One of the most common questions people have about caring for African Violets is how to water them. That’s no surprise – getting it wrong is one of the most reliable ways to mess up your plant! However, there are only a few tips and tricks you need to know to get it right. Keep reading to learn the best way to water your African Violet.
Water your African Violet whenever the uppermost inch of soil is dry to the touch. Lukewarm water is always safest; letting cold water sit on the leaves can damage them. Bottom watering works well for African Violets, but you should flush the soil occasionally to keep salts from building up in the pot.
Overwatering is more dangerous than underwatering, since it can lead to root rot. But repeatedly letting your African Violet get thirsty can weaken and stunt it. We’ll identify some danger signs to watch for, and give you some pointers on striking the right balance. Soon you’ll understand exactly how to water your African Violet.
How Often Should You Water an African Violet?
When do you water your African Violet houseplant? Answer: whenever it needs water. That probably sounds snarky, but you can’t count on a rigid timetable to keep your plant well-watered.
Like many of the plants that do well in our homes, African Violets – also called Saintpaulias – are tropical plants. They like their soil to contain a little bit of moisture at all times. That way, their roots always have something to draw on. But the mix shouldn’t be wet and swampy, or your African Violet will rot.
It’s almost impossible to maintain this delicate balance by watering on an unchanging schedule. The time it takes for the soil to dry out after every watering depends on:
- How bright the sunlight is
- The air temperature
- What material the pot is made of
- How large the pot is
- How large the plant is
- The humidity
- Whether Mercury is in retrograde
Okay, we’re kidding about the last one. But you get the point – there are too many variable factors for us to just say “water every X days.”
What you can do on a regular basis is check your African Violet’s soil. Every 3-5 days, test it with your finger. You can water once the top inch feels dry and crumbly. The soil by the roots will still be moist at that point, but not so moist that your plant is rotting.
You can use a chopstick or a moisture meter if you want to directly test the soil in the bottom. Water when the end of the chopstick comes back slightly damp or the meter’s needle is at the low end of “moist”. If you’re using a meter, you should pair it with the finger or chopstick test at first. That will let you get a feel for its sensitivity.
How to Water an African Violet
Always use lukewarm water on your African Violets, since cold water can damage the leaves. It can cause the chloroplasts – the green, light-absorbing parts of the cell – to break down. The result is a leaf that’s covered in ugly brown and yellow spots and can’t take in as much energy. The roots won’t like cold either.
In case it wasn’t clear, that means don’t use ice cubes to water an African Violet. It’s a bad idea for most tropical houseplants, but it’s particularly unhealthy for a Saintpaulia.
Even tepid water shouldn’t sit on the leaves or stems of your African Violet. It can sometimes lead to fungal growth, causing crown rot. When possible, try to avoid splashing the leaves. If you see any drops on them, pat them dry with paper towels or a microfiber cloth.
The best approach is to water slowly and carefully, using a watering can with a long, narrow spout. That way, you can slide it under the leaves and pour water directly onto the soil. Water until the entire soil mass is soaked through and there’s a trickle coming out of the drainage holes.
Bottom Watering for African Violets
Some growers like to sidestep the risk of wet leaves by letting their Saintpaulias drink from the bottom up. This works because potting mix can pull moisture upward through capillary action. The obvious benefit is that there’s no risk of splashing the leaves. And it ensures that the soil will get fully and evenly moistened.
There are some downsides, though. If you forget to take the pot out of the water, it might wind up soaking for too long. This can give your African Violet a case of root rot.
Also, since nothing drains out of the pot, minerals from tap water and fertilizer can accumulate in the soil. This can cause problems for the roots down the line. Even if you prefer bottom watering, you should give the soil a thorough top-down flush every month or two. Use at least 4-5 times the total volume of water that would fit in the pot.
You can only bottom water your African Violet if it’s growing in a pot with drainage holes – which it should be anyway. Set that container inside a wider dish or tray with at least an inch of water in it. Then wait.
After 30-60 minutes, the soil should feel moist to the touch. If it’s drawn up all the water but it’s still dry at the top, it means you didn’t use enough water – add a bit more to the reservoir then try again. Once the soil is soaked, take the pot out of the water dish. That’s all there is to it!
The rules for when to water your Sainpaulia don’t change whether you’re watering from the top or the bottom. Always wait until the top inch of soil feels dry.
Wick Watering for African Violets
Wick watering is a slightly more complicated version of bottom watering. Instead of leaving your African Violet’s pot sitting right in a water dish, you suspend it above the water. Then you connect the soil to the water with a piece of absorbent fabric – the wick. The liquid still gets pulled up into the dry soil, but it has to travel along the wick first.
The simplest way to do this is to use two pots. The water pot is deeper and has a solid bottom. The soil pot is shallower and has at least one hole to let the wick drape through. The soil pot should have slanted sides or a lip around the edge to keep it a few inches above the bottom of the water pot.
