always glance appreciatively at my plants.

I sympathize with plant collectors who grow a tremendous number of varieties, which they place in every available window and later, as a last resort, take to the downstairs game room, where their hobby need know no bounds. But there is such a thing, I believe, as having too many plants. Multiplicity and multitasking can become a curse; African-violets are just too lovely to hide or jam together for the sake of having a lot.

Last winter I set up new window gardens in a room decorated particularly for my African-violets. As a background I chose a wallpaper of white blocks set off by a vine pattern. Botanically, the paper is incorrect, for the vine has wisteria leaves and trumpet-vine flowers that are purple. However, it suits my African-violets to a “T”, picking up their glowing blue and purple tones and thus enhancing their beauty – as if that were indeed necessary. The rug is soft leaf-green.

The room originally had only two windows, but recently I had two more put in, one on either side of the single east window. Here I have a 12-inch shelf 10 feet long that holds three galvanized iron pebble trays, each 10-1/2 inches wide, 34 inches long and 1 inch deep. Below, at the sides of the shelf, are cabinets to hold my files of plant magazines, nursery catalogs and also the inevitable African-violet supplies.

The two side windows in the set of three are fitted with glass shelves (the center window is kept unobstructed so I can see out). The lowest shelf, extending only halfway across the window, is 16 inches long; it hangs 14 inches above the trays, thereby leaving ample room for the plants below. The middle shelf, extending from the latch strip, is 31 inches long as is the third shelf also. The shelves vary in width, the lowest being 6 inches, the middle one 8 inches and the top one only 5 inches.

At one side of the windows hangs a great pink pot of exuberant grape-ivy. On the other side is a three-sectioned, cast-iron bracket, which once held oil lamps but now holds three of my pet trailing African-violets. I do delight in these rangy varieties descended from Saintpaulia grotei, but they need room to wander.

At the end of the room a north window, which is brightened by light reflected from a white garage wall, holds three more glass shelves. Also, at the window level there is a white, double-decker, wire plant stand mounted on casters. It is easy to roll the stand to sunnier quarters when very dark winter days become too frequent. The plant stand is fitted also with pebble trays, which I fill with water. In this small room the atmosphere is being constantly humidified by the evaporation of water which just barely covers the stones in the trays.

In my plant room there are neither curtains nor draperies, the African-violets being embroidery enough; and the windows do not look bare. In summer the big window has an awning, which I raise and lower as often as the strength of the eastern sun dictates. At the north window no shading is required; usually in the summer I move the plants from the shelves to a big stand on the porch, where they can be enjoyed by everybody.

Incidentally, I find that it is not necessary to remove the shelves in summer. Enough ventilation is provided by the north window, which can be opened a little without breaking the glass shelves, and the unobstructed center window.

The plants for my window garden had to be shipped in December, for the room wasn’t ready until then. However, the precautions taken by my good plant growing friends, resulted in the safe arrival of every one. It took me fifteen minutes to unwrap each plant. While I was thus happily engaged, the painter came into the kitchen. Like everyone else, he had his two cents’ worth to put in and, seeing the plants that I was unpacking, said, “Lady, you’ve got to be a doctor to grow those things!”

You don’t have to be a doctor to grow African-violets, of course. It is a help though, to know about their brand of preventive medicine. Given proper con-ditions… and they are very definite con-ditions, let’s admit it – saintpaulias won’t require doctoring. However, they, more than other house plants, are dependent on regular care. And when they aren’t comfortable, African-violets will start to sulk sooner and do it more obviously than any plants I’ve ever known.

Before the window was put up on the north side, the plants complained vociferously of the cold. In January they complained loudly of the poor light, showing their indignation by elongating their leaf stems. Having no fluorescent fixtures in my little “growing” room, I had to make do with a lamp fitted with a 150-watt bulb. I turned this on for six hours a day (starting from 4 P.M. on the darker days), letting the light fall directly on the plant stand. This supplementary light helped some, but not as much as did moving the stand to a brighter, southern window in the living room.

