Growing and Caring for African Violets
I’ll admit it. It took me a while to love African violets. It’s not because they aren’t worthy of attention, I just wasn’t good at attending to them. As someone who takes care of plants for a living and owns over 30 indoor plants, I’ve never taken home an African violet, because I just didn’t understand them.
That is, until I started to learn about what they need, which turns out, isn't much once you realize they just need a little doting. Contrary to popular belief, they aren't difficult houseplants to care for, but they do have specific needs in order to thrive.
Growing and caring for African violets is actually quite simple, as long as you know a few tricks.
African Violet Characteristics
African violets are small plants with tiny little flowers that will bloom all year long. This is one of the reasons they are so popular: it's hard to find indoor plants that produce blooms, never mind consistently.
The petals are unlike any other flowering houseplant, and come in unique shades of purple, red, blue, lavender, white, and even bi-colors. They are available in single, semi-double, and amazing double blooms, some with quilted or ruffled edges.
If you look closely, the flowers contain tiny sparkles that capture the light, and enhance their breathtaking beauty.
African violet leaves are also unique in the fact that they're covered with tiny hairs that feel like soft velvet. Ordinary African violet leaves are a solid shade of green, but there are varieties with speckles of white or pink.
Standard plants won’t ever get much bigger than 16-inches across the crown. They are not actually a violet, but they do come from the tropical rainforests of Africa.
Like most houseplants, African violets thrive in regular household temperatures ranging between 60 and 75 degrees F. They don’t like any sudden changes in climate, and will do best if you can maintain room temperature and humidity.
That means keeping the temperature similar both night and day.
They are delicate plants, and would rather not deal with any drafts, either. Keep them away from air vents, fans, and leaky windows, especially cold ones.
Summer vs. Winter
If you live in a climate where temperature, light, and humidity all fluctuate drastically between the seasons, you may have to move your African violet accordingly. While the direction of where the sun rises and sets won’t change, its height will, and it's much lower in the winter. It also sets earlier, meaning there is less daylight.
Since African violets don’t like drafts, moving them onto a wintry windowsill might not be the best solution. Moving them closer to the light source may provide the extra light they need, but supplemental lighting could be a better option during the cold season.
Or, change windows completely, moving your plants from a North or East summer window to a South or West winter window. Keep your eye on them when you make the move, and observe whether they like their new home or not.
Humidity also drops during colder months as heat sources dry the air. If you have other indoor plants, you might notice that they all look a little worse for wear during this time. Adding some humidity with a humidifier, and keeping soil consistently moist can help combat this issue.
In their natural settings, African violets are found deep in the forest, thriving under the sheer light that filters in through treed canopies where temperatures and humidity stay consistent. If you can mimic these settings, your plants will be happy all year long.
In most parts of North America, African violets will be happy to sit near a windowsill that gets bright, indirect sunlight. You don’t want the scorching summer heat hitting them, and even very bright light in the winter will be too intense for them to handle.
Sheer curtains can help to diffuse intense light, but you may want to consider a different window, or setting them back around two feet from a south or west facing window to fully utilize the majority of that sunlight.
While these plants don’t want to be scorched by the sun, they do require a lot of it, demanding 10-14 hours everyday. So, if you use curtains, you are stealing the light that could feed them if they were positioned further back.
In the winter, when there is less natural sunlight, you may want to supplement with grow lights. The best artificial light to use is fluorescent or LED grow lights, and not to place them too close to the plant.
Broad or full-spectrum is fine, just make sure the lights emit both blue and red spectrum light, as blue supports foliage, and red helps to produce flower buds.
You can also let them naturally go dormant in the winter, at which point they likely won’t bloom, but leaves will stay nice and green.
At night, African violets need deep darkness. Just like us, they need to sleep and go dormant on a daily basis. That means if you use supplemental lighting, you don’t want to leave it on all night, so either set a timer, or get into a routine where you turn off grow lights before you go to bed.
If you can get their maximum light requirements met, you’ll be rewarded with consistent and prolific blooms. This is why they also do well in temperature-controlled greenhouses that follow the natural cycle of the sun.
Choosing Your Location
If you are unsure about the best location for your African violet, choose what you think is the best spot based on these needs, and then observe your plant to see how it performs. This might take a couple of weeks, so don’t move them around every other day: let them get settled, and make notes.
If it isn’t producing any blooms and you see the plant start to develop leggy stems that are reaching toward the light source, that means they’re begging for more light. Either move them closer to a window, or add more daily supplemental lighting.
If you notice that the dark green leaves are losing color or the plant shows other signs of stress like yellow leaves or limp stems, then it’s likely receiving too much light and would prefer to be moved further away from the light source. You can dampen the amount of light coming in with curtains or shades.
Just like other houseplants, the easiest way to kill an African violet is by watering it too much or too little. In this case, over-watering is more of a concern, even though they thrive in moist soil. There is a tipping point for African violets when it comes to water: you want the soil to be moist, but never soggy, and definitely never water-logged.
