Raising African violets for profit is easy using these helpful growing tips.
You can start a mini-farm right in your basement . . . and make good money doing it.
Beautiful, blooming African violets are really easy to grow, once you know how. They're also quite easy to sell . . . especially in the winter, when so many folks are anxious to brighten their homes with pretty flowering houseplants.
Put these two facts — ease of cultivation and active demand — together . . . and what have you got? A mighty attractive cash crop, that's what. I've found that a single 4 by 10-foot bench of African violets in the basement of my suburban Chicago home requires an average of only one-half hour of care a day . . . yet, after expenses, nets me $3,696 a year. That's $20 an hour, which — even in these inflationary times — is pretty good pay in anybody's book. And the benchful of colorful plants that I have for my own enjoyment most of the time is a nice little extra bonus that doesn't cost me a cent!
If you're fortunate enough to live in frost-free sections of California or Florida, you can really go into the African violet business in a big way at very little cost by raising the plants outdoors in a shaded area. The rest of us can grow the violets too, of course, but we have to protect 'em from the winter's cold (frost will kill the plants). That "protection", however, is not as difficult as you might think.
African violets thrive on windowsills, in greenhouses, and under artificial lights. This gives you a lot of latitude when you're setting yourself up to grow these flowers.
Then again, if you really want to make money at home with African violets, you probably won't try to raise them on windowsills (unless you have an awful lot of windows). And, at least in the beginning, it's doubtful that you'll want to build a greenhouse just for this business until you've at least proven out the profit potential of African violets for yourself. (Besides, who can afford to beat a greenhouse with fossil fuels these days? If you do put up a greenhouse for this project, you'd be wise to make sure it's heated only with solar and other natural sources of energy.)
Which sort of narrows you down to starting your African violet business under lights. And there's nothing wrong with that at all. The plants do very well under artificial illumination . . . and light gardening is an economical and easy way to raise and bloom the violets in quantity.
Almost any spare living space in your house can be converted into an African violet garden. An "extra" bedroom or that den or sewing room that no one ever seems to use will do just fine. On the other hand, most of the small-scale commercial violet growers I know put their mini-farms in the basement. Not because the flower nurseries have to be there . . . but because it's usually just easier to set up and operate the violet beds down in the cellar. (Plants do have to be watered, you know, and water sometimes spills over onto the floor, and such accidents generally are of far less concern in a basement.)
So let's go along with the crowd and figure that you'll locate your African violet mini-farm in the basement. This immediately brings you face to face with the toughest question you'll have to answer: will the growing area stay warm enough to make your plants develop and bloom as rapidly as they should?
Ambient (surrounding) air temperature in an African violet nursery should never drop below 60 degrees Fahrenheit . . . and you might as well forget attempting commercial propagation of the plants in any basement or room that regularly registers temperatures of 50 degrees Fahrenheit or lower.
Since the daily temperature swings in a basement drop to their minimum reading about 5:00 a.m., that's when you should make your temperature check. Furthermore, since "red liquid" thermometers are sometimes not as accurate as those filled with mercury (which is white) I recommend that you keep tabs on your flower nursery with one of the latter. Of course there's no need to take a reading of your plant bed's ambient temperature every day at 5:00 a.m. Just spot check the thermometer from time to time during the winter and — as the days get colder — you should know well in advance of any approaching chill that could slow the development of your violets.
An even easier — though somewhat more expensive — way to keep track of the daily ambient temperature swings in your plant nursery is through the use of a " minimum-maximum" indicating thermometer. They're available from laboratory supply houses (Catalog No. T 2270, Scientific Products, 1210 Waukegan Rd., MeGaw Park, Illinois 60085) for about $15. By reading and resetting one of these instruments at the same time every day, you will quickly and conveniently know both the high and low ambient air temperatures for the preceding 24 hours.
Remember — for optimum growth and blooms — the night temperatures of your African violet mini-farm shouldn't drop below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. But that doesn't mean you have to give up the idea of raising the flowers if your prospective plant nursery just misses this ideal by, say, five degrees or so. Open the basement furnace vents. Cover the windows with insulation. Try watering the plants with warm water. Anything that works is fair.
