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New book, new soiless mix and new watering plans – for all violets

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The new soiless mix - well, new to me, pretty standard for serious African Violet fans.

The new soilless mix – well, new to me, pretty standard for serious African Violet fans.

First, I’ve been reading “You Can Grow African Violets” by Kent and Joyce Stork – the “Official Guide Authorized by the African Violet Society of America.”

OK – let me say at the outset i never doubted I could grow African violets – nor do I doubt you can – they’re easy. My Mom grew them on windowsills  when I was a kid and I grew them on windowsills and under artificial lights 100 years ago – well, 40 maybe. And I still have my book from those earlier days, “The New Complete Book of African Violets” by Helen Van Pelt Wilson.

My African violetlibrary consists of two books and a few copies of the Bay state African Violet Society newsletter - all very helpful, but none essential.

My African violet library consists of two books and a few copies of the Bay state African Violet Society newsletter – all very helpful, but none essential.

Ahhhh . .. that name says it all – Helen Van Pelt Wilson – Makes it sound like anyone living in a Newport Mansion could grow African violets!  😉 But seriously, it’s a nice book, but it’s copyright 1951 and some things have changed. My copy is copyright 1963  which is probably closer to when I was growing violets in my last dip into this joyful hobby  and it  even has a chapter entitled “The Fluorescent Way.” So yes, growing under lights has been part of the scheme for a long time.

In those early days we made a pilgrimage or two, to an African Violet Mecca in eastern Connecticut known as “Buells.” This was a wonderful complex of greenhouses build on several levels on the side of a hill – just a great place to browse on a winter’s day, but sadly now gone. None of which reflect in any negative way on the Stork’s book. I love it. And I find it very, very useful. I just don’t like the title because while it’s intended to ease fears, it might in some people cause the reverse – make it sound like they can be grown, but only after you master the contents of this book. Not so.

Still, I intend to master the contents of the book and follow the rules I find there, starting with the growing medium – a soilless mixture of one third milled sphagnum moss, one-third vermiculite, and one-third perlite.  The idea is to provide something light that won’t compact,  will provide air space, but will – thanks to the sphagnum moss – retain a moderate amount of water to keep the roots just the way they like to be kept.

I hope.

But there’s another motor driving things here. with all the young plants generated from leaves during the past few months I have well over 100 african violets and while I enjoy watering each of them and think I’m pretty good at judging when they need a drink, it’s going to get tedious and I really don’t want to burden a neighbor with the task when we take a vacation.  So I started with the question of how best to water them and I don’t have the answer yet – just some general directions.

My first venture involves capillary matting. Google that and you’ll find some neat ways to make it on your own, cheap. But I wanted a commercial product that looked like it would take the stress – and I wanted enough of it so that if it gets slimy after a month or two I won’t hesitate to throw it away and try a new piece. My solution was found at  Growers Supply. This is not a recommendation. I haven’t used it for any length of time yet. But the service was prompt, the price reasonable for the amount, and the stuff seems tough and soak up water quickly and evenly. There’s a lot of it – 4’x100′ – here’s the roll.

The basic idea is simple. I’m starting with some trays I had on hand with reasonably deep groves in them. You put the ends of the matting int he groves, wet it all down and let extra water sit int he tray. The top of the matting where the plants sit is moist, but only from capillary action – there is no standing water at that level and that’s where you put the plants.  You put them on there and top water them once to get the capillary action started. Then you should be able to leave them alone for several days and when it’s time to water you simply fill the tray and let the matting do the work.

I should caution, however, that plants bought at the super market or wherever may be in a heavier mix that will not work well – maybe not work at all – with this system.

I also plan to try another system of wicking. with this you put string like wicks into the plants as you repot with the wick coming out a drainage hole. It can then go to any water source. Same idea. Capillary action does the work – think sponge.  Again, there is all sorts of advice about cheap wicking material you probably have around the house.  I ordered some stuff that wasn’t very expensive and claims to have a very long life which makes sense to me. Got it on Ebay – here

So that’s the plan. I’ll see what works best for me. I’ll probably make some changes as I go along. I hope I’ll learn more from reading and from doing and from writing about what I’m doing and reading what I write because I’ll surely forget exactly what I did to which plant(s) and when. ;-).

In that respect, here’s my first repot! The two plants below were from the original collection. They were a single plant doing poorly in the winter window and so were among the first plants brought under lights in February. This particular plant – I believe it is a standard – thrived under lights, recovered nicely, but developed a huge sucker almost as large as the main plant. So when I repotted it into the main mix I broke it into two plants.

I started a new labelling system with these. The first one, now 5-inches across, is labelled 7.26.13-1and the second is 7.26.13-2 and is four inches across. I have no name for either.

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I have put them on the first capillary mat I created using the new matting material and a grooved tray I have from 40 years ago. (I have four of these trays, but one has a crack in it and won’t hold water. Wish I had more – they seem perfect for this task.Here are the plants on the tray.

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Repotted violets on new matting.

I actually began this experiment with three smaller trays that I had gotten for seed starting and used this spring. They were promoted as “self-watering” and essentially provided a raised tray with groves and a little capillary mat. Those were started on 7/24 and 7/25. Finally, I took another ordinary tray I had and put four bricks in it, then matting on top – did that on 7/27. On that and the other large, black tray I have some plants placed that do NOT have the proper soil mix. It will be interesting to see if they manage to stay damp as well.

