Our artificial sun rose about four years ago soon after my wife came home with a rather tired little African violet with one blossom and three buds. It was labeled Black Magic.
A week passed, and we had four deep purple blossoms and more buds showing. Black Magic was no misnomer.
Unfortunately, we are cliff dwellers living in a sixth-floor apartment with one outside pair of windows facing north.
Alyce had considered herself lucky to keep a philodendron alive. On the other hand, I suspected our Black Magic might be a freak, so I decided to pick up another plant.
I came home with Red King, Blue Eva, and Painted Girl—for my wife. I widened a window sill for the plants. The African violets kept growing and blooming.
When no one was around to catch me at it, I’d sneak in to study those little miracles myself.
Six years away from the farm—all in apartments— had dulled my appreciation for what nature can do with just a little bit of help.
Then disaster struck. The sun went South for the winter, and the little light through our windows faded.
The blossoms left, the buds blasted—and Alyce and I both blasted apartment life a little more than usual.
Blooming With Fluorescent Lighting
If we hadn’t clung to Popular Gardening for escape reading, we’d probably still have just a few very lush but only green plants.
Then one day, Alyce mentioned an article that said that African violets would bloom with fluorescent lighting.
I am too often faster than I am intelligent, so shortly after seeing that article, we had our first real setup—three galvanized metal shelves 22” inches wide by 56” inches long and twin 40-watt fluorescents over each shelf.
And all of it on 4”-inch rubber wheels. I didn’t know what I was in for. Three shelves, four plants. We were on a toboggan and moving.
Talk about it being impossible to own two rabbits —once the African violet bug bites, it takes willpower far beyond ours to own less than a hundred plants.
We couldn’t wait to get those shelves filled. We bought singles and doubles of all colors. We added a humidifier to counteract our dry steam-heated air.
It wasn’t long before one corner of our living room looked like the central exhibit at a regional African violet show.
Watering Of Plants
Time to slow down? Nope! Alyce had learned how to start her own plants from leaves, and that is dangerous knowledge when you live in an apartment house in the heart of downtown Syracuse. Result? More shelves, of course!
I had not realized how much time Alyce spent watering the plants until I was stuck with the job while she was away.
It took me a couple of hours—and I didn’t have a chat with each plant either. So the next day, I had a tank built with a small valve on the bottom and mounted the whole thing on top of our highest-shelf unit.
With a 20-foot length of ¼”-inch hose attached to the valve, the watering time was actually cut down by about 80% percent.
Everything grew beautifully and Alyce soon picked up a vine-type cousin of the violets—an episcia named Chocolate Soldier.
This was like going from marijuana to opium. That plant grew and grew until we had to build a special stand for it with a circular 40-watt fixture to provide the light.
The fixture was about 24” inches wide and stood 10” inches above the pot. The plant grew —it got big, beautiful, and healthy, and was a conversation piece even with visitors who didn’t know an elm tree from poison ivy.
We got more episcias—cupreata, Dianthaflora, Fanny Haage, Ember Lace, and Harlequin.
As fast as we heard of another kind we sent away for it. We now have over 250 episcias, representing some 21 species and varieties—along with all of our African violets. That is as of today. Tomorrow—I hate to think of it—there may be many more.
Our huge setup had suddenly shrunk to the equivalent of a window sill again and Alyce’s favorite expression was born: “I need more space!”
Shelves for Plants
Her principal Christmas present last year was bunk-type shelves (in the back room) 9 feet long by 24” inches wide, with twin 8-foot fluorescents over each shelf.
The shelves themselves are the good type, about inches deep with a 2”-inch-deep metal pan. We keep the pans filled with Sterilite and water to add humidity. It seemed like a wonderful idea at first—and it is for African violets.
But episcias are too anxious to multiply, and the first thing we knew, they were taking root in the Sterilite wherever their runners touched it.
This necessitated removing all the plants and putting in some slatted redwood platforms to keep the runners clear of sterilite.
We’ve added step shelves in the front window; a potting bench in the back room; some completely glassed-in shelves for further humidity control; and another 2 1/2 x4 1/2- foot arrangement complete with aluminum tray, perlite, and redwood platforms.
This forced us to move a davenport from the front room to the den. The next move, logically— if you can call any of this logical—is ours! But where?
Only a farm with a huge chicken house or a vacant cattle barn would give us enough space—for a while.
There undoubtedly are people who could raise 12 gesneriads and then switch to guppies, parakeets, or pinochle without a qualm.
We can’t. For people like us, there ought to be a “Gesneriads Anonymous.” But the odds are, if there were, we’d be too busy at home to attend the meetings.
44659 by Bernard E. Suiter