Newbie: Soil Is A Dirty Word

Mama used to threaten to wash my mouth out with soap, in those long ago days of my childhood, if she heard me repeat certain words.  Believe me,  I took those words out of  my childhood vocabulary!

There is one word I do not  use today when I discuss African violets.   My  violets are  NOT planted in  (oh, horrors! Cover your ears;  close your mouth)…… SOIL.

Why not?

In 1985  Pauline Bartholomew explained  why in her book  Growing to Show-How to grow prize-winning African Violets. “Few growers  now include  natural soil in potting mixes.  Soil has too many drawbacks……………..   It tends to compact rapidly, has poor aeration, and must be  pasteurized before use.” (page 50-Potting Mix)

In 25 years great advances have been made; almost no commercial  potting mix contains soil.    Potting mixes are made using  three basic ingredients,  perlite, course vermiculite, and peat moss (or composted forest products); the pH balance is achieved by using dolomitic limestone.

Recognizing the role of each of these staple ingredients helps me understand the  advantage of the  soil-less mix.

Knowing the role of each ingredient helps me when I modify my favorite commercial mix.

When I assemble my mix from scratch,  I understand why I am using  particular proportions.

Getting the facts

Let us gather some common household items that may  help us better understand the function of each ingredient in our potting mix recipe.

We need:

  1. plastic dish scrub pad
  2. sponge (cut it into small pieces)
  3. small bowl of animal feed bits,  imagine it saturated with lemon juice before being dried
  4. sugar

Perlite:  Notice the makeup of the scrub pad.  It is bulky, nonporous  fibers, bundled  in a  shape with a lot of air space inside.   Pour water through it.  What happens, does it absorb the liquid?  No.   Is it wet?  Yes, a film of liquid clings to the surfaces of the fibers.  Try squeezing water from it, nothing happens.   Alone it has no odor, will not decompose; it is a bulky mass that will not compact easily.

A perfect description of perlite and it’s function in our soil-less mix !

“Perlite is a unique volcanic mineral which expands from four to twenty times its original volume when it is quickly heated to a temperature of approximately 1600-1700 degrees F.

“Because of the physical shape of each particle, air passages are formed which provide optimum aeration and drainage. Because perlite is sterile, it is free of disease, seeds, and insects.”

Vermiculite:  Pour water through the sponge.  It immediately absorbs and holds volumes of  fluid which can be released by squeezing.    Additives to the water used will be held for slow release, the sponge will not decompose.   Even when dry these sponge particles will not compact.  Neither will vermiculite.

Peat Moss (or composted forest products).     Think of the bowl of pet feed bits  having been saturated with lemon juice then dried.   It will absorb enormous volumes of water, quickly break down, the products of the breakdown will be distributed to any material touching it.   When it dries it is difficult to rehydrate; it forms a tightly compacted mass, not easily broken apart.

“Peat moss does not contain nutrients but it absorbs nutrients both already existing in the soil and those added by you. The cell structure of sphagnum peat moss is large so it can absorb extra air and nutrients like a wick or sponge. By absorbing these important nutrients, peat moss then releases them over time as your plants need them.”

Dolomite Lime:   Many growers add a small amount of dolomite lime to control the pH.     As  sugar “sweetens” the acidic lemon juice making it more palatable to us, dolomite lime counteracts the acid pH of the vermiculite and compost (peat moss)   helping to maintain the pH range of 6.4 to 6.9

Most practical for the newbie

Can I just go to a store and buy premixed African Violet potting mix?

Sure, in fact, that is what I do.  An advantage when using a good commercial mix is the pH adjustment has been made so there is no need to be concerned.   I amend the commercial mix with perlite (a neutral pH)  for the fluffier mix  I prefer.

A word of caution:   There are good mixes and not so good.  The cheaper mixes may have large chunks of wood products and other  inferior ingredients.   You will find, as you experiment,  a favorite supplier.   I use Miracle-gro or Fafard usually, others prefer Promix  and Volkmann mixes.

