Saucer Watering

Question:  I saw another grower soak his violet in a saucer full of water.  The violets seem to grow well.  I do the same, but rot my violets.  Why?

Answer:  What works for one won’t necessarily work well for another.  Unless every aspect of each grower’s environment is identical, the results may not be.  In this case, we suspect that your soil is different from that used by the other grower.  If the soil is light and porous enough, containing plenty of perlite or coarse vemiculite, it can be kept wetter than a soil containing little of these materials.  To give an example, a violet could be grown “hydroponically” in nothing but drainage material (like clay pebbles) without risk of rotting.

Your friend might also be more careful in how much water is poured into the saucer.  In addition, it is a good practice to check on the plants after having given them enough time to absorb the water, emptying the saucers of any unused water.  From experience, most growers who saucer-water have a sense for just how much water the plant can use, so that very little excess water will be left in the saucers.

Proper Pot Size

Question:  Must I always grow minis in small pots and standard varieties in large pots?  I have very limited space, and would like to grow standards in small pots as well.

Answer:  Again, the rule for proper pot size is to use a pot the same size as the plant’s root system.  For minis and semiminiatures, this means pots of 2″ to 2 1/4″, and about 4″ for most standards (when grown as “house” plants, not for exhibition).  Using pots that are smaller in size than the root system means that the plant will become “pot-bound” very quickly.  These plants will need watering more frequently since the lesser soil volume in the small pot provides less water than the relatively larger plant and root system demands.

To keep soil fresh and to encourage new root growth, more frequent repotting into fresh soil would be necessary.  That said, since the objective here is to keep standard-size varieties growing as small as possible in a limited space, keeping them underpotted would be advantageous.  By constricting its root system, you would be doing the same as those who grow “bonsai”.  In bonsai, plant size and growth are in large part regulated by restricting the size and growth of the root system.

Many violet growers are doing this when they grow mini and semimini varieties, that naturally would grow 4-8″ in diameter, in 1″ thumb-pots.  These violets appear to be “micro” miniatures, since they grow only 2-3″ or so, in diameter.  But these violets aren’t true microminiatures.  Since it’s not their nature to grow this small, they are being “forced” to by constricting their root system.  A true microminiature will grow small even when grown in a larger pot.  Don’t be fooled by those violets in the cute little pots sold in your supermarket!  Growing a standard violet in a smaller pot would have the same effect, but to a lesser degree, making it grow smaller, though not quite miniature.  But if size is the issue, why not just grow miniatures?

Urea in Fertilizer

Question:  I’m a bit confused about the use of urea, and wonder if you can help me.  I was told sometime agao that we should not use any fertilizer with urea listed in the ingredients.  I’ve used fertilizers containing urea in my garden and it looked great!  Should I use my old fertilizer or toss it?

Answer:  There seems to be plenty of opinions on the subject, and it seems that the prevailing opinion of the violet hobby is the one you were given.  Still, urea has been an ingredient in fertilizers for years, and may successful growers us it.  For tha matter, we use it (4% or the 15% total nitrogen in our fertilizer), apparently without ill effect.  So what gives?

Let’s outline some important points.  To begin, don’t get distracted by “organic” and “synthetic”–though produced differently, chemically, they are identical.  Urea is just one particular form of nitrogen, an essential element needed for plant growth.  Nitrogen (N, the first number in you fertilizer formula) is the most essential element in any fertilizer.  Without it, your plant essentially starves.  it must have it.

Nitrogen can be supplied to plants in a number of forms, the most common being urea, ammonium, or nitrate (these should appear on your fertilizer label).  The crux of the matter is this: your plant can only use nitrogen in its nitrate form.  As ureas, it must first be broken down into ammonium (carbonate) then further converted into nitrate.  This is the basis for the “no urea” argument–since urea is not directly usable by the plant, why have it?  Wouldn’t a fertilizer containing only ammonium and/or nitrate forms of nitrogen be better?  If so, why is there any urea in fertilizer?  This is where the answer gets messy.

The simple answer is economics.  Urea is cheap, and fertilizers using it can be produced chapely and sold inexpensively.  But can it still be useful?  Yes, and it has been for many growers, for many years.  The secret is in making is possible for urea to be broken down into ammonium, then the usable nitrate form, of nitrogen.  This requires the work of microorganisms in the soil, which can oxidize the urea and ammonium forms.  In the “old” days, when growers commonly used compost, manure, or the like, in the soil mixes for their indoor plants, this was never an issue (though “sterilizing” these mixes undid some of this).  These mixes had plenty of bacteria (as well as other less desirable things, like nematodes and mealy bugs).  Modern “soilless” (peat based) mixes, though, contain no actual topsoil, compost, or manure.  Because of this, many growers believe they lack the microorganisms necessary to break down urea into usable nitrogen.  Unused, excess urea leads to an accumulation of “salts” in the soil mix, attracting water away from the plant’s roots and causing “fertilizer burn”, visible as brown leaf edges and plant centers.

Solutions?  First, good watering habits and occasional leaching (cleansing) of the soil with clear, unfertilized, water.  This will help prevent the build-up of excess fertilizer salts.  Use fertilizers at their recommended dilutions, keeping in mind your frequency of watering and the growth needs of your plants.  Can you still use urea-based fertilizers and soilles mixes?  Yes.  Even soilless mixes do contain some of the necessary bacteria to break down urea.  Soil conditioners ar available to add more, if you’d like.  Better, many of today’s soilless, peat-based, mixes do have these microorganisms–check the label (look for terms such as mycorrhize).  Good culture means more than just your choice of fertilizers.

African Violets in Strawberry Pots

Question:  Can you plant African violets in a strawberry pot and have them grow well?

Answer:  Yes.  For the fun of it, we’ve done this before, with some success.  Because of their naturally spreading nature, the trailing varieties are the best choice for this use.  For smaller containers, use the miniature or semiminiature varieties.  Be sure that your pot has a means of drainage–drill a hole in the bottom if it’s not there already.  Also, be careful in watering you plants after first potting them, since it may take a while for them to adequately fill the pot with roots.  Use a light soil mix, containing plenty of perlite, for the same reason.  This will allow you to more heavily water the pot without risk of damaging the plants

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