HG: Homegrown Column February 14, 2009

I received an African violet as a gift and am terrified I’ll kill it (it already looks like it is kind of wilting). Do you recommend using a special violet pot for planting? I read up about watering them from the bottom and will probably keep it somewhere out of the direct sun, but I don’t know much about babying them. Anything you can tell me will help. I have a phobia about them knowing that they tend to be picky.
Thank you.
— Jennifer

Actually, you shouldn’t be that terrified of African violets. They have this reputation for being fussy, demanding plants and though they do have their quirks, they’re really not all that hard to care for.

African violets like pretty bright, indirect light. They’re not that tolerant of direct sun (their leaves will burn), but the more light you give them the better they’ll bloom. They’re surprisingly tolerant of low light areas, but they won’t bloom as well even though the plant will do OK.

African violets are pretty heavy feeders so do a consistent job of fertilizing them. There are lots of specialty fertilizers out there, but any good general-purpose houseplant fertilizer will work fine. Just follow the label directions for how often to do it.

Soluble fertilizers such as Miracle-Gro or Schultz’s should be done every week or two (certainly not less than once a month).

Slow release fertilizers such as Osmocote and fertilizer spikes will vary on their makeup so, again, just read the label and do it accordingly.

Far and away the most common reason people have problems with their African violets is watering improperly.

African violets aren’t drought-tolerant at all so you can’t let the soil go too dry or you can run into problems.

However, the most common problem I see is from people over watering their plants. The plant has a fat, succulent base and it will rot if the soil is kept too wet. This “middle ground” of watering isn’t that hard to hit, you just need to be aware of it.

Before I talk more about watering, let me state for the record that I hate those “self-watering” African violet pots. I hate them, I hate them, I hate them.

People like them because they’re pretty easy at first but eventually I almost always see problems develop.

I like keeping them in a regular flowerpot with drainage holes. When you buy an African violet, that’s the type of pot the plant comes in, and I think the greenhouse grower who produced them knows what the plant needs.

When you do water, soak the potting soil thoroughly. Put the pot in the sink and fill the pot with water two or three times.

Then, stick your finger into the soil every day or two to monitor the moisture. As it starts to show a bit of dryness down half an inch to three-quarters of an inch into the soil, it’s time to water again, and be sure to soak it well.

People think you have to keep water off of the foliage. That’s part of the rationale for these self-watering pots.

Getting water on the leaves can sometimes cause pale spots. This isn’t the end of the world; the plant is not going to die. But the reason the leaves spot isn’t because of water, it’s because of temperature.

Cold tap water causes the spotting. When you water, make sure the water is tepid, about room temperature, and you shouldn’t have any problems with leaf spotting.

See, they’re not so scary after all. Best of luck with them.

I have blobs of white stuff on my houseplant. What is it and what can I do about it?
— Jeremy

The most common cause of those white blobs would be mealy bugs. Mealy bugs look like
white, fuzzy bits of cotton on the leaves and stems and can be difficult to control.

Before you do anything else, you need to isolate the infested plant from any other plants you have. These guys like to spread out.

I recommend a two-pronged approach to getting them under control.

First, give your plant a weekly spray with an insecticidal soap. Coverage is extremely important, so be sure to thoroughly cover both the upper and lower surfaces of the leaves.

Next, be sure to use a systemic insecticide in the soil. You’ll need to reapply it every three to four weeks to get the upper hand.

Look at it as a battle of attrition: It’s either them or your plant. You need to simply wear them down.

Don’t get discouraged. This battle can take two or three months before you win the war.
If, after that period of time, your plant is still reeling from these guys, you may need to consider throwing it away in order to protect your other houseplants from a similar fate.

Dennis Hill is the nursery manager at Bookcliff Gardens, online at http://www.bookcliffgardens.com. Send questions to Bookcliff Gardens, 755 26 Road, Grand Junction 81506; or e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).



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