Sunday, September 01, 2013

African Violets

I have a black thumb.

I admire those who effortlessly grow houseplants and vegetable gardens. I have a friend whose yard, even here in Tucson, explodes with roses every spring. I struggle to keep anything alive. Whether it's over or under-watering, lack of sun or too much sun, too much attention or too little, plants and I do not always get along.

So it was with great joy that several years ago I discovered that African violets are relatively easy to grow. They bloom most of the year, cheerily flowering in bright colors. The watering problem was solved by using self-watering pots. These are actually two pots. The outer one is where you put the water. The inner one nests inside it and holds the plant. The porous clay lets the water pass from the bottom pot to the soil as needed. I found that the plants like to go a bit dry between waterings, so it was no tragedy if I forgot to check the water level for a few days.

My plants survived several moves, and in each place I lived I found a suitable window where they could get enough sun. Sometimes that required keeping the blinds closed so they wouldn't burn. I was happy and so were my plants.

Until I decided to become the owner of two kittens. Curious kittens. The female in particular is a problem.


This is Agatha. I named her after Agatha Christie. After all, I'm a mystery writer. Cats and mystery writers go together, and Agatha seemed a most appropriate name.

I should have named her Shiva Destroyer of Worlds.

Agatha gets into everything. She's not only curious, she's smart. She can open closed doors. And does.

She got into my African violets. I would come home from work and find several plants knocked off the table near the window, water and dirt scattered all over the carpet. I'd pick them up, repot them as best I could on a temporary basis, and vacuum the carpet. But there are only so many times a plant can survive this kind of abuse. Eventually all the plants died and I gave up on having houseplants.

As I approached retirement, I started thinking about African violets again. If I were home, I rationalized, I could watch Agatha. Maybe I could even train her to stay away from my plants. So I couldn't wait to order a few from Rob's Violet Barn. I spent several evenings browsing the web site, trying to decide which plants to order. I eventually settled on two dark blues, a red, a yellow, and a pink miniature. Yes, I chose on the basis of color for a reason that will become clearer later in the year. Two were standard African violets (the red and the yellow). The two blues were streptocarpus. I had no idea what that meant, but they appeared to be a truer blue than the standard African violets and I was shopping by color.

After the plants arrived, I realized I had a light problem. I tried the table near the window thing, but Agatha (remember Agatha?) was sneaky. Just when I let down my guard, there she was trying to get up on the table and knocking it--and my baby plants--over onto the rug again. I decided I had to put them out of her reach on a standalone cabinet in the kitchen. The dimly lit kitchen. After several weeks of debate over whether to spend the money or not, I finally invested in a small plant light.

Being retired, I thought it might be fun to check out the Tucson African Violet Society. One of the potential problems of being retired, not to mention being a writer, is the tendency to become isolated. For a lot of people, me included, going to work represents not only a paycheck, but a primary means of social contact. Knowing this, I spent a lot of last year getting involved in activities outside of my job. Getting together once a month with other women who enjoyed African violets might be fun. I might even learn a thing or two to help me grow better plants.

I didn't realize these people, men and women, took growing houseplants so seriously. At my first meeting, they started talking about when I'd begin to show my African violets.

Show?

Look at that table of beautiful plants. Now look back at my puny specimens. They blithely reassured me that I'd be showing within a year. Several people wanted to give me leaves from their plants so I could increase my collection. This was at the same meeting where the topic was "Pests" and how you were going to get some no matter how careful you were. Just what I needed was leaves from other people that would almost certainly contain some kind of insect, if the presenter for that day was right. My black thumb doesn't need any help.

I also got a notebook filled with useful information. At least I think it's useful. There's a page illustrating the 11 types of leaves and another with the 12 kinds of flowers. Instructions on light, watering, fertilizer, soil type, temperature, humidity. The second meeting was filled with "advice for beginners," about repotting and separating plants and suggestions to save plastic butter tubs for wicking and how you can buy plastic grid thingies at Home Depot and have them cut to the size of your trays (trays?).

Then there were cautions about how your electric bill would go up because of all the plant lights. And stories of African violets taking over people's homes. The bathtub seems to be a particularly popular place to nurture plants. One rather daunting piece of advice was that "There are plants to be watered and repotted at all times when the number reaches 30."

Thirty?

My idea was to have a few little plants to cheer up my home. Because they're easy to grow, you know. I went to the meeting and joined the Tucson AVS on a lark. It wasn't supposed to become an obsession!

But there is that lighted plant stand that would go nicely on one wall of my living room, particularly if I get rid of one of the chairs Agatha has torn apart with her claws. And I don't have to have thirty plants, now, do I? Maybe fifteen. Or twenty. And maybe I could show just one next year. Not that I would win a prize or anything. But it would be an interesting experience. Wouldn't it?

Photo Credits:
African Violet Capturing Wonder: Mary J.I. via photopin cc
Violet Show:  khufram via photopin cc
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