Next to a certain amount of physical space, the most important thing you'll need for your violet "patch" . . . is some sort of bench or benches to set it on. Luckily, there's no need for this bench (or these benches) to be anything fancy. Spike some 2 by 4's together to make a frame, brace its corners, and top with plywood or galvanized wire. Or lay a sheet or Two of plywood across some saw horses, cement blocks, or old wooden boxes. Sometimes you can even pick up tables very inexpensively at garage and lawn sales.
Personally, I like a table that has a top measuring 4 by 10 feet. This gives you 40 square feet of growing area . . . which is enough for 360 violet plants, when each one is in a three- or four- inch-square pot. Bear in mind, though, that the weight of all those "little" plants — plus their pots and the watered soil in them — can add up faster than you might have thought. The idea is to get the violets up off the cold floor, raise 'em to a convenient height where you can work with them, and keep them there. Don't be too proud to put an extra pair of legs or a sawhorse under the middle of your table, if you have to, to support the weight of the plants plus pots plus soil.
After location and benches come the fluorescent lights . . . which, again, you can either buy or scrounge. New, a four-foot-long "double tube" fluorescent light fixture sells for about $11 and a "single tube" fixture for around $7. Or you can purchase less expensive fixtures without reflectors and add your own (it's important to direct the light downward onto the plants for maximum efficiency and growth).
A four-foot-long two-light fluorescent fixture is all the illumination you'll need for as many violets as you can crowd into an area measuring two feet wide and five feet long. Which means you'll need a total of four such fixtures to light an African violet bench measuring 4 by 10 feet.
Hang your lights from the ceiling with light chain or strong cord so that there is about one foot between the fixtures' "inner" tubes and approximately six inches from their "outer" tubes to the ends and edges of the table. (In other words, space the fluorescent lighting evenly across the bench.) The most important thing of all to remember about hanging your lights is that the distance from the starter plants to the fluorescent tubes should be approximately 10 inches. If your pots are four inches tall, then, the tubes should be suspended about 15 inches above the bench's surface (which allows one inch for the plants themselves).
These spacing guidelines are designed to provide a fairly uniform illumination of adequate intensity over the surface of your whole bench. When you've finished hanging the fixtures, plug them in, and, then check the uniformity of the light across the table by holding your hand over a piece of white paper as you move it around over the bench's surface. If the shadow on the paper is noticeably darker in some areas than others, you may want to reposition the fixtures to even out the lighting.
The "white" fluorescent tubes that come with new fixtures do not emit exactly the portion of the light spectrum most needed by growing plants. For that reason, such tubes should be replaced with "plant growth" tubes . . . such as Sylvania's Wide Spectrum(R) or Westinghouse's Agro(R). I have no idea whether one particular brand name is any better than another, although my experience with both the brands listed here has been good. You pay your money and you take your choice from the nearest wholesaler of electric lights.
In short: the lighting setup of your African violet mini-farm will probably turn out to be the most expensive part of the whole deal. If you purchase everything new, the fixtures and special fluorescent tubes can add up to about $68 or $70 (plus tax). Even though that isn't too bad when you compare the expense to the income you can realize from this little home business, there's nothing wrong with driving a hard bargain on the fixtures and tubes . . . or scrounging as much of the gear as you can.
Your growing violets should be illuminated by the fluorescent lights for 14 hours out of every 24-hour period. And if your basement is cold, the lights should be switched on during the chilliest part of the cycle . . . say from about 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m.
In the beginning — especially if you're starting on a shoestring — you can turn the lights on and off manually. Later, though, you may want to invest in a timer that can handle this job automatically. Almost any will do and I use an Intermatic Time-All, which cost me only 10 cents.
Most of the inexpensive timers on the market (including mine) have only one controlled plug-in receptacle often for two-prong electrical plugs) . . . while, as you'll recall, our 4 by 10-foot bench is being illuminated by a total of four fluorescent fixtures (the cords of which now almost universally are wired with three prong plugs).
There are two solutions to this problem:  you can plug a multiple-outlet female, socket into the timer's controlled socket . . . and then plug four three-totwoprong adapters into that, or  you can plug one three-to-two-prong adapter into the timer's outlet... and then plug a three-prong junction board into the adapter
(Junction boards sell for from $7 to $30, depending on whether or not they have their own built-in circuit breakers — which you don't need — how fancy they look, etc. ) Whichever way you go, make sure your timer and adapters and/or board and other wiring are all properly grounded and placed so they won't get wet when you water your violets.