At a north window, if there’s not full light, a little winter sunshine and warmth to 72°, your African-violets and, for that matter, any other plants are not going to have a lot of flowers. But if a northern exposure is what you have, use it, adding to it a fluorescent light if you wish, to see your plants through the dark days.

Sterilized soil is an absolute must. Today it is easy to buy bagged soil in small quantities or, if you need a lot, you can sterilize the soil yourself by baking it for an hour in an oven set at 180°. After the soil cools, stir it to aerate it; then wait three days before using it. I just wouldn’t attempt to grow saintpaulias in soil that wasn’t sterile.

Then, there is the matter of watering. Once, when I had to refuse a weekend away because I had made no provisions for having my African-violets watered, my friend said, “Oh, I water mine only every other day.” Now that’s smart if you can manage it, but I find that I must examine my plants every day; sometimes they need water and sometimes they don’t. Perhaps I pamper them too much, but the same plants never seem to need water on the same day. They just won’t go according to schedule. Heat, sun and their own conditions of growth and flowering are the variables they respond to.

african violet pink bloomer

Another reason I have to inspect my plants so often is that some are growing in 2-1/2 -inch pots and some in demitasse cups. If you’ve never grown African-violets in these diminutive cups, I hope you’ll try these most decorative containers. I can’t imagine anything prettier than the sweet, double-flowered, white-edged African Violet for instance, in a demitasse cup with a faint “grey lace” pattern. As soon as I am able to buy more cups like the ones I have, I’ll grow more African-violets this way. These cups, which are just right, are 2-1/2 inches deep and slightly less than 2-1/2 inches across the top. For drainage I add half an inch of small gravel to the bottom of each cup.

The petioles of African-violets growing in China cups or plastic pots are not as inclined to rot as those growing in clay pots. In 3-inch green plastic pots, which rest in plastic saucers, I have numerous ones all doing very well. Plants growing in the cups or the plastic pots need to be watered only about every third day (but to be sure the plants need water, feel the soil between the fingers to see if it’s dry).

Wick Fed Pots

I also grow African-violets in wick-fed pots, which are well designed and convenient. Before refilling the saucer reservoirs of these pots, I take care to let the soil really dry out. Sometimes I water these pots from the top to carry the fertilizer salts away from the soil surface. The plants set on pebble trays and those growing in wick-fed pots are the easiest to leave unwatched for a few days.

When I water the tray plants, I add water until the pebbles are just barely covered. Then the plants can draw up what moisture they require. After a few hours the water level ought to be no higher than the bottoms of the pots. (And don’t laugh, but when I’ve flooded the trays, as I’ve sometimes done, I’ve been crazy enough to use a baster to draw off the excess water. I know that it would evaporate in time, but meanwhile it worries me to see the plants standing in it for so long.)

Room Temperature Water

It goes without saying that the water used for African-violets must be of room temperature or tepid, as for a baby’s bath. On a low bookcase shelf I always keep a watering pot filled with water; thus I always have water on hand that is the correct temperature. When I need more water that must be taken from the faucet, I always make sure it is lukewarm. Water used to syringe the African-violet foliage or to dilute an insecticide should also be lukewarm.

The plants can be watered from the top or the bottom; either is all right; however, it’s difficult to water the little pots for the foliage soon gets so dense that it is hard to find an opening through which the water can be applied. However, occasionally I like to water the plants from above so that fertilizer salts don’t collect on top of the soil.

Saucer watering is probably the simplest method. My three trailing African-violets stand in deep glass saucers. Every morning I pour a little water in each saucer, and if it isn’t gone by noon, I pour it off, knowing that I have applied too much. Indeed, I think that we all tend to overwater plants. I know I do. And the reason, I suppose, is that watering African-violets is such fun!

