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GARDENING : Doing Violence to Your Violet Can Be Avoided

March 02, 1991|LORELEI LACHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Most people take African violets for granted, and why shouldn't they? Despite its exotic name, the plant can be found in most every supermarket or nursery in town.

Sunset's "Western Garden Book" refers to it as "probably (the) most popular houseplant in the United States."

As long as it has a pretty flower and more green leaves than brown, it seemingly doesn't deserve much more thought. But the African violet does have one rather common trait with other products you buy at the supermarket. It never looks quite as good at home as it does under the store lights.

Once it passes through the checkout stand, it's as if the aging process of the plant speeds up; the leaves turn to a faded green, then yellow, and the blossoms fall off. You're left doubting your gardening skills.

It doesn't have to be that way. The care and feeding of the African violet (Saintpaulia ionantha ) isn't an age-old mystery. Only a little education is needed.

Honey Geck is one who can help. Six years ago she joined the African Violet Society of America. Now she has more than 125 African violets at her Huntington Beach home.

"People think that African violets are temperamental, but they really aren't," said Geck, 43, treasurer for the society's Southern California Council. "If you give them the right amount of light, water and fertilize them consistently, they should bloom just about all the time."

She said before buying a plant, give it a good visual inspection. Find one with a healthy foliage. A plant that looks bunchy is not as good as one with leaves coming up in threes from the center.

"Avoid lopsided plants with the leaves growing on just one side," Geck said. "You want it to be symmetrical so the leaves will grow out symmetrical. As the plant grows, the layers of leaves should come out one on top of the other and lay nice and flat."

It should grow into a single crown, making one rosette.

A bright green color also indicates a healthy plant. However, some plants are red or have red spots underneath. This is another variety of African violet--the red color does not indicate trouble.

At home, isolate a new violet from other houseplants for about two or three months, in case it has insects or fungus.

Also, most grocery store plants need to be transplanted, because they are packed in peat moss, making their survival difficult after the moss has dried. The dryness can lead to owners drowning their plants, one of the most common problems.

"You will want to put your plant in a mixture of peat moss, vermiculite and perlite," Geck said. "This makes the soil more porous, the roots grow healthier."

The pot should be roughly one-third the diameter of the leaf span.

The plant should be watered about every five days. There is a myth that you should not get the leaves of an African violet wet. In fact, water will not hurt the leaves unless it settles in the crown of the plant, which would cause it to rot.

It's best if you turn your plant at an angle when you water it in the sink. You can wash the leaves, using a natural sponge or cosmetic brush.

You can water from the bottom for three weeks, then water it from the top on the fourth week. This keeps the fertilizer salts from building up. You should fertilize every time you water.

Geck said the best mixture calls for a teaspoon of fertilizer for every gallon of water. That way you have your water on hand, making the entire process easier.

African violets must also be placed in the proper light, the best being bright filtered light. A coffee table or your bathroom are difficult spots for the plant to grow.

"Windowsills work best," Geck said. "They also like fluorescent light, but if it's in an office, it needs to be pretty close to the light."

If the plant does not blossom, it could be your fertilizer. Look at the numbers on the fertilizer can. The first number refers to the ingredient that makes leaves big. The second number refers to the nourishment of the flower. The third is for the overall health of the plant. The second number needs to be larger then the first number to promote blossoms.

If fertilizer fails, repot the violet. They need to be repotted a couple of times a year.

Since the leaves grow from the top, the older leaves at the bottom are going to go bad first. If you take off these leaves, you might begin to see a stalk. If you do, take the plant out of the pot and, with a knife, cut off the bottom of the potting soil at a length equal to that of the stalk.

You should then add new soil to the top of the plant. New roots will come out of the old stalk. Sometimes that is enough to make it blossom.

If you want to grow a plant from a seedling, the success rate depends on keeping it moist and warm and giving it light during the day. It should be maintained at 70 to 75 degrees.

"The seeds are very small, they look like pepper," Geck said. "Start them out in containers similar to the kind liver is packaged in or deli cups with the clear plastic lid. Don't use soil. You can use some pure peat moss slightly soiled if you want to, then scatter your seeds evenly, cover the container and set it in a warm spot."

It takes two weeks before the seedlings come up and six to seven months to get a blooming plant. The problem with seedlings is that most of them will be single-flowered or single-pedaled plants and will not be very attractive.

"It takes thousands of seedlings, and then you might get one or two that you will want to go on with," Geck said.

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