Struggle with houseplants? Give African violets a try

African violets, with their prolific blooms, are easy houseplants to grow. (Susan Mulvihill)
African violets, with their prolific blooms, are easy houseplants to grow. (Susan Mulvihill)

While it’s true that I have quite a few houseplants, it’s fair to say that my strengths lie in growing plants outdoors. Give me a vegetable plant or a perennial and I’m good to go.

Give me a houseplant – well, I’m not always successful at getting them to thrive.

So you can imagine my delight in discovering how easy it is to grow African violets and to keep them blooming year-round. I’ve even started my own plants from cuttings.

I was given my first African violet as a birthday gift from co-workers way back in 1987. It has bloomed almost nonstop since then.

Barbara Pleasant, author of “The Complete Houseplant Survival Manual” (Storey Publishing, 366 pages, $24.95), writes “The cheery blossoms and downy leaves of African violets have won them the number one spot among flowering houseplants, and they are quite easy to grow.”

I couldn’t agree more. If you address their simple needs, they will bloom for months at a time, brightening up any room in the house.

African violets, or Saintpaulia hybrids, originated in Central Africa. Full-size plants can grow as large as 16 inches in diameter while miniature violets are less than 6 inches in diameter. The colors of their blooms range from pink to blue, purple, white and red. The blossoms can be single, double, ruffled or fringed and there are even different leaf types.

The plants do best when located on windowsills that face north or east. Too much sun can damage the foliage and stress the plants. They also shouldn’t be put where they will be exposed to chilly drafts.

Because the leaves are hairy, it is important to avoid getting them wet. The best method for watering is from the bottom by filling the pot saucer with water. However, I’m careful about not letting the plants sit in water for very long since this can cause root rot. You just want the soil to be lightly moist.

Once a year, I repot my African violets using a method that I saw on a Martha Stewart show many years ago. She recommended removing the plant from the pot, cutting off the bottom third of the roots with a sharp knife, and then repotting the plant with some fresh potting soil. It’s amazing how quickly the plants will rejuvenate and put out more blossoms.

I have a tendency to forget about fertilizing my plants and yet they continue to bloom profusely. The best time to feed them is during the spring, summer and fall months. Using an African violet fertilizer will give you optimum flower production. Always remove spent flowers to encourage more blooming and to keep the plants looking nice.

Propagating your own African violets is a fun and economical way to expand your number of houseplants. Gently cut or break off a leaf right next to the plant’s main stem and insert it into a moist, sterile growing medium like vermiculite or sand. Firmly press the medium around the stem and loosely cover the pot with a plastic bag to increase the humidity.

It takes about a month for new roots to grow from the cutting and new leaves will begin forming a few weeks after that. Once it has become established, repot your new plant into a 2 1/2-inch container that has drainage holes.

These young plants make great gifts, especially when planted in an attractive ceramic pot. And considering the fact that African violets can live for 50 years or more, it will be a gift that keeps on giving.

Susan Mulvihill can be reached via email at inthegarden@live.com.Visit her blog at susansinthegarden.blogspot.com for more gardening tips, information and events.

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