Monthly Archives: January 2014

Optimara Does It Again

Last year I was impressed when Optimata African Violets shared a Facebook post that included some plant morphology. Well now they’ve taken that a step further and are offering a free growing a guide.

I wasn’t sure what this guide would be like – often the guides that are offered free of charge by plant companies are pretty lame. My hopes weren’t very high but when I opened the PDF file, I was pleasantly surprised.

Optimara Annabelle with Bell Flower Shape

Optimara Annabelle with Bell Flower Shape

This growing guide includes a nice section on african violet morphology, clearly explaining where you’ll find the petal, pedicel and peduncle on a violet (just in case you’re a plant morphology nut like me!). It also shows the different shapes and colors of flowers and leaves that breeders have developed in african violets over the years. While I haven’t seen many of these varieties, it’s interesting to know that they’re out there, probably lurking at some African Violet Society show!

The guide provides history of the african violet as well as tips on growing violets. One tip that especially surprised me is that if a violet has gotten very dry, don’t fully water it right away. Instead, slowly bring back the hydration to the soil by watering a little, waiting a couple of days, and then watering again. They say fully watering a plant that’s very dry can lead to fungal diseases (i.e. pythium). I can’t help but wonder if my watering of dry plants was part of the cause of my pythium outbreak.

I can’t recommend this guide strongly enough. If you grow violets or are thinking about it, this is something worth downloading and keeping for future reference. And even if you don’t grow them, the pictures of all of the various colors and shapes of violets makes this an interesting guide to page through online. It’s amazing to think that all of these varieties came from a plant discovered by Walter von Saint Paul-Illaire in Africa in the late 1800s.

To get your copy of this guide either for online reading or as a PDF download, go to Optimara African Violet Guide.


Spikes, Spikes Everywhere

phalI have a number of phalaenopsis orchid plants and right now, they’re spiking away. In “orchid speak,” spiking is when an orchid starts to produce an inflorescence.

I’ve grown orchids in the past but I’ve never had them grow so well and spike so much as these plants are doing right now. For the first time, one of the plants is sending up two spikes and on others, the spikes are branched and filled with buds.

Phalaenopsis with two small spikes

Phalaenopsis with Two Spikes

What’s different? I’m growing them with the same lighting conditions as in the past. Most of the plants are growing in clay orchid pots with sphagnum moss. There’s only one thing that’s different – this year I’ve made a conscious effort to fertilize the plants regularly.

There’s an adage out there that says orchids should be fertilized “weekly weakly,” the idea being that a weak fertilizer solution should be added to the plants once a week. I haven’t gone to this extreme but I have been fertilizing them at the middle and end of the month. I have some liquid fertilizer for African violets and that’s what I’ve been using. The orchids don’t seem to mind that the fertilizer is made specifically for them!

Branched Phalaenopis Spikes

Branched Phalaenopis Spikes

The difference is amazing. The leaves are healthy and green and the plants have all been growing well. And now all of the spikes just shows that fertilizer really is important when growing orchids (and other plants as well).

Eventually I’ll learn the lesson that fertilizer is vital and makes a big difference in how plants grow, blossom and produce. Every time I look at these orchids, I have a visual reminder of what a little bit of good fertilizing can accomplish!

Up-Potting African Violets

The majority of houseplants are pretty easy to move into a larger pot (up-potting). The leaves, petioles and stems are somewhat flexible and you can move them out of the way when you’re adding soil to fill the space between the root ball and the edge of the pot.

But african violets are a different story. I’ve always struggled with up-potting them. The petioles and leaves are brittle and break easily when transplanting. Some suggest the you let the plant get dry before transplanting it because if the petioles and leaves are less turgid, they’re less likely to break. While this can help, there’s still the issue of getting the soil into the pot. No matter how careful I’ve been, I always end up getting potting mix all over the leaves and petioles and, since they’re both covered with hairs, the soil sticks and it all ends up being a big mess.

That’s why I was happy to learn a trick for transplanting violets from the Optimara web site. Below, with pictures and commentary, I’ll show how you can transplant a violet into a larger pot with ease!