Do Not Set Yourself Up to Fail

We all have a number of violets we work with at home.

It has occurred to me that a systematic procedure for discussions about growing
will be beneficial as we plan our Society’s meetings for 2011.

There is no secret that some varieties are easier to grow than others. To begin

the journey with a variety that gives extra challenge from the get-go can be
down right discouraging; we can set ourselves up for failure.

Confidence is the secret to success.

Start with varieties that practically guarantee success.  Holtkamp Greenhouses’ Optimara violets fit the bill . They are readily available.

Everyone develops a fondness for some special African violet characteristic.

Maybe girl foliage is a special delight. Others love violets with variegated
foliage. A trailing growth pattern, sporting hundreds of blossoms on each plant
makes me envious, I feel I must try to grow one. Large plants, miniature
plants, yellow flowers, double flowers, wasp flowers, even bustled leaves are

These fancier violets need more specialized care.

They take practice. Growing a challenging plant along side an easily grown
specimen like an Optimara lets me observe the difference as the two grow.

We all dream of having the best grown

Each member is presented a small plant each year to grow for our April show and sale.

Here is my suggestion:

What if we have three plants we concentrate on, specifically observing for
discussions at our PAVS meetings in 2011?

The rest of our collection can not help but benefit from what these three
“charges” teach us.

Each member will focus on three plants during the next year:

  1. Optimara variety of choice
  2. Named variety of choice
  3. Assigned project plant

———————————–AFRICAN VIOLETS ARE FUN!! GROW ONE!!….OR 2 OR 3 OR………………………………………..

The Seed’s Story Two Months After Sowing

I sowed my seeds March 22, 2010.   Since I was going to demonstrate seed sowing at our African Violet Society meeting I wanted to have   actual seedlings to show.    I succeeded, but it was nothing short of a miracle.

Mistake number one was using such a small container.  If I was not going to try to transport them 200 miles the container would have been fine.   It is difficult to have a steady hand with that much moving.

Mistake number two was forgetting I am clumsy.

Seedlings 4-7-10

First I accidentally dumped the container immediately after planting part of the pack of

2 surviving plants 4-29-10

seeds.   I said a little prayer, uprighted the  container, (the lid had saved a total dump), then sprinkled  the rest of the pack on the mix;  a few germinated by time I headed to Myrtle Beach meeting.

After the meeting I was moving things around the room and a third time accidentally

knocked the container over, this time spilling everything out into a larger box it was sitting in.   I spent about 30 minutes with tweezer and a bright light trying to fine very tiny green specks in that little

Growing May 10, 2010

pile of mix in the box.   I actually found three plants!

Planted, fertilized and growing 5-29-10

Two of those three plants have survived until today.  They are very healthy little plants , sprinting toward blooming, I


I have jokingly said these violets will be Traj and Edy no matter what they look like.

Miniature trailers that stood the test of my ineptness.  They have been subjected to several moments of  Tragedy!

Sow A Seed Grow A Violet

Did I hear you say “I did not  know African Violets have seeds.”

Most  assume an African violet is always propagated using a leaf or cutting.  This is  vegetative reproduction or cloning; a very popular method,  cloning produces  a duplicate of the parent.

Assemble equipment the night before planting day

Each year hundreds of new varieties are introduced and registered with AVSA and other agencies.  These varieties are results of cross pollination to produce seeds.   That is the first step in a long process to bring to market  the named lovelies  we take such delight in.

Any  one can cross pollinate to get a seed pod;  I  purchase seeds from a dealer.   Each seed produces  a unique variety.  Should I be fortunate enough to grow a VERY different variety from seeds; I can claim ownership, name and register it;  many plants will be pretty, but very few worthy of this  honor.

Every grower should sow seeds, at least once.  Not only is it fun, it is a quick,inexpensive way to acquire a number of blooming plants in less than a year.

Part of  FUN WITH VIOLETS  can be seeing the look of amazement  when some admires  a plant and comments on how lovely it is.