Groups of African-violets in shallow bowls or planters add greater variety to the window garden than rows and rows of pots. The planter I put on one of the half shelves catches everybody’s eye. I especially like the cup plantings, for they too are attention-getters. Placed on the top shelves, they lighten the heaviness of the wider shelves below. I also use the planter or specimens growing in cups as table centerpieces; A “blue flowered variety” is the perfect accent for a lavender and silver-striped luncheon set, and the pink varieties look charming with squares of rose linen.

I’m not enthusiastic about large plants, and even the big ones must be content for a long while to grow in a 3-inch pot. To keep my African-violets in scale with their small pots and also with the window garden, I frequently remove some of their outer leaves. Of course, I am not growing exhibition plants which must have perfect whorls of leaves positioned exactly. The way I remove foliage from my African-violets might even be termed mutilation by exhibitor’s standards. Great exhibition plants can be handsome indeed. However, to obtain a plant with a 2-foot spread, you must have an area somewhat more than 2 feet across to grow it in, and lots of us can’t spare that much room.

When plants develop multiple crowns and become quite large, they seem to be asking to be divided or at least to be given bigger quarters. But this request I do not accept. I try to detect multiple crowns early enough so that I can cut them off without scarring the plants. I want bloom from my plants, not a lot of fat foliage.

To promote flowering, I apply a liquid plant food to my African-violets each week. I have found that it’s a good plan to alternate the materials so as to vary the plants’ diet. During dull winter days, when my plants are not being helped along with artificial lights, I do not try to stimulate them to bloom; this would be asking too much. But when the plants have good light, I demand good performance from them and so feed them accordingly. My African-violets are mighty pretty right now.

An African-violet’s condition is evidence as to whether or not it is getting enough light or sun. Usually full winter sun isn’t too strong, though it can be if it is intensified by brilliant reflections from the snow. Last winter I returned one evening to find many of my pale varieties either freckled or frankly sunburned.

african violet soft lavender blooming

The timeworn advice that African-violets need shade is, generally speaking, wrong. When I’m shown plants that won’t bloom, I usually discover that they were:

(1) not at a window,
(2) standing in water or
(3) so thickly covered with multiple crowns that a flowering stem couldn’t fight its way through the foliage.

An agreeable aspect of growing saintpaulias is that they like the same atmosphere we do. It should be about 70° to 72°. They can stand it a little cooler and don’t mind it somewhat warmer. I am amazed at the wide temperature variation that the plants endure with equanimity. Sometimes the temperature has varied from 60° to 75°. A drop of 10° at night, as occurs outdoors when the sun goes down, is preferable to maintaining the steady heat of the day. Saintpaulias also want a fresh atmosphere. Except on cold days I lower the middle window about an inch or so from the top in the morning and again in the mid-afternoon. Such a small room as mine can get stuffy, and both the African-violets and I need plenty of fresh air.

I too would not know much about insects and diseases if I hadn’t learned about most of them elsewhere than in my own window gar-den. Only petiole rot has occurred on my plants. The house-plant which I keep indoors run on a clean ship… I only spray my other foliage plants.

In my windows I have some plants other than African-violets because I like fragrance; if saintpaulias have a fault, it is that they are scentless. Heliotrope, jasmine, narcissus, hyacinth and sweet-leaved geraniums appeal to me because of their fragrance. Amazingly enough, all grow happily with my African-violets. And the occasional aphids which escape my eagle eye and clamber over the geraniums, heliotrope, narcissus and other plants fortunately do not stray to my African-violets.


Let’s all spread the word that African-violets are actually easy to grow. With full light, sterile soil, room-temperature water, sufficient heat and ventilation they are bound to thrive. Without these basic environmental conditions, African-violets aren’t difficult to grow, they’re impossible!

No, you don’t need to be a doctor to grow saintpaulias, but the practice of preventive medicine – their kind – is essential. And if you have healthy plants, by all means grow some of them my way – where they can be seen and enjoyed. Everybody likes to look at African-violets!

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