The Violet Barn

Frequently Asked Questions

QuestionI have a lovely decorative pot, and would like to pot three miniature violets, together, into it.  The pot is about 10" wide and has drainage holes.  Can I do this?

Answer:  Yes and no.  So long as the violets are otherwise properly cared for, they can be potted together into the same pot.  One thing to be careful of is watering, since these violets will be greatly overpotted.  Though the foliage of three miniature violets would easily cover the surface of a 10" container, their root systems would not be able to fill this size pot.  The volume of soil in this pot is far more than that in the individual pots of the three minis combined.  Also, remember that violets will grow better when not crowded together and forced to compete for space.  When crowded together, foliage doesn't always develop fully or normally, and plants need to compete for light, water, and nutrients.

If you still would like to put three violets together into one pot, we would suggest keeping them in their own individual pots, then placing them into the larger container.  At least, this will reduce the likelihood of overwatering, since the root systems of the individual plants would remain in the proper size pots.  This would also allow you to easily replace one plant with another at a future time, keeping the "arrangement" always looking its best.  Probably the best solution, if you choose to fill the large container with soil and plant a violet into it, would be to use a trailing variety.  Since trailing varieties, by their nature, are spreading plants, they can more easily fill such a large diameter container.  They still produce shallow root systems, though, so the depth of the container could be a concern.  if more than a few inches deep, fill the bottom with very porous, well-draining material, such as perlite.  A standard-size trailing variety would most quickly grow and fill this size container, and would likely be the easiest to grow.  Mini and semiminiature trailers would also grow to fill the container, but would take much more time to do so.

QuestionCan I reuse a leaf cutting?

Answer:  Sure.  After removing and potting plantlets, the "mother" leaf can be rerooted.  It will still be capable of producing more plantlets, though it may not produce as many the next time around.  Usually, it's more productive to simply wait until the plantlets grow large enough to have their leaves removed for propagation.  Plus, most of us have too many plants already without finding ways of producing more!  There are times, though, when reusing a leaf might be necessary.  Some varieties, for example, are particularly unstable and tend to produce plantlets that won't bloom as described.  In this case, it might be better to reuse a leaf that is known to have come from a true-blooming plant, rather than use leaves from plantlets that may not be true (though it's possible that the mother leaf won't produce "true" plants the second time around either).

Reusing a leaf might also be desirable when this is the last of a hard to find variety, and can act as insurance, should the plantlets fail to survive.  Should you decide to do this, leave a longer than normal petiole when rooting the leaf the first time.  This will allow you to recut the petiole, at a shorter length, the next time around.  If possible, younger, more supple, leaves are better, since the leaf will tend to become tough and leathery with age, and will produce fewer plantlets as this happens.

QuestionI just bought some violets and need some idea how to care for them.  If I happen to overwater them, do I just need to drain the water from the bottom?  Some of the leaves look almost black and I am afraid of killing it.

Answer:  Yes.  I assume this means discarding the unused water in the saucer.  It's best not to leave plants sitting in water, unless the soil mix being used is very light and porous.  Again, the rule of thumb is, the wetter you plan on keeping the plant, the lighter the soil mix should be.  One reason why light, soilless, mixes are so often recommended is because they allow the grower to occasionally overwater without doing much harm to the plant.

What concerns us is your saying that the leaves look "almost black".  Soft, "mushy", black leaves are a symptom of overwatering.  Remember that leaves can appear soft and wilted, yet the plant may not need watering.  If the plant has a wilted look, yet still has moist soil, don't water it.  Instead, observe it for another day or two and see if its condition improves.  If it doesn't, or leaves begin to turn black and rot off, the problem is more serious.  If the soil is very wet, remove the plant from its pot and lay it on some newspaper to let it dry.  Remove the rotted leaves, since these likely won't recover.  As the soil begins to dry, the remaining foliage should become more firm and fresher looking.  At this point, repot the plant into fresh soil, being sure to use a pot no larger than the root system itself.  After repotting, water more sparingly than normal, until new roots have grown into the added soil.

