Past President of the Lincoln African Violet Society

          I wish I had a dollar for each time somebody has said to me, “My grandmother used to raise them, but I kill them!” African violets are the Queen of houseplants and are actually quite easy to grow, once their needs are met.  Now that our outside flowers are finished for the year, why not try an African violet or two to provide some color for those long days of winter?

          The most common mistake people make when it comes to growing African violets is over watering.  Providing a moist environment for the roots without drowning the plant can be tricky! Success can be achieved by bottom watering, providing the soil mix is light and porous and the correct size pot is used. DO NOT be tempted to use huge decorative containers over 6 inches in diameter.  African violets have a shallow root system and will be susceptible to rot if planted in too large a pot. In all reality, a four inch plastic pot is just about right.

          Always water your African violets from the bottom, using a saucer to hold the fertilized water.  NEVER allow water to stand in the saucer for more than 20 minutes.  A balanced fertilizer such as 15-30-15 or 20-20-20 should be used at each watering, at a one-fourth rate.  For Miracle Gro (15-30-15) or Earl May Water Soluble All Purpose Fertilizer (15-30-15) this is one-fourth tablespoon per gallon of water.  Don’t be tempted to try the “more is better” method of fertilizing.  Your violet will end up with brittle, yellow foliage and damaged blossoms.  Always use tepid water, and avoid splashing the foliage with water.

          Another method is the ceramic self-watering pots found in discount stores. I have seen beautiful plants grown in these.  However, the planting mix must be a least fifty percent perlite to prevent root rot.  The same fertilizer scheme as mentioned earlier can be used with these pots, too.

          `The next important element to consider is light.  “Grow lights” should be placed about 10 inches above the plant. A fluorescent fixture with two “cool white lights” is fine and cheaper than the more expensive “grow lights”. I have mine on a timer so they get 12 hours per day. If you don’t have access to artificial lights, window culture will work fine.  Avoid hot, direct exposures to the sun. Diffused light is best. I have had success in most exposures, but I use a sheer curtain in Southern exposures to prevent leaf scald. If you notice the foliage growing upward instead of lying flat, increase the light. Brittle leaves and tight central growth is a sign of too much light. In winter, be sure to keep your plants away from a cold window as this may damage the foliage and deter blossoms.  Rotate your plants every couple of days to prevent reaching and to promote flat, even growth.

          There are a couple of pests that attack African violets, both being minute and hard to detect until damage is done.  The most common pest is thrips.  These tiny insects feed on pollen, hide among the blossoms, and multiply rapidly. If a blossom has pollen that appears to be “spilled” on it, you can assume thrips are present.  When introducing a new plant to my collection, I remove ALL open blossoms and buds to prevent bringing in thrips to my collection.  You may even want to isolate your new violet from the rest of your collection for a few weeks to be sure no critters are present.

          Another problem insect is the soil mealy bug.  These feed on the root system, and appear as tiny “grains of rice”. A white, cottony mass may be present on the roots as well. These spread and can be present throughout a whole collection before being detected.  Droopy foliage on plants that have plenty of moisture, and/or yellow leaves and stunted growth are all signs of soil mealy bugs.  In most cases, I suggest tossing the entire plant that is infected.  If the plant is a treasured specimen, keep a leaf for propagation.

          You may want to increase your collection by starting new plants from leaf cuttings.  One leaf has the potential to produce over 10 babies, but may only produce one or two.  You need a small pot, and a porous planting mix, such as one that contains equal parts peat, perlite, and vermiculite. First, use only healthy, fresh leaves.  Make a slanted cut on the leaf petiole (stem), leaving one inch to place in the mix. Insert the leaf cutting at an angle in a pot that is about two inches in diameter.  Water the leaf, and be sure the container has a hole for drainage.  Place the cutting in a clear plastic bag, seal, and place in a well lit area.  In about two or three months, small leaves will appear at the base of the mother leaf.  When the leaves on the baby plants reach the size of a nickel, it is time to remove them from the plastic bag and plant them in their own small pots.  I like to use plastic solo cups for this first repotting.  In another two or three months, these plants are ready for a four inch pot.

          African violets should be repotted every eight to twelve months.  This prevents the dreaded “neck” from developing and also gives the roots a fresh mix free of fertilizer salts. Removing outer rows of leaves that have begun to yellow will not hurt your plant.  Eventually these outer leaves lose vigor and begin to fade.  Don’t pull the roots apart when you repot. Just scrape some of the old soil off the top of the root ball, and slice the bottom one-third of the roots away. Fill a clean pot with a small amount of fresh media, and set the remaining root ball on top, filling in until the plant is centered in the pot. Equal parts of peat, perlite, and vermiculite works best for repotting.  Beware of the soil mixes that say “For African Violets”. In many cases they are too heavy and need perlite added to increase drainage. 

          If you have a plant that has developed a “neck”, you can salvage this by scraping the scaly layer off the neck and replanting it in fresh soil. Then place pot and all in a plastic bag for a month until new roots have grown. 

          If you want to learn more about African violets you are welcome to attend a meeting of the Lincoln African Violet Society.  You do not need to be a member to attend. We meet on the second Tuesday of each month at 7:15 p.m., September through June, at Christ United Methodist Church (46th and “A” Street). Enter from the parking lot north of the Church. A pot-luck is served in December and June at a member’s home.

          Our annual Spring Show and sale will be on April 2, 2005, from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. and April 3, 2005, from noon until 5:00 p.m. at the Howard Johnson Motel at 5250 Cornhusker Highway in Lincoln.

          If you have any questions about African violets feel free to call me at (402) 770-2925 or e-mail me at


December 11, 2004