Notes on Trailing African Violets

Some Notes on Trailing African Violets”

This is the outline of a lecture that Rob first presented at the Mid-Atlantic AVS Convention Show, in November, 1996.  It’s since been reprinted in numerous publications, including VioletsFun no. 12.

Select a good variety.  Look for varieties that:
Branch freely with minimal pinching.
Produce “runners” with horizontal (not vertical) growth.
Produce dense, not sparse, foliage growth–i.e. lots of leaves
Avoid “semitrailing” varieties

What you want is a variety that will freely produce numerous runners, that will grow along the soil surface, rooting as it grows, and has densely-produced foliage with no spaces visible.  These varieties have the best form and will grow best as a groundcover, since they will fill more horizontal space, more densely.  Since each runner will produce bloom, more runners means greater quantity of bloom.  Varieties that spread runners easily will also produce better distribution of bloom.

Get started by putting down a leaf or root a tip cutting in moist soil, keeping covered for 3-4 weeks until rooted.  Upon uncovering, remove the center growth to encourage quick development of other runners.  For good trailing varieties, this may be the only time that pinching is necessary.

Potting into larger containers.  Shallow is best.

Repot when a trailer looks overgrown in its current pot.  At this point, the runners will be about to crawl over the pot rim.  With trailers, however, procrastination can be a virtue.  A plant that has been allowed to become very overgrown and “weedy” will fill in a larger pot all the more quickly, since you’ll have more long runners to work with.

Pot into shallow containers, no matter the diameter of the pot.  From a starter plant in a 2″ pot, go into a 3″ tub pot, then into a 5″ pan pot.  Beyond this, shallow pots (depth less than 3″) are hard to come by.  We use 8″ and 10″ saucers, and drill holes into the bottom for drainage.  Another solution is to cut a large standard pot down to 2-3″ in depth–we use a hacksaw and then file away the rough edges.

When potting, always use a light, porous, soil.  It will take time for runners to root and fill a large pot.  A heavy, wet, soil makes it more likely that roots (and runners) will rot before the additional soil is filled with roots.  Also, lightly pack soil into the pot–you want a firm surface for the runners to crawl along.  If the plant is too loosely potted, it will sink over time, losing contact with the runners.  You might also want to press, or pin, runners into the soil to promote rooting, which is more easily done into firm soil.

Grooming.  To promote dense growth and good form.

Occasional “thinning out” of foliage is helpful.  For dense foliage, the small, immature, runners (the tiny suckers appearing along existing runners) need a chance to develop–you want long runners growing from other long runners.  For this to happen, you need to thin-out the foliage.  You need to make growth lessdense now, so that it will be more dense later.  Thinning allows more light to reach the small, developing runners so that they can begin to mature.  This will give you dense undergrowth, so that the plant won’t show those ugly bare stems as it becomes older.  Always remove immature, oversized, off-color, or damaged leaves.  Don’t be squeamish!  Unlike other violets, trailers will quickly fill in any gaps that have momentarily been created.

A well shaped trailer with good form has a smooth, rounded, appearance.  If looked at in profile, it should have a smooth edge, without a jagged, spiked look–much like a just-trimmed hedge.  To achieve this look, remove vertical growth and leaves competing for the same space.  These are leaves that, because there isn’t room enough for both of them, are pressed against each other not allowing either one to lay flat.  Since one leaf will occupy this space as well as two, removing the second allows the first to grow in a more natural, flat, position–remember that you want trailers to occupy horizontal space!

Good form also means that the plant is round (circular) in shape when viewed from above.  Proper placement of runners is important to achieve this.  Ideally, you would like runners to be of an even length and evenly distributed around the pot–this will give you an even distribution of foliage and bloom.  If not, runners can be moved so that this is the case.  This is most easily done when potting into a larger container.  Simply move the runners equidistantly around the pot, and fill as much space as possible.  Press runners into the soil surface.  If they’re stubborn, and don’t want to stay where you’ve place them, “pin” them down using U-shaped wire (like the end of a paper clip).  For the pin to hold, the soil must be firm–you may also want to “barb” the ends of the pin.

Occasionally, a bare spot will appear where foliage is lacking.  To fill in these areas, new growth needs to be encouraged here.  If possible, move an existing runner, pinning if needed, to the bare area.  Alternatively, or additionally, you may want to pinch (remove) the tips of existing runners surrounding the bare area to promote more runners to grow there.

Growing for show.  No secrets, but a few pointers.

Here’s what judges look for.  Form is worth 25 points.  This has been discussed already.  Condition (cultural perfection) is also worth 25 points.  Basically, this is the result of good cultural habits–i.e. “tender loving care”.  This also means removing discolored or damaged leaves, spent blooms, having a clean plant and container, and the like.  This also means no visible bare stems, “nubs” from incompletely removed leaves and blossom stems, etc.  This is another reason we want thick, dense, foliage–it can cover up a multitude of problems.  What the judges can’t see, they can’t deduct points for!

Quantity of bloom is worth another 25 points.  Because good trailers will produce many runners (crowns), they have the potential for a tremendous quantity of bloom.  Very simply, a plant with 30 crowns has the potential for 30 times the number of blooms of a single-crowned plant.  Bloom should be evenly distributed about the plant, among the crowns.

Size and type, color of blossom are worth 15 and 10 points, respectively.  These should be consistent with the variety description.  Since a trailer in full bloom should have more than enough flowers, always remove any blossoms that are questionable in terms of color, size, or freshness.  Again, judges can deduct for these flaws only if they are allowed to see them.