The old "dry to the touch" rule is worth remembering.  Ideally, violets would like to be slightly moist at all times.  This means watering when the surface of the soil is dry, and not before.  Here at our shop, when we teach someone new how to water our plants, we tell them to thoroughly water all plants where the surface of the soil is dry, sparingly water those whose soil surface is slightly moist, and not water at all those whose soil is still damp.  If a light enough soil mix is being used, most plants can survive an occasional unnecessary watering, but won't survive when this is done two or three times consecutively.

QuestionHow do you ship an African violet?

Answer:  This is something we get asked a lot at the shop. Though we do this as part of our business, it's something anyone can do.  After all, many of our customers ask us to ship plants as gifts to relatives or friends, when they grow violets themselves, and could easily do the same.  Violets are fragile, but not as much as you might think.  With careful packing, they can be easily and safely shipped almost anywhere.  Here's how we do it.

Since the package is certain to spend much of its time traveling "upside-down", you need to keep the soil from coming out of the pot and making a huge mess of the plant and box.  We do this by making a plastic "collar" that we fit over the top of the pot, underneath the leaves.  Cut a piece of plastic (from a trash bag, for example) that is twice as big as the pot.  Cut a slit in the plastic from one edge, stopping at the center.  Then slide this over the surface of the soil, beneath the leaves.  The neck goes into the slit, so that the collar should slide easily and snugly around it.  Being sure the collar covers the soil completely, fold the edges over the pot rim and secure them with tape or rubber band (we use the latter) to the pot.  Next, find a sheet of stiff, yet soft, paper, twice as tall and wide as the plant's diameter (we one or two sheets of newspaper).  Gently bending the leaves upwards, place the plant against the paper and roll it into a paper cone, leaving excess paper both above and below the plant.  Then seal both ends with tape or staples.  For plants too large to seal the top, we tape the pot to the paper when we are rolling it.  This will keep the pot from sliding out of the paper cone, and insulate it a bit.

Use a box that won't be crushed when placed on the bottom of a pile of heavier boxes.  When placing the wrapped plants in your box, it is better to slightly overpack.  Be sure that whatever material that fills the remainder of the box won't settle or move during shipment.  Pack as tightly as possible without crusing the plant, yet tightly enough so that the plant cannot move.  If shipping during unusually warm or cold weather, you might want to insulate the box--we line the interior with fiberglass insulation.  Label the box as very fragile, though you don't need to mention its contents (in some states this only gives them an excuse to open and examine the contents).  Remember, too, that labeling isn't a good substitute for good packing--your package will still spend time being tossed around.  Lastly, unless it's being sent as a surprise, it might be a good idea to call ahead and tell the recipient of its arrival, so that it spends as little time as possible exposed to the weather on their front doorstep.

QuestionMy violet hasn't looked very happy lately.  The leaves look dull and a bit limp.  There is a white substance around the base of the stem, which makes me suspicious.  Could this be a pest problem that's causing my plant to look this way, and how do I get rid of it?

Answer:  It sounds like your violet may have mealybug.  If you see slow-moving, white, waxy, insects hiding within the leaf axils of your plant, you may have foliar mealybug.  Sometimes, they'll look like litte bits of perlite--if it "squishes" it's mealybug; if it's crunchy, it's perlite.  That white substance around the base of your plant may very well be a mass of mealybug eggs.  Soil mealybugs are harder to see, since they are smaller and they do most of their damage within the soil, to the plant's roots.  They, too, can leave egg masses on the soil surface, at the plant base.  You'll know for sure by taking the plant out of the pot and examining the root ball.  You'll see white patches, like "confectioner's sugar" on the root ball or inside of the pot.  These will be the egg masses of soil mealybug.

In either case, you've got a problem to deal with.  Mealybugs can be difficult to get rid of without taking extreme, or costly, measures.  If it's not a valuable plant, and you don't want to risk the problem spreading to the rest of your collection, it may be best to simply discard the plant.  Too often, growers will take half-measures in an effort to save one plant, meanwhite letting it spread to the remainder of their collection.  After (sometimes years) of battling, the original plant, as well as many others, end up being discarded anyway.

