Keeping Miniature Plants Miniature
“Some Suggestions for Keeping Miniatures ‘Miniature'”
Originally appeared in the “Empire Violet Magazine”, March 1987. Since reprinted in numerous other publications, including VioletsFun issue no. 4.
We are reprinting the article here, not because overgrown miniatures is a common problem (with most of today’s hybrids this is rarely the case, though many years ago it may have been). We are reprinting it because it still contains some wise cultural advice that many may still benefit from.
A topic of some conversation among growers of miniature and semiminiature violets is how to prevent some of these varieties from exceeding their proper size. In the case of varieties described as miniature, the proper size is defined as no more than 6″ in diameter, and for semiminis, no more than 8″. For brevity, I will refer to both types as “miniature” from here on. For those having no interest in exhibiting, this is not a serious concern. Also, most modern hybrids now available grow easily within size limitations. Most good hybridizers, I think, usually err on the side of caution, describing their varieties as larger than they often actually grow.
After having talked to a number of other growers and exhibitors, I have discarded theories about soils, watering, fertilizers, and the like. There just seem to be too many exceptions for any of these to work as general explanations. Over 20 some years, I’ve grown in a number of different environments, using just about every different soil, fertilizer, light, and watering method imaginable. I’ve also had a chance to visit other growers and observe plants grown in other environments.
I would like to propose the following theory, though I’ll admit that this is mostly opinion based upon observation and not hard science. I believe that proper size requires that the plants be given three things most often lacking in the care of violets, not just miniatures. Miniatures, however, seem to be more adversely affected than standard varieties. These three things are most lacking because they demand time and space–two of the grower’s most scare resources.
If the size of miniatures is a concern for you, take the following short test. Answer each question honestly. if you “fail” all three tests, you probably have difficulty growing certain miniatures to their proper size. If you fail on any one test, there are improvements that you can make in growing your miniatures.
Test #1. Can you turn around each plant on your shelf without any of its leaves touching those of another plant? If not, conditions are crowded for the purpose of growing small minis. I’ll bet that most growers fail this one–we all want to grow more plants than we have space for.
Test #2. Do any of the plants have leaves (or entire rows of leaves) that, if the plant were exhibited today, should be removed? If so, the miniatures are not being properly pruned. Good pruning of minis means no unnecessary foliage at any time.
Test #3. What percentage of the plants have not been repotted during the last six months? Anything close to 25% of the collection means the repotting has been much too infrequent to keep miniatures growing small. Most miniature varieties need repotting every 4-5 months, once mature.
I suspect that very few passed all three tests, and that is precisely the point being made. Some varieties can be difficult to grow as truly small plants because what they require for proper growth is difficult for most of us to provide. I’ll be more specific about each.
Provide adequate growing space. Think about what happens when the plants are crowded together. The petioles get long and weak? Violets are smarter than we give them credit for. With a limited amount of light and space, the plant that survives best is the plant that can reach above the competing foliage and be closest to the light. The idea of a miniature as a “muscular brute” works well on a mountainside, but it’s not appropriate for the local club show. Plants with adequate space do not need foliage that stretches to receive better light (and air) than its neighbors. Petioles will be shorter and, to a lesser extent, leaf blades will be smaller. It took me more than a few years to discipline myself, but I have learned that it is best not to grow more plants than I can grow well. Just because more minis can be fit onto a shelf does not mean that they tolerate overcrowding any better than do larger varieties. In fact, the rule here is, more growing space means smaller growing minis.
Regular pruning. Pruning is another time-consuming task that most do not do as regularly as they should. Keep in mind that even though the plant is smaller, a miniature can grow as fast or faster than a standard variety. Over a given period of time, many miniature varieties produce more leaves than do typical standard-size varieties (no science here, just an observation). Unlike a standard, however, foliage diameter is restricted. The consequence is that miniatures require more pruning of older, excess, foliage.
The key to proper pruning of minis is control. Is the grower of the plant in control, or is the plant? The plant must be encouraged to grow small. The plant is in control of its size if it continues to produce foliage without any consequence–i.e. removing an equal amount of foliage. Good pruning means more than just removing the odd yellowed leaf. If there is any excess foliage that would not be left on the plant if it were being exhibited, it should be removed. My rule of thumb is: the less the better and, when in doubt, take it off. Remember that our objective is to keep minis small and, all else equal, less foliage means smaller plants. Not only is the quantity of foliage being regulated but, to a lesser extent, so is the growth habit of the foliage. More about this later.
Regular repotting. Regular repotting is part of what I consider controlling the plant’s size. Some growers seem resigned to growing some larger semimini varieties in 3″ squatty pots. For the plant not to look terribly overpotted, it needs to be grown large in such a pot! This is an example of the plant controlling its size, not the grower. Like all living things, violets are wonderfully adaptive. Give them a chance to grow large, and some will. Refuse them a chance to grow this way, and they learn to grow smaller.
This is my procedure for that semimini variety that wants to grow a bit beyond 8″ in diameter. First, strip off all but the four center leaves–it very quickly learns who’s the boss! Next, remove about two-thirds of the root ball and repot it into a 2 1/4″ or 1 1/2″ pot pot. If it begins growing as it did before, repeat the process. Continue until the plant grows to an acceptable size. Usually, sooner or later, it will. The bigger the plant tends to grow, the more severe the pruning and more frequent the repotting. This is not growing a violet as a “bonsai”, as would be the case if we kept the plant severely rootbound in a 1″ thumb-pot–we are not “microminiaturizing” the plant. We are just conditioning the plant to grow in a smaller space.
By constantly pruning and regular repotting, the plant is not only reduced in size by “stripping it down”, to a bare minimum of foliage. I’ve found that, eventually, the leaf size itself becomes smaller, sometimes substantially so. In other words, if you were to compare a leaf on say, the third row, of a properly grown mini versus a leaf on the same row of one not grown properly, the former leaf would be smaller. Not only would the length of the petiole 9from neck to base of leaf blade) be shorter, but the size of the leaf blade itself would be smaller.
Remember, smaller is better. A plant will grow uncontrolled only if allowed to do so. An attractive, small, well-grown miniature often looks that way not because it wants to, but because the grower has “trained” it to. Growing beautiful violets is not a passive activity where the plants are allowed to grow well, but made to grow well. The grower needs to be in control of the plant’s growing habits.