The advantage of wick watering is that there’s less risk of overwatering. Since the soil isn’t directly in contact with the water, the roots shouldn’t get waterlogged. You don’t have to worry about taking your African Violet out of the reservoir after an hour. Instead, just refill the reservoir once it starts running low.
This isn’t totally foolproof. If the soil is too absorbent, it will keep wicking until it’s waterlogged. No matter what kind of watering system you’re using, Saintpaulias need a well-aerated potting mix. Avoid anything that contains too much peat moss and very few chunky bits. On the flip side, if the mix is too gritty, it won’t wick up enough water.
Is Your African Violet Dehydrated?
The better you get to know your African Violet, the more you’ll be able to anticipate when it needs watering. But there’s always a chance you’ll accidentally let it get too thirsty – especially when your plant is new to you. Here are a few hints that your Saintpaulia needs a drink:
- Drooping leaves. When your plant doesn’t have enough moisture in its tissues, it can no longer hold its head up high. The leaves will curl down and slouch over.
- Crispy foliage. Underwatered leaves also tend to get brittle as they dry out. They’ll turn yellow, then brown, often starting at the edges.
- Loss of flowers. The blooms on your African Violet may react a lot like the leaves when the plant is thirsty. If you’re noticing them prematurely withering and dropping off, it could be time for a watering.
- Hard-packed soil. Sometimes you don’t even need to poke the soil to know it’s too dry. When it’s turning crusty and peeling away from the walls of the pot, you know your plant is parched.
- Slow growth. If your Saintpaulia isn’t producing new leaves and suckers, it may be due to chronic underwatering. A slow-growing plant should prompt you to start checking the soil more often to make sure that you’re not letting its roots get too dry.
The fix for dehydration is simple: just add water! But that won’t undo the stress and damage that your plant has suffered. Leaves that have shriveled up will stay that way until you trim them off. And it may take some time before your African Violet starts growing steadily again.
Is Your African Violet Overwatered?
Your Saintpaulia will be mad if you underwater it. But it will take a considerable amount of neglect to actually kill your plant that way. Overwatering is much more dangerous. Leaving your African Violet in wet soil can give it a deadly infection.
Signs of overwatering include:
- Soil that won’t dry. When the soil stays visibly damp for more than a few days at a time, your African Violet is in trouble. Either you’re watering too much or your mix is retaining too much moisture.
- Drooping leaves. Yes, frustratingly enough, this one can be a symptom of both too much and too little water. When the roots are suffocating from lack of oxygen, your African Violet will wilt.
- Discolored foliage. Overwatered plants often turn yellow quickly, starting with the lower leaves. It looks almost like they’re suddenly aging two or three times as fast as normal. They may also shrivel up and turn brown, but they tend to get limp rather than crunchy.
- Foul smells. The soil in your Saintpaulia’s pot should smell fresh and earthy. If it smells like rotten eggs, mildew, or sewage, the roots are probably rotting.
- Soft spots. If the stems are getting squishy and/or brown in places, it means your African Violet has crown rot. This often begins as root rot from overwatering, but spreads to the aboveground part of the plant.
Act fast if you think your Saintpaulia might have root rot. Take it out of the pot and trim off any brown, black, gray, or slimy roots with a disinfected pair of pruning scissors. If any of the leaves or stems are rotting, clip those off too. Then repot your African Violet in all-new potting soil, after thoroughly washing and sanitizing the pot.
Soil and Watering Issues for African Violets
You’ll find it much harder to keep your African Violet properly watered if it’s in the wrong type of soil. When the growing medium is too fine and dense, it will trap a lot of moisture and dry very slowly. You need a potting mix that’s coarse enough to allow air to flow in and water to drain out.
We mentioned above that your plant will usually do well in an off-the-shelf African Violet potting mix. But many indoor gardeners find that they can get better results with a custom-made mix. The ideal soil for a Saintpaulia should have the ability to hold a little moisture between waterings, but let any excess water drain out.
Here’s a recipe that should work well:
- 3 parts coconut coir. This byproduct of commercial coconut growing forms a light, fluffy base for the mixture.
- 4 parts coarse perlite. Perlite is a kind of glass created by volcanic activity, that’s heated up to make it porous. It’s fairly gritty, so it creates air pockets inside the soil, but it’s also good at wicking up water.
- 2 parts vermiculite. Vermiculite is a bit finer and better at holding onto water than perlite.
- 1 part worm castings. Vermicompost, worm castings, worm poop – whatever you want to call it, it’s great for soil structure. It also provides a little nutrition for your African Violets.
Feel free to mess around and experiment with this basic mixture. If you’re watering from the top, you may want to replace the vermiculite with something chunkier like pumice. Many people also switch in a bit of premade potting mix in place of the coco coir. It’s denser, but has more nutrients, and the pH is a bit better for African Violets.
African Violets have to be watered with a bit more care than some other plants. But the basic rules are simple: check the soil every few days, water when the top inch is dry, and avoid getting the leaves wet. If you remember those things when you water your African Violet, you should have a happy and healthy plant!