Should you want to keep the plant and fight the problem, be prepared to spend some time, effort, and money.  To begin, you will need to use chemicals to eliminate the problem with certainty.  Unfortunately, many of the chemicals that are proven to work can be either too toxic to wisely use in the home, too costly, or both.  Chemicals such as Cygon, diazanon, or Malathion, once popular, and perhaps effective, are just too toxic to safely use in the home (though many of us did).  Today, the insecticides of choice are Marathon and its liquid form, Admire.  Both contain the active ingredient imidocloprid (look for this on the label if using another product).  Though still toxic, and to be used with caution, it is much safer for home use than what's been used in the past (it's the same ingredient in the liquid flea medication you may be applying to your pet).  Unfortunately, both are quite expensive for the small grower--$100 or more per container, making it impracticale for many small growers and hobbyists.  Don't waste your time and money on less expensive, less toxic, products like insecticidal soaps intended for in-home use.  They are ineffective (regardless of what the label says) for problems such as mealybug.

Marathon come in a granular form (it looks like sand) and can be added to your soil mix when repotting the plant.  For best results, prepare your plant by removing as much unnecessary foliage and roots as possible.  Even better, remove all of the root ball and soil, leaving only the crown of the plant.  Then wash the plant, using a mild dish detergent and room-temperature water.  Fill a pot with soil and sprinkle the granular Marathon over the surface.  As a precaution, wear protective gloves (and mask) while doing this.  Next, moisten the soil, press the crown into it, and firm soil around it.  Place in a clear container (like a large baggie), seal, then wait 4-6 weeks until rooted.  Until you're certain the plant shows no signs of mealies, keep it separated from your other plants.  You might also want to start again from a leaf cutting, taking the same precautions.

Should you want to avoid using chemicals entirely, wash the crown in mild soap and room-temperature water, and reroot as described above.  Though not foolproof, if you've done a thorough job of washing, you may be lucky enough to have eliminated your this way.

QuestionI couldn't find any information regarding dusting of leaves of an African violet?  Is it okay to wash dust off of leaves with water?

Answer:  African violets can be washed, but it's always a better practice to keep them clean enough that they'll never require it.  Grow them in a clean environment, though this is sometimes easier said than done.  We've had many dogs and cats, but only the dogs spend time in the growing area.  At least they know enough not to lay amongst the plants (or chew on the leaves).  We usually don't pot plants or use soil in the growing area, either.  The cement floors are gently swept, so as to not disturb the dust too much, then are wet-mopped.  The less dust and dirt that gets on the plant, the less we need to remove--it's easier to mop the floor then to mop the plants!

Still, with so many plants being grown in "dirt", at least some of it will find its way onto their leaves!  This can be removed by a gentle brushing.  Use a small paint brush to do this.  The best are those with short, stiff, and soft, bristles.  Be willing to pay an extra dollar or two for a good brush--it will last a lifetime.  It will clean your leaves better and with less work, and your violets will appreciate their gentleness.  My favorite is a white, sable hair brush that I bought around 1980, well worth the $6 or $7 that I paid for it at the time.  When brushing leaves, place fingers of your opposite hand beneath the leaves being brushed for support.  If the bristles are soft enough, and the leaves are supported, you can apply enough pressure to remove the dust and dirt without scarring or breaking them.  Start from the center of the plant and brush leaves from the center, outwards.

Stains that aren't easily brushed off can often be removed with a soft, damp, sponge.  "Natural" sponges, like those used for ceramics, are best.  Add just a little vinegar to the water to help remove stains left by hard water or fertilizer salts.  If you still want or need to wash your violet, this can be safely done if you're careful enough.  "Click" here for more information on washing your violet.

QuestionIn your catalog, you describe some varieties as good "show plants" and others as good "houseplants".  Could you elaborate?

Answer:  It's not a matter of better or worse, just different.  Much like the difference between the family pet and the winner at Westminster.  By "houseplant" we mean a variety that one grows purely for decorating the home, the windowsill, of the light stand.  It may have pretty blooms, be particularly easy to grow and bloom, but is unspectacular in mos other ways.  With the proper care and expertise, any plant can be grown as a show specimen, including those we describe as "houseplants".  Varieties good for "show", however, possess certain qualities that make them either exceptional show specimens and/or make them easier to grow for show.

