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Ask the Master Gardener: As African violets grow, repotting them requires special care

When African violets have a bright spot, are well-fed and carefully watered they will outgrow their pots and need to be repotted.

An African violet
When African violets have a bright spot, are well-fed and carefully watered they will outgrow their pots and need to be repotted.
Contributed / Jennifer Knutson
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Dear Master Gardener: My African violet is flowering, but keeps getting taller and taller and leans to one side. Do I dare repot it?

Answer: Yes! African violets (Saintpaulia ionantha) are a long-time favorite houseplant because they need minimal care and less light than many plants. Violets come in many colors, different leaf shapes and foliage colors, and range in size from miniature to large. However, when they have a bright spot, are well-fed and carefully watered they will outgrow their pots and need to be repotted. It’s important to know that African violets prefer to be root bound and usually won’t flower until they are, so don’t just do the typical move into a larger pot. If your plant is starting to look like a fuzzy version of a palm tree with a bare stem and all the leaves at the top, it’s time to do some surgery. If you spot any baby plants, carefully cut them away and root them in small pots. Save a few healthy bottom leaves to root in water or damp vermiculite — it takes several weeks, but it’s always nice to have extras to enjoy or trade. For the main plant, cut the stem a little below the first set of leaves you want to keep. Lightly scrape the stem with your knife — the slight irritation will help it start root production. A dusting with rooting hormone will help, too. Then set the whole plant into fresh African violet potting mix and water thoroughly, making sure excess water drains out. Keep the soil moist but not soggy. Plastic or ceramic pots with good drainage are recommended — clay pots dry out too quickly and salts collect along the top rim. When your plant starts putting out new leaves again, begin to fertilize at a very low concentration every time you water. Keep water off the leaves and periodically brush them with a soft brush to remove dust. Remove faded flowers. Water carefully from the top or from the bottom making sure there is no standing water in order to avoid root rot. Rotate the pot a bit every time you water so the plant won’t lean toward the light.

Dear Master Gardener: You’re always talking about Zone 3. What does that mean?

Answer: It’s a secret code only known by expert gardeners! Actually, Zone 3 is a guide to help gardeners judge what should survive our winter temperatures. Officially called the USDA Hardiness Zone Map ( https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov ), zones are plotted in 5-degree increments, hence 3a and 3b, using the average lowest temperature of the winter. Not the average low temperatures, the average of the lowest temperature. Since Brainerd hit 33 degrees below zero last week, praying that that is the lowest we go this winter, that number will be averaged in with previous winters. Even if the rest of the winter is easy on us, that’s our data point for the winter of 2021-22. The good news is our thick blanket of snow gives us a lot of additional protection against exposed plants freezing. Just remember that hardiness zone numbers are guides not hard, fast rules. With climate change, Minnesota no longer shows any Zone 2 (40 to 50 degrees below zero) and southern parts of the state have become Zone 5a (15 to 20 degrees below zero) and Brainerd is almost considered Zone 4a (25 to 30 degrees below zero), but as we proved last week, we are probably only safe buying Zone 3b plants (30 to 35 degrees below zero). Keep in mind, your yard might have protected areas that don’t get quite as cold, or you may be a gambler and want to risk growing that Zone 4 or 5 plant. I have several Zone 5 roses that have survived for years with a little extra TLC. Keeping the roots well-watered until the ground freezes and providing extra mulch can help. Be especially aware when ordering perennials from seed catalogs — we often have to grow things up here as annuals that the rest of the country calls perennial.

Dear Master Gardener: The hospital and some businesses use so much salt to melt their sidewalks. Aren’t we supposed to cut back because the runoff into the lakes and river is bad?

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Answer: Excellent question. High levels of chloride in our waterways are practically permanent — there is no current easy way to remove it. One teaspoon of salt permanently pollutes 5 gallons of water. Fish and other aquatic creatures are negatively impacted, and most of us have seen what happens in our yards from the salt the snow plow rolls up on the edges near the road or when the grass doesn’t grow well in the spring next to our sidewalks. Use sand, clay cat litter, or chicken grit to provide some traction if needed on icy walkways. Use less salt — a coffee mug amount can be plenty for 10 sidewalk sections! Sweep up any salt sitting on dry pavement — don’t let it run into the gutter or grass later. If sidewalks are shoveled, the sun and wind will keep them clear, and no salt is needed most of the time.

Dear Master Gardener: Are there any unusual flowering houseplants I can try other than the typical ones?

Answer: Availability could be an issue, but following are three atypical flowering houseplants. Bird of Paradise is a relative of the banana and one of the most exotic, easy to grow potted plants. It not only has showy fans of blue-green leaves that are attractive all the time, but mature plants send up stalks topped with fascinating birdlike flowers that combine colors of golden orange and peacock blue during the warm seasons. Clivia, a member of the lily family, is easier to grow than an orchid and more unusual than an amaryllis. It has dark, evergreen, leathery leaves that provide a perfect backdrop for the dense clusters of orange flowers that appear. There are some yellow cultivars; however, they are quite rare and consequently expensive. A zebra plant is another option. Not only does it have dark leaves with striking, light-colored veins, making it a beautiful houseplant when it is not in bloom, it also sends up spikes of waxy bright yellow-bracted flowers that are long-lasting. Zebra plants do have a reputation for being somewhat difficult to grow because they require high humidity and consistent moisture.

You may get your garden questions answered by calling the new Master Gardener Help Line at 218-824-1068 and leaving a message. A master gardener will return your call. Or, emailing me at umnmastergardener@gmail.com and I will answer you in the column if space allows. University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners are trained and certified volunteers for the University of Minnesota Extension. Information given in this column is based on university research.

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