You casually reply, “Isn’t it?  I grew it from seeds.”

Supplies are simple:

  1. Seeds
  2. A container with a clear cover
  3. Damp planting mix
  4. A spray bottle of water
  5. Patience

The seeds are  microscopic.

The planting tray can be any small container with a clear covering; African violets seeds must have light to germinate.  My photos show a baby food container.

Prepare to plant:

  • The night before planting seeds,  gather supplies.
  • Dampen the mix;  let it air overnight, you want a planting mix with a rung out washcloth- like dampness.
  • Put very tiny holes in opposite corners of the container; 2 top and 2 bottom

Sowing the seeds

This is what I see on the paper with naked eye. Nothing!
Under a magnifying glass I see there are seeds. Lots of seeds.

Almost 24 hours later I am ready to sow the seeds.   This is  nerve racking;  it seems I am sowing my imagination!

I open the seed pack over a creased   sheet of  white paper, as instructed; gently, I tap.  Are there really seeds in this envelope?  I see nothing on the sheet of paper!

Under a magnifying glass I am able to see lots of seeds!


Now I  have to put them on top of the mixture in the container. I lift the creased sheet of paper ; very carefully I sprinkle them on top of the medium, I hope.

It is now a wait and see,  for from 14 – 21 days,  tiny green sprouts will begin to appear.

Before closing the lid,  spritz lightly with a spray bottle.

Remember, these seeds must have light to germinate.  Keep container at 70 -80 degrees to get plants within 2 weeks; otherwise, it can be much longer.

Stay tuned for a progress report.

You Can Grow African Violets

Simple beauty with little effort

I have loved African Violets ever since I saw my first sun room full of beautifully groomed pale blue violets growing in white ceramic pots when I was about 10 years old.   Those violets lined the sills of that room’s many window, looking for the world like a uniformed parade, all the same variety.  I think they may have been the original Blue Boy.

Over the past 55 plus years I have grown many varieties.  I  have experimented with every means of propagation, except stem cell reproduction.   There is a special thrill in taking  a packet of microscopic seeds  and watching them  grow to blooming plant size.

It seems almost criminal to trash a leaf, knowing  it will  easily produce babies; those suckers give a quick supply of duplicate bloomers.

There was a time when I could get catalogs, but had to send away for them; they took a while to arrive,  there were almost  no photographs.   The forced waiting time did cool the burning desire to have a certain plant somewhat.

Now with the internet’s easy access to suppliers and growers I am doomed.   Who can resist those glorious color pictures of varieties that are instantly available with the  click  of a key?

It is so easy to become overwhelmed by sheer numbers of pottings!

This  happens time and again.   My collections begin with a resolve that I am going to keep everything under control.  African  Violets  can become an addiction;  after a while burnout sets  in.

Like an  overwhelmed father, I abandon my charges, divorce my faithful  light units, and dally with the alluring charms of outside gardening interest. I know when I want to start over, that light unit will be there,  ready to fill my life with beautiful plants once more.

I know this sounds heretical, many violet lovers are appalled by this admission.   It is simply the truth.  Violets are       beautiful plants anyone can grow once a few VERY simple requirements are understood.

I can not help but smile when I hear people talk about being afraid to try growing them.   The  “I”ve heard”  remarks let me know immediately, the greatest hindrance to enjoying these beautiful members of the floral kingdom is fear.

Folks, these are simply plants, they are not little gods that have to be bowed to with unquestioning devotion and coddled with expensive equipment or special potions.

A crown of glory on the queen of plants

In these pages I want to share my experience growing African Violets and their cousins as an enjoyable hobby.

My methods sometimes do not follow the gospel of the expert but they work for me.   I have grown some beautiful plants that made me happy.   I do not spend a lot of money either.  I would rather do it myself.

You may find that you do want to start growing plants of show perfection.   There is plenty educational material out there when that time comes; for now I want you to lose your fear of  growing and just enjoy the  beauty of the queen of flowers.