African violets are the sweetest houseplants! I especially love them in the winter, when they bring perky foliage (when healthy!) and pretty floral color to the indoors. They are the teensiest bit finicky, but with a little know-how and TLC you can keep them blooming year round. Here’s how:
I have three African violets sitting on my desk right now—not because there’s plenty of room on my desk, but because it’s the best place in the house, light-wise for them. (They do make me happy when I work!) African violets like medium to bright indirect light. A south windowsill with no filter might result in burnt leaves. (My desk faces south, but it has a sheer curtain to filter the light, and I keep them a couple of feet from the window.) Bright east or west windows often work well, too.
You can also grow African violets under fluorescent or LED lights. When growing under lights, keep in mind that they need 16 hours of light each day, followed by 8 hours of dark.
If the leaves of your plant are becoming bleached light, it means the plant is getting too much light. Very dark and leggy (elongated) stems mean the plant needs more light.
To help your plants grow evenly around, turn them occasionally. I do this whenever I water.
African violets like comfortable indoor temps, about the same as we do—between 65 and 75 degrees. Also, like most of us, they don’t like drafts!
African violets have shallow roots, and they bloom best if slightly root-bound, so keep them in small pots. Experts recommend repotting in new soil each spring or earlier if the plant outgrows its pot—by developing multiple crowns (those sideshoots or suckers), for example. Those little crowns take energy from the main plant, so give them their own pots—even if you’ll need to give them away because of space limitations. You want that energy to go into blooms!
One more thing about pots: Make sure the pot you choose has drainage holes. Root rot happens quickly to African violets when they sit in too much water!
Use a loose potting mix to provide good drainage. African violets also like lots of organic matter. You can purchase soil made especially for African violets, or you can make your own using equal parts potting soil, peat moss, and perlite or vermiculite. I’ve also had good luck with basic, good quality, organic indoor potting mixes.
Try to keep the soil slightly moist. Not soggy, but don’t let it get completely dried out, either.
Water your plants with room-temperature (or even a bit warmer) water. Be careful not to splash water on the leaves, or it may leave ugly spots, especially if the water is cool. Here are options for watering the soil while keeping the leaves dry:
• Water from the top, but use a watering can with a long, slender spout. The spout will help you direct the water onto the soil and not splatter on the leaves.
• Fill a saucer with water and set the pot in it. Let the soil soak up the water until it’s just moist, then remove. (You want the soil to get damp but not soggy—root rot is a danger for African violets in particular.)
I have only had good luck with this method when using terra cotta pots, which help absorb the water up into the soil. A hole in a glazed ceramic or plastic pot, I’ve found, isn’t enough to get the soil wet up to the roots. At least not in what I consider a reasonable amount of time. To speed the process, a planter wick can be placed in the bottom of the pot. This is simply a fabric string that runs from inside the pot out the bottom and into the water. It serves to wick the water up into the pot.
• Use a specially made African violet pot. These are basically an outer pot/inner pot combination. To water, remove the inner pot (containing the African violet) and place water in the outer pot. Replace the inner pot. The soil will absorb water from the outer pot. (Some African violet pots have wicks, too.) As soon as the soil is moist, take out the inner pot, dump the water, and replace the inner pot.
African violets bloom best with good humidity, ideally about 50 percent. Your home isn’t likely to be this humid, especially in the winter. Keeping your African violets close to one another can help boost the humidity around them. They also enjoy being placed in saucers or trays full of moist pebbles. Water the pebbles, but don’t let the water level reach the plant pot.
When it comes to African violet food, don’t overdo! Violets will be damaged more by too much fertilizer than they will by too little.
Experts recommend fertilizing every couple of weeks during spring and summer. I had a friend who fertilized all of her houseplants with a weakened fertilizer solution (say one-quarter strength) every week. And her plants bloomed year round. If your African violets are not flowering well or if your African violet leaves are turning yellow, they may fare better with more fertilizer.
Choose a fertilizer high in phosphorus. Phosphorus is the middle number in the fertilizer ratio. For example, 10-30-20 fertilizer has a phosphorus number of 30, higher than the other two ingredients, nitrogen (10) and potassium (20). You can find fertilizers especially made for African violets, or you can make your own.
Those fuzzy leaves can accumulate dirt and dust, but they don’t like to get wet. Brush them off with a soft brush. A makeup brush or a small, soft paintbrush work well; a toothbrush is too stiff.
Yes, indoor plants need deadheading just like your flowers outdoors. Simply pinch or snip with sharp scissors any blooms that are past their prime, and the plant can give that energy to growing more flowers for you.
How to propagate African violets
Growing more African violets from your current plant is easy. Here are two good options:
• Cut a leaf with about an inch-long stem attached. Place the stem in damp, sterile potting mix in a little pot. There’s no need to put it in water to root it first. In fact, African violets will develop stronger roots if you plant it directly in soil, or in a growing medium such as vermiculite, sphagnum moss, or perlite. If you like, you can dip it in some rooting hormone powder first, but it’s not necessary.
To provide extra humidity, you can put the little pot in a clear plastic bag. Place the pot in a bright window, but not in direct sun. You can also propagate several leaves at a time in one larger, shallow container. After a few months, the leaf will sprout baby plants. Repot those babies in their own little pots.
• When the plant grows new crowns, take the whole plant out of its pot, separate the crowns, and plant them in their own pots. While you’re at it, give the mama plant some new soil, too.
If you do this often, you’ll wind up with plenty of plants—for yourself and for gifting!