If you are looking for something different to market from your homestead, consider African violets. Even if you have never grown or sold flowers before, bright and cheerful African violets have many benefits. First, they are relatively easy to grow. Second, they take up very little space in a growing room. Third, they are easy to propagate, creating free plants once you get started. Finally, these plants stand out at a farmers’ market, drawing both your regulars and new customers.
That all sounds good, you’re probably wondering if it is going to be worth the time and effort just to sell a few flowers? Good question. If you have access to a 4-foot by 10-foot area in a grow room or sunny indoor location, you can realistically grow 1,400 plants a year. In my area, African violets sell for $6 a plant. An extra $8,400 goes a long way on my homestead!
I recommend starting African violets from seed. It is more time consuming, but you will end up with a lot more plants for a lot less money. From those plants, you can continue to propagate from leaf cuttings and divisions. Plus, you can start seeds indoors at any time of the year.
The best medium for starting African violets from seed is peat moss. Dampen the peat moss thoroughly before planting. You want the peat moss to be moist but not wet. Carefully spread the tiny seeds as evenly as possible over the peat moss. Do not cover the seeds with more growing medium. Use a spray bottle to lightly mist the seeds. Cover with plastic wrap and place in bright, indirect light or under grow lights. Keep an eye on the moisture level and mist as necessary to keep moist. The temperature is also important. These seeds like to germinate when the area is consistently 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit. Your seeds should germinate in 25 days.
Once you have at least two sets of true leaves you can transplant. African violets enjoy a snug space so do not choose a huge planter.
African violets are easy to grow, but they do have needs. The first consideration is light. These plants need bright, indirect indoor light. All plants require light for photosynthesis. When we think of photosynthesis, we automatically associate it with green stems and leaves. But this is not the only reason plants need photosynthesis. Its most important function is converting carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen (in the form of carbon dioxide and water) into plant carbohydrates. Even if your plant receives everything else it needs, the absence of sunlight will starve your plant to death.
Obviously, you are not going to try to grow your African violets in complete darkness. But your plants are negatively affected if they don’t receive enough light. Without adequate light, African violets will stop flowering and their leaves will begin to yellow. They will also develop elongated stems and leaves.
On the other hand, too much light is not good for your African violets either. If your plants receive too much light they will develop necrosis. This is like a sunburn for plants, and they will develop brown spots on their leaves. Another sign that your plant is receiving too much light is when variegated leaves turn completely green.
African violets do best when they receive a lot of indirect sunlight. Place them where they get light most of the day, such as in a bright room with western or southern exposure. If necessary, you can hang a sheer curtain to filter out some of the light. To know if they are receiving the most appropriate amount of light, hold your hand over a plant during the time of day it is receiving the brightest light. Your plant is getting the correct amount of light if you can barely see the shadow of your hand over the plant.
Rotate your plant one-quarter turn each week to ensure your African violets are receiving an equal amount of sunlight on all sides.
African violets also perform well under grow lights but there are a few guidelines to follow. First, the lights should emit in both the red and blue spectrums. The blue light is responsible for photosynthesis, which we know to be necessary for the development of green leaves and the production of plant carbohydrates. Without blue light, your plants will starve! African violets need red light in order to bloom.
Mount your grow lights 18-20 inches above the tops of standard African violets. If you are growing miniature African violets, you can lower the lights to 10-12 inches above the tops of the plants.
Your plants will need an average of 8 hours of darkness each day. The light they receive produces a flowering hormone called florigen, but florigen does not trigger flowering until it is dark. African violets should not receive more than 16 hours of light each day. If you think it will be a problem remembering to shut off the lights each night, invest in a timer for your lights.
The next consideration is soil. Your soil should have a pH level that is between 6 and 7 at all times, but it should be closer to 7. It is a good idea to buy an electronic pH soil tester and teat several times throughout the year. An easy way to maintain a high pH level is to water out of your newly-emptied gallon milk-jug a few times a year. Simply swish some water around the empty jug so that it mixes with the milk residue and water your plants.
Another consideration is water. Generally speaking, African violets do well in moist soil but are unhappy in soggy soil. African violets are susceptible to pathogens such as Pythium, root rot, and crown rot if they are overwatered. African violets can also go through a process called denitrification when watered too much. This prevents your plants from getting the nitrogen they require.
When you water you want to use room temperature water. If you water with cold water, the roots of your African violets will get chilled causing the leaves to curl down. Make sure you are not using soft water, as it increases the saline content, altering both the pH and the conductivity of the soil. This impairs your African violets ability to absorb the water and nutrients necessary for growth. In addition to avoiding soft water, you want to avoid using highly chlorinated water. Plants, in general, do need some chlorine for photosynthesis, but African violets need very little. Too much chlorine will result in leaf burn and decreased flowering. If you have chlorinated water, draw up enough to water your plants and let stand overnight before using.
During the flowering stage, allow the soil to go dry one day before watering. Place your finger on the soil. If it is beginning to dry out, water the next morning. Morning watering is very important: it is the only time of day you should water your African violets. When the flowering stops you can let the soil go dry for 2-3 days before watering. Avoid ring spot by watering at soil level; these plants do not like water to be splashed on their leaves. You can also buy African violet pots that have a reservoir underneath that allows the plants to draw water from below continuously.
The final consideration for your African violets is temperature and humidity. African violets need the temperature to remain as close to 70 degrees Fahrenheit as possible. Do not let temperatures dip below 60 degrees or rise above 80 degrees. Cold temperatures are harder on these plants than heat. If your violets get exposed to cold air, immediately move them to a warm area. Check for any tissue that has become dark and squishy and remove any tissue that was affected. Stop watering but maintain a high humidity by placing the affected plant in a plastic bag sealed with a wire twist. You should see signs of the plant trying to recover within a few days. Keep your plant in this bag for one week before removing it and returning it to its normal watering schedule.
The native environment of this plant sports a relative humidity level of 70-80%. Fortunately, it is not necessary to maintain this level in your grow room. Aim for at least 50% humidity. High humidity is important because if the humidity level is too low, your buds will fail to open and the leaves will shrivel up.
There are several ways to create a humid microclimate for your African violets. One option is to group your plants as close together as possible without letting the leaves touch each other. This can raise the level of humidity directly around your plants as much as 15%. A second option is to place containers of water around your plants. You can also use a humidifier or wet pebble trays.
It is important to remember that wherever you have high humidity levels, you need good air circulation. A ceiling fan or box fan on low is an adequate solution.
Once you have your first good “crop” of African violets, you can start propagating them. Propagating from plants you have gives you an unlimited source of free African violets. African violets can be propagated from leaf cuttings or by division. For leaf cuttings, simply remove a healthy leaf by cutting it off neatly at the stem of the plant with a sterile blade. Insert the leaf stem into a hole in planting medium and water. Roots should appear within 3-4 weeks. Once you see the roots, new leaves should show themselves 3-4 weeks later.
If you are propagating by division, cut the crown from the plant so that there is a piece of the root system on each portion. Plant each division in a pot and care for this plant as normal.
African violets are fun and interesting to grow, beautiful to have in your home, and easy to sell at markets. I hope you will give them a try!