That's about it for your violet nursery's over-all physical "plant". You're ready to get down to the pots and soil you'll need for the individual flower themselves.
African violets will grow and bloom in any size pot from two inches in diameter on up. And you will want some two-inchers to propagate (grow new plants) in. The most convenient sized container, though, is a pot measuring from three to four inches across . . . and you should think of that as your "standard" African violet container.
You should also know that these violets are traditionally grown in pots that are [a] round and [b] white . . . but I've found that people will buy them in [a] square and [b] green containers too. The final choice to up to you . . . but, which ever way you go, remember that inexpensive, plastic pots are the most economical ones to use in this business.
Buy your African violet pots wholesale and buy a year's supply at a time. Figure that each square foot of growing space will produce about nine potted plants (in four-inch containers) four times a year. This means — for a 4 by 10-foot bench — that you'll need a total of 1,440 (120 dozen) four-inch pots to run you through a full 12-month cycle. You may also want to purchase the same number of two-inchers to start your plants in it you decide to propagate violets from leaf cuttings.
It really isn't difficult to buy these containers wholesale. Just contact the garden product suppliers in your telephone book, tell them you're going to be raising plants and buying supplies on a commercial basis, and ask for commercial prices. You should be able to purchase three- to four-inch white or green pots for from three to ten cents each, and two-inch propagating pots will cost you only a penny or two each in quantity.
And maybe you won't even have to buy your pots at all! Some commercial growers make a habit of using their smaller propagation containers once and once only before throwing them out, Such pots, obviously, can be yours for the asking. If you chance across such a source of supply, however, do thoroughly wash the used containersinside and outwith soap and water to kill any harmful disease germs, bacteria, or parasites that might be transmitted to your violets.
Violets will grow in many different kinds of soil, but they prefer a loose and easily drained medium. You'll save money if you whip up your own . . . and a good mix is made from two parts topsoil, one part sand, one part vermiculite, and one half part peat moss.
You can dig the topsoil yourself front any area where the ground is fertile and no chemical herbicides have been used to kill weeds. Or, if you have no access to such a spot, you can purchase the soil from a garden supply company . . . not a retail store. (Retail stores have pretty displays and small amounts of stock at high prices. Garden supply houses have dusty old displays and large amounts of stock at low prices.)
The sand (make sure you buy only slat, free sand), vermiculite, and peat moss should also be purchased wholesale from a garden supply company. Buy a bag of each (that's the least you can purchase wholesale and you'll probably use it all up sooner than you expect anyway). And do make sure you get either "brown Canadian" or "German" peat moss . . . the fine, black peat moss from Michigan is too acid and should not be used on violets.
I find it most convenient to just pour out two bags of soil, one sack each of sand and vermiculite, and a half-bag of the peat moss onto my basement floor , . . and then turn the whole pile with a shovel until it's thoroughly mixed. Once prepared and rebagged, of course, it last forever and I have only to dip out a potful or more of the preparation as I need it.
You can use almost any water on your violets as long as it  is not artificially softened, and  is not too cold. Softened water is not good for plants and cold water can slow the growth of your violets. For very best results, then, I recommend rainwater that has been warmed to about 80 degrees Fahrenheit. [Editor's note: It's not as difficult or as expensive in most cases as it might sound to meet that requirement. Just run the water off your homes roof into a barrel that is painted black on the outside and allowed to sit in the sun.] The extra warmth will speed blooming and is one way to help overcome a slightly-lower-than-optimum basement temperature.
For best results, the soil around your violets should be kept slightly moist at all times. Push a finger about an inch deep into the potting mixture in one of the containers. If the medium feels moist, try again tomorrow. If it feels dry, water your plants. As you gain experience in this business, you'll notice that neither a small African violet plant nor the plastic pot or medium it's grown in weighs very much when compared to a measured amount of water. This means that you should soon develop the knack of "hefting" one of the potted plants and knowing whether or not it needs water strictly by how heavy it feels.
The best time to give your African violets a drink is just after the lights over the plants are turned on. (If you take care of this chore when the lights are on, the plants seem better able to resist the harmful effect of stem rot of too much water.) Thoroughly moisten the soil in each little container without actually flooding it.
