A Gardener Brought Low by Violets

Houseplants are no respecters of persons.

I like to think of myself as keen-green: horticulturally sophisticated, a devotee of plants, sympathetic to their fastidious preferences. I like to think they talk to me, and I listen.

But the fact is that if I am a gardener at all, I am an outdoor one. Give me a patch of dark earth under the arching sky, subject to the wayward generosities of rain and dew, of sun and moon, and give me a bag of scilla bulbs, a packet of linum seeds, or a dozen container-grown goodies - alpine, herbaceous, annual, whatever - from the garden center, and I am as happy as a tutti-frutti-flavored Jelly Belly. And so, generally speaking, are the plants.

But give me an African violet, and my morale turns to ash. An African violet is not, as I see it, good for one's self-respect.

Oh, it will flower obligingly on the windowsill for a week in memory of its professional upbringing. Then it will go dormant for six months or so - not growing, not budding, not flowering - an image of potted inertia. Then its stems will suddenly go softly saggy. Its leaves will go sear and yellow. And finally it will soliloquize: "To be or not to be, That is the ..." - only it will not be asking a question at all. It will be making more of a statement of last intent. A will and testament.

Streptocarpuses and pleiones and cyclamen and nerteras - none of these seductive beauties seem any more willing to stick around for long. But it is African violets, above all, that point the mocking finger: "Call yourself a gardener, do you?"

SOME of our indoor plants have been known to respond favorably to the exigent tactic known as "a spell in the greenhouse." There they at least get overhead light and are not dehydrated by the ferocity of central heating. Apart from sporadic sloshings with a watering can, they are treated, in fact, to a course of sublime neglect. Often they revive. And even thrive.

But not the African violets. They sulk. They complain. They want special attention. And they whine, as only an ungrateful African violet can: "So now you are neglecting us, are you? You'll pay for it. Oh yes. Just watch."

And you do watch - as they moldily flag and fade and fold.

But if deliberate neglect fails, then scrupulous obedience to all the rules found in books on houseplant cultivation don't work, either. Mind you, is there really world enough and time to follow some of these instructions? Take this from "The Conservatory Gardener," by Anne Swithinbank:

"Never overwater. The easiest method is to fill the plant's saucer with 5 cm/2 in. of tepid water for half an hour, drain, and return the plant to a dry saucer. Never splash water on the leaves, as it can leave ugly marks. During periods of active growth, feed virtually at every watering, using a special African violet fertilizer at quarter or half strength. Occasionally, give pure water from the top to flush out any excess fertilizer from the compost."

Thanks, Anne. That may be all very well for the members of African violet - or as they would say, Saintpaulia - societies. But most of us do not have the odd half hour to spare in a busy day, or a measuring tape to hand, or a saucer that can hold two inches of water. Perhaps she means a soup bowl.

Oh, all right then, I'll give it a try next time a saintpaulia sneaks its mini-magnificent way into our domain. They are the most velvety-intense flowers, and I would dearly love to be friends with one.

The other possibility is for me to start drinking tea (which I dislike). But tea is, if I remember it rightly, what Mrs. Finch swore by. Mrs. Finch was a redoubtable friend of my mother. (She also happened to come and help her with the cleaning and ironing.) She had at one time been a Lady's maid, and knew a thing or two.

My mother put her in charge of the African violets on the kitchen windowsill because she felt she was not very good at them herself. (She actually had a way with plants of all other kinds.)

These African violets put the proverbial green-bay tree in the shade. They were paragons, smothered to overkill with flowers all the year round, their leaves a deep dark green and bursting with unstoppable abandon from their small containers. They would have won a prize at any show.

And Mrs. F.'s secret, which she told everyone, was that she watered them once a day with a level teaspoonful of tea ...

Or was it coffee?

Or just water?

Or was it two teaspoonfuls?

Whatever it was, Mrs. F. talked to those African violets. And they listened.

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