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Show Time for African Violets

Rita Fitzsimmons has violets in bloom all year round. “I like the leaves as much as I do the flowers,” she says. “Some are curly or heart-shaped or ruffled or variegated.

Any gardener who has ever lived through long northern winters loves African violets because they save the summer. They are ideal for Florida, especially for people with small or no yards, but for the rest of us, too, who want to bring the garden indoors.

Rita Fitzsimmons enjoyed African violets when she lived in Minnesota. When she moved to Arkansas, she joined a violet club. After settling in Florida, she joined the Tampa African Violet Society. "They are a great group," she says, "very interested in sharing their knowledge."

Like most of the members, she will be showing and selling some of her plants at their annual show and sale this weekend, Feb. 24-26th, at the Farm Bureau Building at the southwest corner of SR60 and Mulrennan Road east of town. It will be open to the public, no charge, Friday February 25, noon to7PM and Saturday February 26, 9AM to 5PM. The plant prices will range from 50 cents to $1 for leaves up to $7 or 8 for plants. The average price of plants for sale will be $4.50 to $5 per plant.

This is a chance to see and ask questions about these plants which are traditional favorites around the world. In fact, the theme of the show is Violet Lovers Are Everywhere. Fitzsimmons is one of many members who chat on line with growers here and abroad about their plants and their care.

She takes the showing part in stride. "I've won some ribbons," she says, but mostly I just like the plants. She had taken some of her best to the State Fair for the group's display there. And she'll take her very best to the show because they want to have as many plants as possible.

This light setup in her guest bedroom turns the whole place into a garden.

"And you have to show if you want to sell," she says. "There will lots of plants for sale, also supplies such as soil, pots, and such. I don't worry, as some of them do, about getting perfect plants at the proper time. That takes careful records of the different bloom cycles for each plant and sometimes picking off the buds until six weeks before the show."

When Fitzsimmons moved to her present town house in south Brandon after her husband died in1999, she took her violets and other favorite plants along. She has very limited room outdoors but has filled it with the tangerine and the jacaranda trees that she started from seed before she moved. The tangerine was loaded with fruit. She's hoping the jacaranda will have its first purple blooms this spring. Begonias and succulents in pots and boxes decorate her porch and patio. She has one tomato in a pot and the in ground plants include ferns, bromeliads, gingers, liriope, and kalanchoes.

At first she grew her violets on the windowsills indoors, but they got too large and started falling off, so she got a light set up that turns the guest room, indeed the whole place, into an indoor garden. There are three shelves with flourescent lights above each. The lights are set to automatically go off so many hours each night. Rita keeps the lights on 12 hours a day before a show, perhaps 10 hours otherwise. Growers prefer to have the lights on at night because they do put out some heat. Rita keeps the drapes drawn in that room so that the plants have enough hours of darkness, also.

Fitzsimmons has four sons and one daughter, and when her children come to visit, she has to be sure the lights don't come on while they are sleeping. Gardeners have to put up with such complaints from their children, and we have a pretty good idea what the children say about us, too.

These larger plants are called trailers and grow with many crowns. The blue one is called “Baby Brian’ and the other is ‘Sky Diver’.

"You can get miniature violets for windowsills," Fitzsimmons says. "They are only 6' in diameter. The semi miniature grow up to 8'. My window in the sewing room gets so much light I have to put waxed paper on parts of it." Besides growing violets, she also makes quilts and crochets blankets for babies with AIDS. She had a dozen quilts finished and folded on the back of the sewing room couch, three more ready for tying, and several crocheted blankets also ready to deliver to her church.

In her sewing room, which is neat beyond belief, where the window rack makes more room, she grows her trailers, violets that grow with many crowns from the same main stem and send up more branches out of the side axils. These are easy to grow into a ball of foliage with flowers all over. They look like many small plants having a party. She still has violets on most of her windowsills with existing light as well.

All of her plants are in automatic watering pots. "Every morning I take my water jug and fill any of the reservoirs that are low. I usually only need a gallon of water or so and the fertilizer is mixed in so that the plants have constant nutrients available, " she says.

She has little problem with pests. She did get some mites that can come in even through screen. A few sprayings with non-toxic neem oil took care of the problem.

Rita Fitzsimmons has violets in bloom all year round. "I like the leaves as much as I do the flowers," she says. "Some are curly or heart-shaped or ruffled or variegated.

Now's the time to...

  • Take some advice for violets and other houseplant: "After I'm finished watering, I refill the jug again and let it set so the chlorine in the water dissipates. And I never come in from outdoor gardening and work on the violets as that might bring in insects or diseases," Fitzsimmons says.
  • Another member of the violet club likes to change fertilizers every so often in case another source might have different amounts of the trace elements. Check you plant food label to be sure that trace elements are included, and if they are not, you can buy them separately.