Large commercial growers sometimes use overhead sprinklers on their violets and while the water from such sprinklers may spot the plants' leaves, it doesn't really hurt them. A watering can or a hose with a fine nozzle is all you'll need for your tabletop operation. Don't worry about an occasional splash onto the leaves of the plants. Do, however, take care to keep the water away from all electrical outlets, cords, and fixtures . . . do use warm water . . . and do guard against overwatering.
And yes: when you water your plants some of the liquid will run through the pots onto your table. This shouldn't hurt anything but, if you want to keep the water off the bench, you can set the containers into metal trays, cookie sheets, old dishpans, or any other scrounged-up "water catchers" you can find. Bear in mind, however, that African violets do better when they're allowed to drain freely. The plants don't like to stand in water (but then, outside of ducks, who does enjoy wet feet?). So. for best results, just expect a little water to drain onto the table and drip off onto the floor whenever you give your violets a drink. Figure that it'll help raise the humidity in your African violet nursery . . . which will be good for both you and the plants.
After following the above instructions for eight weeks, you should see your growing plants sprouting well-defined and easily recognized buds from their crowns. And no more than four weeks after that, the African violets should be in glorious bloom and ready to sell. It's time to cash in on your work!
You'll realize the highest possible price if you sell the violets direct to the public. So spread the word around. Tell friends and neighbors that you have blooming African violets for sale. Tack up some notices on supermarket and laundromat bulletin boards. Put a sign in your yard or on the front door. I've found that I can sell most of the violets I raise — direct to the final consumer at about $3.00 a pot — merely by "getting the word out".
Leftovers from these direct selling efforts — or larger quantities of the plants raised specifically for resale through florists, seed stores, supermarkets, variety stores, and other outlets — always seem to sell quite well wholesale (currently at a price of $1.35 to $1.50 per plant).
Folks who purchase African violets directly from you one or two at a time are generally happy to carry them home "as is". For mass wholesale deliveries, though, you'll want to wrap each plant in a sleeve of clear plastic or a taped or stapled cone of paper (to keep their leaves from breaking off in transit) before packing the pots of violets as securely as possible in cardboard boxes. The plastic sleeves (if you decide to go for "professional" packaging) are available from florist supply companies for about two cents each.
I've found that I can grow — as mentioned before in this article — 360 plants at a time on a 4 by 10-foot bench . . . and I can turn my "crop" over four times a year. That's a total of 1,440 African violets a year . . . which I sell for $3.00 each . . . for a gross income of $4,320.
When I subtract an average cost of 32 cents each for starter plants, 5cents and 2 cents — respectively the pots and plastic sleeves I use, and 1 cent! for the soil mix that goes with every violet (a total of 40 cents per plant, or $576 in all) . . . that still leaves me with $3,744. And even when I further deduct the electricity used in growing the plants ($24 a year) plus a reserve for replacement of the fluorescent tubes (another $24 annually) . . . I'm left with a net profit of $3,696 per year per 4 by 10-foot table of African violets. Which ain't bad.
Or, looking at the financial picture from an entirely different angle, I find that preparing soil mixes, potting up, watering, and marketing my flowers takes an average of only about 30 minutes a day. That's 182.5 hours a year and 182.5 hours into $3,696 figures out to a rate of pay of about $20 an hour. Which, again, ain't shabby at all . . . especially when you remember that I set those hours at my own whim right in the privacy of my own basement. There are worse ways to net $3,696 a year!
Obviously, since I seem to be a long way from saturating my potential market, I can double or triple the above net figure by doubling or tripling the number of violets I raise. That's because I've already taken the time to analyze my customers' preferences, record the varieties and colors (by season) of African violets which sell best here in my section of Chicago, and otherwise "psych out" the local market.
The longer I'm in this part-time business, in other words, the easier it gets to concentrate on exactly the varieties and colors of violets that will bring me the maximum return on my investment of capital, space, and time. Go ye and do likewise.
And if you feel that you need more information about growing violets before you plunge into this business, a check of any good library and/or bookstore will show you that there are several books available on the subject. Probably the best of the lot is Helen Van Pelt Wilson's African Violet Book ($4.95) published by Hawthorne Books, Inc., 260 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.
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