Fine Tuning Your Showplants

“Fine Tuning Your Showplants” 

Written by Rob, an article that originally appeared in the Empire Violet Magazine, in September, 1990.  It has been rewritten, appearing in VioletsFun #6, and reflects our growing environment in 1990.


One important lesson that I’ve learned in growing showplants is that timing is (almost) everything.  This is particularly true in entering collections or commercial display tables, where a large number of plants need to look wonderful all on the same day.  “Fine tuning” showplants, in an attempt to get them to peak at the same time, is a necessity.  Of course, the same is true if you are hoping to enter just a few plants.

To do this successfully, the first thing the serious exhibitor needs is a calendar.  The kinds with the large boxes for each day are the best, since you can write in these and see what you’ve written at a glance.  Each time you grow for show, note the progress of your showplants on the calendar at given time intervals preceding the show.  Note when the final disbudding of plants is done, when flower buds begin to poke through the foliage, when the first bloom appears, and when the plant nears full bloom.  When the show is over, note whether the plants were lacking in open bloom or whether it was “past its prime”.  Also note the maturity of the plant, which is especially important when growing large standard plants, where size is often important.  Keep the calendar, and use it for guidance in growing plants for the following year’s show.

Your own experience is always best but, lacking that, here’s what I’ve done.  For most shows, my final disbudding is 9-10 weeks before the date of the show.  About 6 weeks prior to the show, flower buds should begin poking through the layer of foliage above.  A week later, I expect to see my first bloom, and it should have a half-dozen or so at about 3-4 weeks before the show.  About one week before the show, the existing blooms should last without fading and the extra time will allow the smaller, secondary, buds to open.  I should note that this schedule is for plants grown in relatively cool conditions–nighttime lows of 60-62f degrees and daytime highs no more than 70f degrees.  Subtract perhaps a week from the schedule for every 3 degrees warmer.  For shows much later in spring, when growing conditions are much warmer, I do subtract a couple of weeks.  If my showplants are not “on schedule”, I take corrective measures.

If plants are behind schedule, do one or more of the following things.  First, increase the temperature.  I prefer to grow my showplants as cool as possible, since this improves the bloom color and size.  However, if plants seem to be blooming slowly, increase the temperature, but not to higher than 80f degrees, daytime.  At this temperature, you will get plenty of bloom very quickly, but it won’t stay fresh very long.  Without touching your home’s thermostat, one easy way of adding 5 degrees of heat, or so, is by simply moving plants to a higher shelf on your light stand–from the floor, and closer to the ceiling.  Also, have in mind which places in the room are the warmest and coolest, and place plants accordingly.

A second adjustment is in light intensity and length.  Increase the amount of light your plants are getting by moving them closer to the light, particularly the centers of the tubes, where lights are the brightest.  One easy way of doing this is to place plants on empty, inverted, pots or similar items.  I’ve use tin cans for this purpose–soup cans, sauce cans, etc.  A variety of different heights can be collected.

You might also increase the hours of light the plants are getting.  Normally, my plants get 13 hours of light daily.  As the show approaches, if plants are behind schedule, this can be increased to 14 hours.  If you’re desperate, you can place showplants as close as 3-4″ from the lights and keep them on for up to 16 hours a day.  Do this with great caution, however, and only as needed.  Never place plants this close at the end of the light fixtures, since the heat is too great there.  Also, be careful when doing this with varieties having light green foliage, fragile (or single) blooms, or white blooms.  it’s always best, too, to make changes as gradually as possible.  Keeping a close eye on their progress as the show approaches helps you in avoiding last minute, drastic, measures.

A third adjustment is in humidity.  Plants will bloom more quickly, and blooms will last longer, in a relatively humid (but not soggy) environment.  Though I water showplants from the top, pots rest on “egg crating” laid over the shelves.  I can fill trays below with water to increase humidity in the desired area.  For those growers using capillary matting or community-wicked trays, this isn’t necessary–it’s more than likely that your humidity is already high enough.  This is the least likely adjustment that I will make, since it seems to have the least effect and, like the others, can present its own problems.

Finally, you may want to change the formula and strength of the fertilizer being used, though this can be risky and really isn’t necessary if the culture is generally good.  I typically use a balanced (17-17-17, for example) formula all of the time, right until the day of the show.  This type of formula encourages dark foliage without sacrificing much in bloom.  I’ve never found it necessary to use high phosphorus, bloom-boosting, fertilizers in order to get massive amounts of bloom on showplants.  Good culture and proper dusbudding seems to be enough.  Many growers, though, will switch to a fertilizer higher in phosphorus (the middle number) after the final disbudding, to encourage additional bloom.  the amount of the fertilizer might also be increased.  This should be done with extreme caution, since I’ve know more than one exhibitor to damage a showplant by overfertilization.  Also be careful in using “bloom boosting” fertilizers excessively high in phosphorus, or lacking nitrogen (the first number), since this can cause foliage to turn pale, or lose color.  This is true even for variegated varieties–variegation depends much more on temperature than it does on nitrogen content of fertilizers.

For plants that seem to be peaking too early, just take the opposite measures.  Lower temperature and light to slow down growth and blooming.  Plants on my first AVSA display table were kept in a dark closet for a week before the show!  They were in full bloom well before the show, and it was the only way to get them to stop growing.  I learned this trick from a more experienced exhibitor who would put such plants in hat-boxes.  It worked, too–the blooms had lost some of their color, but very few were lost, and I went home with some awards.

Monitor your showplants almost constantly, and make the necessary adjustments.  Plants may need to be moved on an almost weekly basis, even a daily basis the week before the show.  Keep a record of what adjustments you made and whether they worked.  Next year, you’ll be able to learn from your success or failur.

This seems like quite an inconvenience, and it often is, but the rewards are worth it, come the day of the show.