Some garden stores offer pots that are specially designed for African Violets. But is that just marketing hype? Or do African Violet pots work better for growing these finicky plants? We’re here to help. This post will explain what these pots do and why some people like to use them for their Saintpaulias.
African Violets are small, two-stage pots, usually made of clay. The glazed outer pot holds water that slowly soaks into the unglazed inner pot. This keeps the soil consistently moist. African Violet pots work best with a very loose, airy potting mix. If the soil is too dense, your plant may get overwatered.
This type of container won’t work for all Saintpaulias or all growers. We’ll explain how to tell whether an African Violet pot is right for your home and your plants. And we’ll tell you how to get the best possible results if you decide to use one.
What is an African Violet Pot?
In theory, any pot you use to grow a Saintpaulia is an African Violet pot. But most people using this phrase are talking about a special kind of ceramic container.
The classic African Violet pot is round and fairly shallow, not much taller than it is wide. It includes two separate compartments. The larger one is made of glazed clay, while the smaller one is bare terra cotta. The small container sits inside the bigger one, but doesn’t quite touch the bottom. It’s held up by an overhanging lip, which is usually painted and glazed to match the larger chamber.
The inner container holds your African Violet and its soil. The outer section holds its water. The unglazed clay of the inner pot is porous, so the water seeps through and moistens your Saintpaulia’s soil.
The advantage is that you don’t have to check as often to see if your African Violet needs water. In theory, the soil should stay damp, but not soaking wet. All you need to do is add more water when the outer pot runs dry. That’s what people mean when they call African Violet pots “self-watering”.
The inner chambers are fairly compact, which suits African Violets well. These plants grow in small nooks and crannies in the rocks of mountain rainforests. They flower best in pots that are ⅓-⅔ as wide as their foliage.
The other benefit of African Violet pots is that they let you avoid watering from the top. Cold water can damage the sensitive leaves of these plants. Many growers prefer to water African Violets from the bottom, eliminating the risk of splashing the leaves. Self-watering pots are one way to do this.
Do African Violet Pots Work Well?
Now you understand the theory behind these pots. But do they work in practice? The answer is yes – but only if you know what you’re doing. Inexperienced growers are much more likely to kill their plants with African Violet pots.
That’s because these planters can’t regulate the amount of water that soaks into the inner pot. The soil will just keep absorbing moisture until it’s saturated. If it gets badly waterlogged, your African Violet is in danger. Wet soil chokes off the oxygen that the roots need to function. It can also breed nasty fungi and bacteria, which lead to root rot.
You can avoid this by using the right kind of soil. Potting mix with good drainage and airflow won’t soak up as much water. That’s an easy fix, right? You just avoid overly dense soils.
The problem is that “overly dense soils” includes almost all store-bought potting mixes. Most commercial soil tends to soak up and hold a lot of water. This may be deliberate, to keep novice growers from killing their houseplants by forgetting to water. But it often leads to the opposite problem – killing plants through overwatering and root rot.
Even soil blends marketed specifically for Saintpaulias usually hold too much moisture. Buying an “African Violet pot” and filling it with “African Violet soil” creates an environment that’s lethal for African Violets!
How To Make African Violet Pots Work For You
Despite all those problems, African Violet pots can be useful if you take some precautions. Used correctly, they’ll help you avoid both underwatering and overwatering. Here are our tips for getting the most out of these containers:
Use the Right Soil
You’ll need to fine-tune your soil mix so that it holds the right amount of moisture. This is the most important factor in avoiding the typical problems with African Violet pots.
Around half of your soil blend should be coarse, rigid, material that promotes good drainage. Pumice, perlite, and bark chips are all good choices. The rest of the ingredients can be a bit finer and spongier. Here’s a good mix to get you started:
Don’t want to make a mix from scratch? You could also just use 60% perlite and 40% ready-made African Violet soil.
Change the Soil Frequently
If you’re using fertilizer – and you should be – your African Violet pot will need regular maintenance. Over time, the mineral salts in the fertilizer will clog up the tiny pores in the inner pot. If you don’t correct this, it may stop wicking up water properly.
A related issue is that the soil can get too rich in minerals. Watering from the top helps flush excess nutrients out, but this doesn’t happen with self-watering pots.
The solution is to make sure you’re repotting your African Violet in fresh soil every 6 months. This is good advice for any Saintpaulia owner, but it’s especially important with self-watering planters. While repotting, you can scrub the inner pot with a stiff brush to clear away any mineral buildup. Or soak it in some descaling solution and rinse it out before adding fresh soil.
Watch the Weather
Your African Violet is at greater risk of overwatering in the winter. Dark, cold weather slows the rate at which water evaporates from the soil. It also slows down your plant’s growth, meaning it won’t use as much water. So the potting mix stays damper for longer stretches of time.
During the colder months, you might want to wait a bit longer before refilling the water in your African Violet pot. Check whether the potting mix looks and feels damper than usual. If so, let it dry out a bit before putting more water in the reservoir.
Mature Plants Only
You should only keep robust, well-developed plants in African Violet pots. Seedlings and young transplants have more fragile root systems. They’re more likely to succumb to overwatering in constantly damp soil.
Spotting an Overwatered African Violet
How can you tell if your African Violet pot is hurting your plants? Here are the most common warning signs of an overwatered Saintpaulia.
- Wet soil. Start by inspecting the potting mix. Is it visibly damp? Does it feel squishy to the touch? If you poke a chopstick down to the bottom of the pot, does it come back wet and muddy? These are all signs that your soil holds too much moisture. These conditions will give your African Violet root rot in time.
- Soft, drooping leaves. When the roots are under stress, the rest of the plant wilts. Overwatering is far from the only possible cause, of course. But in combination with wet soil, a droopy plant is a clear danger signal.
- Yellowing foliage. If your African Violet’s leaves are turning yellow at a rapid pace, it may be suffering from overwatering.
- Mushy stem. Does the central stalk of your Saintpaulia feel squishy? If so, that’s a very bad sign. It often means that root rot is spreading up to the aboveground parts of the plant.
- Bad-smelling soil. Sour, musty, or sulfurous odors coming from the pot are often symptoms of infected roots.
If you think your African Violet is overwatered, you should take it out of the pot and look for any roots that are brown, black, slimy, or mushy. Clip off all infected roots with disinfected pruning scissors. Then repot the plant in all-new soil in a new (or disinfected) pot.
Self-watering African Violet pots work well if you know how to use them correctly. Fill them with fluffy, well-aerated potting mix, and keep a close eye on the moisture level of the soil. Once you get the hang of using them, they can be a handy way to keep your African Violet hydrated.