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How Not to Kill an African Violets

This addresses one of the two major complaints that I hear about African violets – African violets always die for me! The other one (another article) is “I can’t get them to flower”.

It isn’t necessary to have any especially green fingers to grow African violets successfully. Just have the patience to learn a bit about their actual requirements. When our African violets die it is often because of lack of care, or conversely, too much love. We forget to water them, we over-water them, we let them go for months with no fertiliser or we give them so much they can’t cope. We place them where we think they will look good, rather than where they will grow well.

They just need water, nutrient, warmth and light. Perhaps you think you are fulfilling their every need, but they still die. That is a sad situation but it need not be terminal. You may have to adjust only a few things.

So, how can we avoid killing our African violets? Here are a few tips.

Keep the Roots Healthy

The health and beauty of the plant as you see it depends greatly on the health of the root system. Keep the roots healthy with good watering and fertilising practices. When in any doubt, do inspect the roots. If there is too much water or fertiliser present the small root hairs will rot or be burned away, thus destroying the plant’s ability to take up water and fertiliser. Don’t be fooled into thinking that a plant that is wilting necessarily needs more water. Always feel the surface of the potting mix.

Control the Watering

Most people have heard that you shouldn’t over-water an African violet. Remember that it is just as damaging to under-water. Potting mix that is evenly moist is the aim. You can do this in many ways. The easiest is by wick watering or any of its variations, but there is no reason you can’t just water from the top, letting the excess water run away, or from the bottom by standing the pot in a small amount of water until it has percolated through the mix. The first big no-no is to leave the pot standing in water for many hours or even days. The second is to let it get dry to the point of wilting then over-compensating until it is saturated, only to repeat the cycle. Sooner or later both of these can be fatal; even if you think the plant is doing OK to start with.

Use a Coarse, Well Drained Potting Mix

Use a potting mix that is open and free draining. The plants never originated in a swamp and don’t want to grow in one. If the mix holds too much water in itself it will be unsatisfactory no matter how carefully you water or what watering method you use. Contrary to the lists of ingredients that we often give for potting mix, it is important to remember that the two main components are air and moisture. Seems weird, doesn’t it?
There are several ways to ensure that there is plenty of air in the potting mix. Make sure that at least 50% of the grains of other materials in the mix are around 3mm (one eighth of an inch). Never squash the mix down around the roots as this will push all the solid ingredients together eliminating the air. Don’t over-water, or leave the pot standing in water as this will fill the spaces in the mix with water, driving out the air.

The potting mix and the watering method always need to be in harmony. Check that yours are working well together.

Fertilise Carefully

Yes, some fertiliser is necessary. You will find plenty of fertilisers dedicated to the growing of African violets available. If not use a fertiliser for flowering plants. A liquid fertiliser is preferable, especially for automatic watering systems like wicking. The main thing to remember with fertiliser though is not to over-do it. If you are wick watering you can constantly feed the plants by using fertiliser solution rather than plain water. In fact you can constant feed no matter how you water simply by always using fertiliser solution. But the fertiliser should be weak. One quarter strength is fine if you constantly fertilise. Remember that less is always better than more!

I make this quote in the book:
“I vividly remember a person to whom I had given an African violet showing it to me some months later – as a small stump covered in fertiliser crystals, in the middle of a pot of very wet soil. “Do you think it will live?” was the plaintive question. Well, no! it was already dead’ the victim of being regularly given two to three times the needed amount of fertiliser.”
Please remember that if you are tempted to use a little more than necessary!
Provide Lots of Light

Light is another essential, more important for flowering than any other factor. If kept in a dark place the plant will actually live for quite a long time. Of course it won’t be healthy and it won’t look too good, but it will live. But eventually it will give up because lack of light means that it doesn’t need, and so doesn’t take up, the water and nutrient provided. That means it will actually suffer from being too wet and have too much fertiliser.


Questions & Answers - the following are also relevant
Question about a dying plant

I was very lucky to be given a beautiful pot of African violet in January. It was flowering well and was looking very healthy. They tell me I cannot kill it because it came with its own watering base and all I have to do is add water to the base.
I put it inside near the window. Not too much sun. But now it is dying. The leaves just wilted. The stem shrivelled up at the base. I move it to different spot but it was no better. There are only two little leaves left.
What should or can I do to save it? Help!

Answer

Sadly it is still possible to kill your African violet even if it is in an automatic watering pot.

There are a number of possibilities, and I am afraid I cannot tell which is the culprit without actually seeing the plant.

Let me explain: If the leaves have wilted off and died this is because the roots are in trouble and are not able to access water. This can be because:

a) They are too dry - Have you been keeping up a constant supply of water? Is the automatic watering system actually drawing water? Feel the surface of the mix to detirmine whether it is wet or dry. If there is not enough moisture, the outside leaves will be the first to suffer, and then on up the plant.
b) The roots are too wet - If the watering system is working all too well, or you have added copious amounts of water to the pot the roots will likely rot away. If this happens the plant cannot take up sufficient moisture because of loss of fine roots and the effects in the top of the plant are the same as in a) above.
c) Pest infestation or disease. The worst pest in this regard is soil mealy bug. These are small white insects that crawl around in the root system and suck the plant juices from the roots. Although their presence can be tolerated by the plant for some time eventually the leaves will shrivel because the moisture and nutrients are not available to them since the roots are being damaged. Some fungal infections can have similar results.
I suggest you slip the plant out of its pot and check what is happening with the roots. The plant may be better if it is repotted, as it will now have a much smaller root system. Should it have an infestation or infection I strongly recommend discarding and replacing the plant.

Another question about an unhealthy plant

I have an African Violet that I have had for over ten years, it was my Grandmother's and I'm not sure how long she had it before it came to my house. This summer (July/August) I split the very large plant and gave half to my mother. The violet thrived all fall. Over the past few months it has started to look very bad. The leaves are wilting away and there is very little new growth. I have tried moving it to various parts of my house thinking it was too hot, too cold, getting too much sun, not enough sun, etc. Nothing has seemed to work. I am wondering if this plant is too far gone or if it would benefit from re-potting? By the way, the plant that I gave to my mother is doing wonderfully. That plant is in the same pot, and was potted with the same "African Violet" soil.
I am open to any suggestions, I would hate to lose this very special plant.

Answer

One of the first things I would do is take the strongest and most healthy leaf and plant it so that it will propagate new plantlets in case the original plant does not survive.

Another thing to do is to gently slip the plant out of the pot and look at the roots. The health of the roots most important and a quick look there will help detirmine what is the cause of the problem. Healthy roots are strong and abundant throughout the potting mix, and are either white or semi-transparent looking.

Problems that you may find are:
Root rot - caused by fungal organisms, and exacerbated by keeping the potting mix too wet. The roots will be dark and very fragile. The potting mix will fall into crumbles rather than being held together by the roots. In the absence of healthy roots the plant cannot take up moisture and nutrients, thus it will wilt even though it may be wet.

Soil Mealy Bugs - tiny white/greyish insects that can be seen among the roots. They are sucking insects and will detract from the health of the plant as nutrients are not reaching the plant. The plant will eventually wilt and will appear unhealthy.

In both these cases I believe the best remedy is to entirely cut off the roots and take the healthy top of the plant to regrow. It should be planted in a small pot of high quality African violet mix and kept gently moist and in a good light.

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