When selecting plants for show, choose a good variety and start with the healthiest plant exhibiting the best habits.  Set aside those plants that most freely produce runners (you’ll need a minimum of three crowns to exhibit a trailer), and produce those runners evenly around the pot.  Some of these problems can be corrected later, but it’s always best if they don’t need to be.

Repot trailers 4-5 months prior to the date of the show.  If the plant isn’t ready for a larger container, repot into the same size container using fresh soil.  Repot whether it needs it or not–by doing it now, you won’t have to do so just prior to the show.  It’s better to risk damaging the plant four months before the show than a month prior to it, when mistakes are harder to correct.  Be sure that the container is just large enough to be completely filled with foliage by the show date.

Upon repotting, severely prune foliage from the plant.  Leaving only the very tips, remove all remaining foliage.  What should be left are bare runners on (or pinned to) the soil surface, with only a few leaves on the end of each.  the plant should look ugly at this point–this doesn’t matter since it’s not being judged now.  By doing this, all new foliage will be allowed to grow, so that at show time none of the leaves will be more than a few months old.  Growth will also be denser and more uniform after having been pruned in this manner (it will grow back more quickly than you think).  Remember, ugly now means beautiful later!

Most good trailing varieties will bloom heavily with little or no encouragement, so that disbudding isn’t necessary to promote or induce heavy bloom.  However, disbudding will allow foliage to develop more quickly and completely.  Again, ugly now and beautiful later.  Disbudding also allows you to “time” the emergence of buds and bloom so that, on the show date, the plant has the maximum number of fresh blossoms.  Begin disbudding immediately upon repotting and pruning, and continue to disbud until 6-8 weeks prior to the show.  Allow more time under cooler, less time under warmer, conditions.  The precise timing will depend a bit upon the variety, but because trailers are such prolific bloomers by nature, precision here is less important than with other types of violets.


  • I would, love to see a video by Rob on Trailers. Words are great, but seeing is better. Any chance of you doing a video?

    • Have always intended to produce a video. Time to do so (well) is always an obstacle. At some point, we will.

  • I have Little Chippery Trail, which I got from you almost a year ago. It is beautiful and has more than doubled in size – now approximately 2.5 x 3.5 inches. The problem is it hasn’t bloomed. I repotted it recently into a small bonsai pot and it looks spectacular with several baby crowns. Lighting is the same as all my violets – mini and semi. It is wick-watered with the appropriate fertilizer dosage. Any thoughts on how to get it to bloom? Increase from 1/4 t/gal ferts to 1/2 t maybe? Is the plant still too young? Any advice is appreciated.

    • The standard answer is: if the plant is growing and otherwise healthy, provide it more light. This variety can sometimes grow quite densely, with a lot of branches/crowns. If this is the case, you can “thin it out” by removing some of the leaves/crowns where it is especially compacted. This might help.

  • Awesome information! I am presenting a program on trailers at our Memphis AV club this weekend, and am using this as a handout. Thank you for such detailed information!

    Trailers were my favorite from the first moment I saw one. Now I have at least 15 different varieties. So easy to grow, and most are easy bloomers!

  • Hi there,

    My grandmother has one of your trailing violets, Rob’s vanilla trail I believe. It has grown up and out of the pot, and all of its leaves are entirely out of the pot and hanging down the side. I don’t believe she has repotted it since getting it quite some time ago. How do I go about repotting this for her? Do I trim the neck down like you would for a regular overgrown violet?


    • No need to trim the neck down. Pot into a larger pot based on size of root ball–go one size up. If you want to grow as a “ground cover”, rather than let the branches hang over the pot rim, you can pot into a larger pot based upon the length of the stems, and pin the stems to the soil surface. They will grow atop the soil surface and root as the go. Depends upon the eventual appearance you are aiming for.

  • I purchased the 5 trailers special that you have in March of this year and they are all blooming beautifully. Four of these are in small white pots. When and how should I re-pot them?

    • When full in the 2″ pots (usually soon after receipt) you can pot into 3″ pots. After that, it all depends upon how large you intend to let them grow. Pot into larger diameter pots when current pot is full, but use shallow pots, since roots will never grow very deep.

  • Rhonda L Williamson

    Tremendous thanks for your response!

    Have have been looking for a good resource book on African Violets, especially trailers. Illustrations and diagrams would be most helpful. Do you have any duggestions?

    • No single reference source that I know of for trailers. “Growing to Show”, which we sell, is good. Becoming a member of AVSA, and getting the African Violet Magazine is better.

  • Rhonda L Williamson

    Informative posts like this are rare and challenging to find, thank you.
    I’ve read that some trailers grow vertically and some horizontally in “ball, bush, or trailing fashion”. Is there a list of the growth style of trailers? It would seem important when choosing a pot.
    I have Cirelda, Cajun’s McKenna Teail and Senk’s Snowy Egret – what is their growth habit?

    • We try to provide this description for hybrids we sell, since there is a difference in growth habit among trailers. It’s not universal or uniformly applied, though. Most of the ‘Rob’s’ varieties are true trailers (branches grow more horizontally, or spreading) as opposed to “semi” trailing (branched more like a small shrub). Both forms can be attractively grown. Those that “trail” best are most suitable for use as ground covers or, if grown large enough, as hanging baskets. As trailers spread, use larger, but shallow pots. Semitrailers, since they spread less, but still branch and look full, usually look best when displayed in pots not much larger than the diameter of the plant. Both types can be attractive–depends upon what appearance you prefer.

  • Dianne Brownell

    Wonderful tutorial. I am from Florida and visited the Violet Barn last week while vacationing with relatives in Canandaigua. Brought 2 baby trailers back with me in my purse and am eager to watch them grow and hopefully flourish.
    Looking forward to another visit the next time I am in the area. Thank you again for all of your help and advice.

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