Stay tuned – I will update this!

Log of progress with African Violet “Astro”

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Astro – bought from Lyons as leaves – March 2013 – here’s the  Lyon’s blurb on it.

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The leaves arrived on March 13, 2013 – which is when both leaves were planted into the same pot with a mixture of African Violet soil and perlite.

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This photo (below) was taken July 10, 2013 when I divided the plants from this leaf. Looking now on July 26 I find three healthy plants surviving from this.

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I am satisfied with the results from this, but this has been one of the weakest performers of this first batch of leaves. One leaf seems healthy, but hasn’t yielded any babies. The other yielded babies, I cut the leaf in half and stuck it back in the pot, and now a second crop is showing up as can be seen in the July 26 photo below. (Hmmm . . . or are those from the original second leaf – the one not cut in half.  I can’t imagine that in just 16 days I would get these results? Just checked – really hard to tell, but they seem to be from the cut leaf!)

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This is one I am really eager to see bloom.

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Here we go with some pale ones called Frozen in Time

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Community pot of leaves - this time I filled the sma;; pots I was transplanting into with a mixture of two parts African Violet SOil and one part perlite. I feel they might sucj up water form the bottom this way better. Not sure.  Made the mixtur ein advance and wetted the soil in advance as well.

Community pot of leaves – this time I filled the small pots I was transplanting into with a mixture of two parts African Violet SOil and one part perlite. I feel they might suck up water form the bottom this way better. Not sure. Made the mixture in  advance and wetted the soil in advance as well.

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Plucking babies from the leaves – Carolina Ariosa

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May 29, 2013 IMG_0017

These are the babies from one of the leaves I bought from Lyons in early March. I got two leaves of each variety and this  pair of Carolina Ariosa leaves were among those planted in a 12-inch diamter plastic dish. The dish is about three inches deep and has a clear plastic cover. I used a mixture of half perlite, half African Violet soil mix.

I don’t like this approach (the community dish) , although the leaves seem to be doing as well in this community dish as the one planted at the same time in the same mix in 4-inch pots – two leaves to a pot. In both cases green mold/slime seemed to develop on the top of the mix in about a month or less and I’m not sure if that’s a problem or not, but I decided to remove covers and just water from the bottom with a weak mixture of water and an African Violet fertilizer.

My real concern now, however, is the babies? They look good to me from up top and some look like they are at the stage to be removed – the leaves were planted 8-10 weeks ago – so I have started to remove them. Here’s a photo report on my attempt with the third leaf – which went about the same as ones I did last week.  My concern is simple – only one baby with each plant shows any real root development. So I have planted the other babies in individual small pots, but I don’t have a clue how they will do.

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Babies and mother leaf as they came out of the communal pot.

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I find it very difficult to separate the babies from one another – it seems like a brutal process where only one ends up with substantial roots.

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Putting them into small, individual pots of African Violet soil was simple – but will they survive? Thrive?

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I cut the mother leaf in half, cut a fresh end on the stem, and returned it to the communal pot. The idea of cutting in half I got from a YouTube video, the theory being that more energy will go into root development if there is less leaf. (Of course if there is less leaf, then maybe it has less ability to put energy into root development!

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Logic tells me they should develop roots – but is this normal? Doesn’t seem right. (In my keying system these should be 3a.)

Adding lights to the first stand

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June 10, 2014 – I bought this metal stand back in January, I believe, at Lowes for about $70. It can have four shelves, but I felt three did the job. I wasn’t that pleased with the way it went together, but I’m able to make it serve my purposes. I would not buy another of the same make and brand, however.

Until today I was using it with one two-bulb shop light fixture and one four bulb.  The two bulb fixture had one warm white flourescent and one cool white and has served OK. The four bulb – all are T8 – seems better – certainly gives more light – and I have been using it to cultivate the leaves and produce babies.  That  has been reasonably successful. Today I added another two bulb fixture (cheap) to the shelf that already had a two-bulb fixture and I added two, two-bu;b fixtures to light the bottom shelf.

The two-bulb fixtures were $18 each and are Utilitech 4-ft 2-Light T8 shop ights.  They are ready to go complete with chird and chain hangers. I also bought from Ace Hardware  six Medium S-Hooks designed to hold a maximum and 55 pounds and these could just slip through the small chain links that came with the lights. They were $3 a pair – a bit pricey, but they do the job.

I also bought a dozen T8 “Daylight” bulbs. They were $40. The specs are 2700 lumens, 32 watta, 24,000 hours, 75 CRI, and 6,500 K.  I installed six in the new fixtures.

With the single existing dual fixture on the top shelf,  I got foot candle readings of 119, 195, and 102 (back to front). With the second fixture installed  this increased to 300,400, and 260 respectively.

The bottom row – with two of the new fixtures and new bulbs gives me a back-to-front reading in the center of 530, 552, and 430 at a distance of 14.5″. ( At the height of the plants this climbs to as high as 750 inthecenter.)

It will be interesting to see how much these readings fall off over time.

I should add that I still don’t have complete confidence in my light meter. One concern is that it may be registering different values depending on the color of the light – that is, it may be more sensitive to certain colors than others.  So I feel it is useful for rough comparisons, but I haven’t any idea whether the values I’m getting are legitimate in an absolute sense.

By fall I will need another three-shelf set up to handle the baby plants as they grow to maturity.