A Garden Blog About Saying Goodbye

I'm a gardener in Chicago, IL, and I'm leaving my garden behind at the end of the year - The Last Garden is about my garden's final year. Share & Enjoy.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

How Not to Repot an African Violet (Or, How to Plant Saintpaulia into a Too-Small Fishbowl)

African Violets (Saintpaulia ionantha) can be annoying plants to take care of. They've got to be misted, and watered from below, and kept at a steady temperature - well, I can't help you with that last one, but repotting your African Violet into a bowl or terrarium can help tremendously with the first two.

Assuming you do it right.

Which I didn't.

How to Plant African Violets into Fishbowls, Kind Of (with Pictures)

An illustrated guide to your materials.

You'll need:
  • a healthy african violet (or another small medium-humidity houseplant)
  • a fishbowl of sufficient size (this one comes back to bite me)
  • small stones or large aquarium gravel for drainage
  • a small number of napkins (optional but recommended)
  • scissors (for use with napkins)
  • african violet potting soil
  • activated charcoal

Step 1. Gently build up a two to three inch layer of stones/gravel on the bottom of the fish bowl. I rinse mine beforehand, partially because it's force of habit (when setting up an aquarium, always rinse the gravel first) and partially because it helps keep the gravel drainage layer visible, to see if the plants needs to be watered or repotted or any number of things it might want or require.

Step 2. This is an optional step. To keep the soil layer from being washed into the gravel and negating the effect of having a drainage layer at all, use a napkin or paper towel as a physical barrier between the soil and gravel. Water easily moves between the layers (you'll be surprised by how easily it moves up, actually) but the bottom layer stays clear so the plant's roots don't rot. Cut a napkin or paper towel to size and lay it on top of the gravel layer. I cut my napkins slightly smaller so the paper doesn't touch the glass and get all wet and moldy. It's just a personal preference, though.

Step 3. This step is messy. Charcoal is extremely useful for using in confined environmental system such as those found in terrariums. It both chemically binds to (and thereby renders null) an impressive amount of organic compounds that would otherwise rot and stink up the joint, and provides a small amount of fertilization - nothing crazy, but good stuff. I use a thin layer of it in every terrarium I set up.

However, it's messy. Real messy. Don't touch anything but the charcoal while you're using it - it's a pain to get out of clothes, and it can sometimes stain wood or tile depending on their porosity. Wash your hands once or twice with good soap and it'll come off your skin fine.

Step 4. Now you're ready to put the plant into the bowl. (Finally!) Take the african violet out of its pot, and, starting from the bottom of the root ball, try and split it gently in two. Try not to rip off too many of its roots, it needs those to live.

As you can see, I'm bad at this step. This is where things start going horribly wrong.

Step 5. At this point, in an ideal world, you'd gently lift your little Saintpaulia and deposit it neatly in the fishbowl, then add soil 'til the root ball was completely covered. Since this is, in fact, Earth (and possibly even Earth Mk. II), and not an ideal world, it turned out that the fishbowl selected by myself in which to deposit my african violet was, in fact, far too small, and I had to quibble with it about how many leaves it needed to live vs. how many leaves I had to remove in order to fit it into the bowl. I removed five leaves before I could properly insert violet into bowl. The results are displayed above and below.

In that ideal world I was talking about before, the plant's leaves
would have a good inch or two of space between their tips and
the glass. Yeah.

So yes. Hopefully we have all learned some valuable lessons, like "measure your plant before you insert it into a confined space," and "charcoal stains clothing" and possibly "man, this blogger is totally crazy." Thankfully, the violet has lived through this traumatic experience, which, in fact, took place last week. It seems to have adjusted well to having its leaves and roots removed and being shoved into a small glass container. I would rather it have some room to grow, but I can only subject it to so much trauma per month. I figure I'll find a replacement bowl and repot it into that one next month.

Bonus: You can also try and root any leaves that break off. I
have no idea if this will work in a big pot with regular soil and
low humidity, but I'm trying it anyway. Can't hurt. Probably.

If you can get through setting them up, caring for these bowls is a snap. Get a small, long-spouted watering can, and let the water flow down the side of the bowl into the drainage layer. Once the drainage layer is almost but not quite filled with water, wait a few hours - the water saturates the soil from the bottom up, so you don't have to deal with water-burned Saintpaulia leaves! The moisture and the glass work to raise the humidity of the bowl so that you never have to mist. Water again when the drainage layer has dried out completely and the surface of the soil is no longer moist to the touch.

'Til next time - I'm getting an inkling that I'll be ranting about bird feeders, perhaps.

1 comment:

  1. Hahaha. I've so done this when trying to make tabletop terrariums. You'd think I'd learn by now to measure the height of the container, but I just can't bring myself to remember this step.