This is where they can be temperamental. Lots of houseplants will die once they get root rot, but have a window for recovery. African violets are less tolerant of this, most likely because of their size, but also because they are fusspots!
How to Water Correctly
To make sure this doesn’t happen, never let water sit at the bottom of the pot, and allow for proper drainage. It’s that simple. Always plant your African violet in a pot that has drainage holes at the bottom. Don’t try your luck with this one, as extra water can build up quickly in smaller pots, even if you think you’re an expert at watering.
Keep them in a grower’s pot if you like the look of a pot that doesn’t have holes. That way, you can remove the plastic pot and water the plant thoroughly in the sink. Use room temperature water and soak the plant, allowing all of the water to fully drain out of the bottom. Once the water has stopped dripping (about 10 minutes) you can place it back into the other pot.
If you see fungal spots anywhere on the plant, then it means the soil is too moist. However, water that's too cold can leave marks on the leaves, too. Cold water can also damage the root system.
You can water from the bottom by putting some water into a saucer underneath a pot that has drainage holes. The plant will wick up the water as needed. Anything left over in the saucer after 30 minutes can be discarded as the plant has taken what it needs.
Other Watering Tips
If you are watering from the top, move the stems and flowers aside as best as possible without damaging them (they snap easily). A light stream from a faucet is a great way to gently water once you get the right temperature.
Flower, foliage, and stems that get wet are more prone to fungus and rot because they are so soft. Mold and fungus issues can happen when soil is too saturated, not to mention providing excellent breeding grounds for fungus gnats.
You don’t want to water every day. In moderate temperatures with normal humidity between 20-50 percent, you’ll probably water thoroughly about once a week.
Increase watering to every few days if humidity is low or the pot feels light when you lift it, usually during the spring and summer months when they are blooming.
You want to hit that sweet spot where soil is consistently moist, but never completely dry or water-logged. If you’re unsure about water needs, try a water stick or self watering pot.
Feeding your African Violet
Proper fertilizing is also very important for African violets, and when done right can really boost the number and length of blooms they produce. Just like watering, too little or too much feeding will have a detrimental effect.
While you can use any kind of fertilizer meant for indoor plants, using a specific formula designed for African violets is even better. That way, you know they are getting the exact nutrients in the right amounts.
Water-soluble fertilizer is the most recommended kind since you can feed your plants while watering them. You’ll want to do this at least once a month in every season except for winter. As mentioned before, African violets experience a dormant stage in the cooler months when light wanes.
If your plants are very active in the growing months of spring and summer, they may benefit from a feeding every two weeks. Just remember that over-fertilizing can really harm the plant, and prolific blooms mean the conditions are just right. You may not need to tamper with things.
Don't Skimp on Soil
Do NOT make the mistake of following all of the other rules, and then skimp out when it comes to soil. These plants are small, so do yourself a favor and splurge on the cost of a small bag of African violet potting mix. Or, create your own.
You can combine peat moss with regular potting mix that has a good amount of perlite. Perlite is the tiny little white balls you find distributed around potting mixes. These help to provide good drainage and airflow, which is essential for preventing root rot.
You don’t want to use soil mixes that are primarily bark and chips like an orchid or succulent mix. These are not meant to hold as much water, and will be too coarse for an African violet's needs. You want a soil that can retain moisture, while draining well after watering.
Never use garden soil, black earth, or triple mix. It will be too heavy and will saturate easily since it’s meant to be used in outdoor garden beds. Always choose a potting mix, and amend as needed.
Planting and Re-potting
When potting African violets, be careful to pile the mix loosely into the pot, and don't pack the soil down around the roots. Plants should be shifted to larger pots as they grow, but keeping African violets slightly root-bound can encourage them to bloom.
Grow your violet in a pot that is smaller than the spread of the leaves. Many growers find that violets bloom best when the diameter of the plant is wider than the pot, however when one-third of the plant has outgrown the rim, it's a good indication that it's time to re-pot.
The best time to re-plant them is in the spring as they are coming out of dormancy. Choose a pot that's only one size up from the one they are in, and don't try to force them into larger pots. African violets are not meant to be big plants, and will perform best if you let them stay that way.
African violets may not be the best plants for beginners since they’re a little tricky, but maybe that's just another reason to love the little fusspots! Tending to them is actually half the fun. Be aware of the needs of different varieties, too, as some cultivars may be more tolerant of different temperatures and light conditions.
Also, their fuzzy little leaves tend to collect dust, so give them regular, gentle cleanings with a light cloth or soft paintbrush. Take the time to inspect their foliage and remove any damaged leaves and stems, and pluck spent flowers to encourage new growth. Keep them warm. Keep them cozy.
Encourage their daintiness! Once you know how to grow and care for African violets, you can dote on them like you’ve never doted on a plant before.