Here I have the things I’ll need to transplant this violet – sterilized potting mix, a larger pot and a piece of paper towel. I use the paper towel to line the bottom of the pot. It works well because it allows the pot to drain but keeps the potting mix from coming out of the holes in the pot.


Here I’ve removed the violet from its old pot.


I then put the paper towel into the bottom of the new pot, added potting mix to the bottom and then put the small pot that the violet had been growing in into the new pot and packed potting mix around it. This mix was pretty dry and very fluffy and light so I could pack it tightly around the old pot.


I carefully removed the old pot and what I ended up with was an opening in the soil that was the exact size of the violet’s root ball.


All I had to do to replant the violet was to drop it into the opening in the soil, tap the pot of few times on the table and water it from the top until water drained from the holes in the bottom. The tapping and watering from the top made sure that there was good contact between the root ball and the new soil.

This is the greatest trick for up-potting violets. It produces minimal mess for me and minimal stress for the african violet. It would work well with other gesneriads (i.e. gloxinias and streptocarpus), all of which can be a little difficult to transplant. I also think it would make transplanting cactus and other spiny plants a lot easier.

I can’t believe I’d never learned this trick in all the years I’ve been growing houseplants. I’m just glad I learned it now and I’m certain I’ll be using it a lot in the future.

Sterilizing Potting Mix or “Die Pythium, Die”

(After two years, I’m starting to realize that this blog is a ten month blog – I practically forget about it in November and December. Oh well, it’s January so it’s time to start things up once again!)

Last year I posted African Violet Disaster – Pythium in which I described how my attempts to propagate african violets all failed because some potting mixed that I’d purchased must have contained pythium spores. This soil-born fungus is fatal to african violets. While most potting mixes that you purchase are sterilized, this experience made me a little wary of what might be in the potting mix that I bring home from the store.

003This fall I ordered a couple of violets from Lyndon Lyon Greenhouses in Dolgeville, NY. The plants were packed well and arrived in great condition. But when I saw them, I knew that sooner rather than later I’d have to move them into larger pots since they arrived in small 2″ pots. That got me thinking about my last african violet disaster and hoping I could find a way to not repeat it.

While I’ve never had a problem with potting mix purchased at a particular garden center, I wanted to take an extra step to sterilize the soil just in case and to calm my concerns! I went online and found a number of different ways to sterilize potting mix, the majority of them involving baking the mix in the oven.

As I looked closer into this approach, I noted a few warnings that made me think twice about trying it. The first is that if you over-heat the mix, chemicals that are toxic to plants can develop. Talk about defeating the purpose of sterilizing. The other thing that put me off to the oven technique is that all of the sites say that baking potting mix smells terrible! If it were spring or summer and the windows were open I wouldn’t have given it much thought. But in the cold of winter with everything sealed up tightly, I wasn’t too excited about smelling up the house.

So I tried a different approach – the hot water method of potting mix sterilization. With this technique, you put the mix into a pot, pour boiling water over it and let it drain and then repeat the process two more times. This should be enough heat to kill any pathogens without overheating the mix. Also it limits the smell of sterilization. The only downside is that you can only sterilize small amounts of potting mix.

Since I was looking to transplant two african violets, a small amount of mix was fine with me. I took a clean 8″ clay pot, put a piece of paper towel over the drainage hole and then filled it about half full with potting mix. The first tea kettle of boiling water drained well but the second kettle didn’t. The paper towel had gotten clogged so I poked a small hole in it and the water drained easily. After allowing the third application of boiling water to drain, I had a clay pot about one-third full of potting mix that should be sterilized. The only problem was that it was too wet to use. So I loosened it up a little bit and put the pot aside to allow the mix to dry – the in the dry winter air of a heated home, it didn’t take long for the excess water to evaporate. In my next post I’ll show you how I used it.

While the process is a little tedious, if boiling water can limit pythium, I’ll be using this technique to sterilize all of the potting mix that I use with african violets.

The experiment has begun and only time will show how well it works…