What makes a variety good "show plant" material?  Most importantly, it will have an exceptional growth habit, producing leaves in an even, predictable pattern.  Leaves will overlap and "shingle" atop each other as they are produced, and the plant will always have a round shape when viewed from above.  If variegated, the leaves will show more and/or brighter variegation of white, yellow, pink, or beige, and hold this variegation with age.  If it's a standard-size variety, it typically will grow larger, making a more impressive plant when mature.  If miniature (or semiminiature), it will not outgrow the maximum allowd diameters for its size (6 or 8 inches, respectively)--it will look small and petite.  If a trailing variety, it will easily branch and spread, creating a full, round, form.

No matter the type or size, it will have more blooms and larger blooms (especially for a larger standard).  Unusual colors or patters in the blooms aren't always important when selecting for show, though it helps.  Many of the best varieties for show are actually quite plain in many ways, simple colored blooms or plain foliage, but they grow so impressively and bloom so profusely that they always seem to find their way onto the Court of Honor.  Of course, "show" varieties don't need to be grown for show.  You can enjoy them as "houseplants"--after all, the winning dog at Westminster also is somebody's family pet!

QuestionAll I am getting are new leaves.  How often do violets bloom?

Answer:  Given the proper care and conditions, African violets can bloom nearly constantly.  If your plant is producing new, healthy, leaves, but no blooms, the likely causes are either insufficient light and/or excess crowns or suckeres.  Properly grown, unless this is a species or trailing variety, your violet should have only one "crown" or growing point--the place from which new leaves are formed.  It should also not have any "suckers".  These are the beginning of small crowns, new growth that will appear as small pairs of leaves, along the stem in the leaf axils.  This is where flower buds could be forming, but won't if your plant is busy producing suckers at those points.  You don't need a lot of leaves to produce bloom.  Like most plants, African violets produce bloom from the new growth, generally the first (youngest) three rows of leaves.  This means that more than 4 or 5 rows, or 12-15 leaves, is unnecessary.  Limiting foliage grown will encourage blossom production (the plant will have no choice).  If you've done this, ask yourself if there is enough light.  You want to provide as much bright light as possible without exposing the plant to hot, or intense, sunlight.  If growing under artificial lights, try moving the plant closer to the bulbs or leaving them under the lights for an hour or two more.

Question I'd like to give growing African violets a go, but I'm very cautious about purchasing plants that aren't mature.  Would you recommend these as "starter plants" for the newbie?  Are African violets good for people with little or no experience, like me, and which varieties are easier to care for?

Answer:  Our observations are that African violets are one of the easiest plants to grow, yet one of the most difficult to grow well (to perfection).  This is one of the reasons we choose to grow them, and why they are a good choice for both the novice to enjoy as a "house" plant, and for the grower that wants to be challenged, as a "show" plant.  Though we all like instant gratification, thre are advantages to starting with an immature, "starter" plant.  A larger, mature plant purchased in bloom, in the long run, is not necessarily easier to grow.  Those blooms won't last long, especially after the sress of packaging and travel.  Further, both the starter and mature plants will need repotting, but the latter will need this done sooner, and may be more likely to suffer from the change in soil and environment.

It is important that you start with a healthy plant, form a responsible seller/grower.  We'll often get calls asking for help from people who've purchased less than healthy plants at a discounted price from a local garden center, supermarket, or department store.  Usually, these retailers don't actually grow these plants, just resell them.  They may have received them in less than perfect health, and those responsible for their short-term care often know little about African violets.  Their only interest is to keep them alive long enought to sell them.  Like anything else, be a smart shopper, and get your plants from those that know African violets, and grow their own plants.  Want a really good deal?  Join a local society!  Most will have leaf exchanges, club sales, or shows, as well as lots of other members who wouldn't mind sharing leaves, plants, or advice, at little or no cost.

Question How is the best way to clean my pots to reuse them?

Answer:  We reuse or recylce almost everything here, including all of our pots.  We wash all of our pots in a dilute bleach and detergent solution, using very hot water.  Place your pots loosely (don't stack them togeter) in your wash tub, so that they are well covered with water, and soak for at least 20 minutes.  The hot water usually does the trick, as far as killing anything that might be harmful to the plants, and the pots can be wiped fairly clean.  If you really want to sanitize the pots, use 1 part bleach for every 9 parts water (i.e. 10 percent).  This is a strong enough bleach solution to kill most anything.