S.A. couple grow their passion
San Antonio Express-News
Web Posted : 01/25/2003 12:00 AM
It all started innocently enough when Shirley Sanders was given an African violet by her brother.

Shirley Sanders uses a battery syringe to water a plant.
How does your garden grow?

Learning and growing

Shirley and Sandy Sanders have cultivated knowledge of African violets for 21 years. Here are their recommendations for easy growing:

The two main reasons African violets die are overwatering and inadequate light. Place in a window that will afford 10 hours of filtered sunlight daily. Use a margarine tub to create a self-watering container to keep the plant consistently moist. Pierce the lid of the margarine tub with an ice pick, and thread the wick through the hole. Fill the bowl with African violet water {mdash} a mix of 1/4 teaspoon of fertilizer to 1 gallon water. Close lid and position plant on top of the water bowl.

Keep African violets groomed by pulling dead blossoms and bad leaves off the plants. This will help keep plants blooming.

Keep your plant in a light soil-less mix that drains well. Regular potting soil is heavy and will not give your African violet the drainage it requires.


Magic Knight African Violet Society: Local club dedicated to growing and showing African violets. Meets second Wednesday of each month. Contact Janey Reddell, (210) 659-7586, or Shirley Sanders, (210) 923-1093.

www.avsa.org: The African Violet Society of America Web site includes hundreds of pictures of violet varieties, growing tips, membership information and links to other sites.

www.aggs.org: Web site of the American Gloxinia/Gesneriad Society features discussion groups and photographs.

Forum allows registered users to post questions and answers.

African Violet Magazine: Bimonthly publication produced by the African Violet Society of America. Subscriptions included with annual membership of $25. AVSA, 2375 North St., Beaumont, TX 77702. (800) 770-AVSA

Cheryl Van Tuyl Jividen

"I fell in love with it," she says. As she began learning the craft of violet gardening, the living room overflowed and her love affair deepened.

Early on, she enlisted husband Sandy's help. She pleaded, he conceded. They agreed to commandeer only one wall of the guest room. Just four 22-foot trays with overhead shop lights.

Within six months, the bed had been pushed out of the room by their obsession. Twenty-one years later, the Sanderses tend about 3,000 African violets in the garage they converted in 1984.

Dubbed the "violet house," the detached building at the rear of their pristine South Side home houses 15 custom stands, watering trays, work stations and a reference library. The room is kept at 70 degrees with 70 percent humidity. Across the walls, under a ceiling of suspended fluorescent lights, hundreds of prize ribbons hang in testament to the decades of African violet shows the Sanderses have competed in across the country.

Rows upon rows of velvety green leaves bolstering delicate blossoms in every shade imaginable fill the immaculate room. Miniatures that mature to no more than 6 inches, semi-miniatures up to 8 inches, trailing and standard varieties are packed side by side on the five-tier racks. Some of the trailing violets are as wide as hubcaps, their thick leaves spread out on plastic leaf supports.

Here you will find Shirley's big award winner, a "Rob's Gundaroo" that took Best of Show in San Antonio in 2001 and at a 2002 state competition. Nearby, the "Texas Space Dust," an "Optimara Rose Quartz" and an "ACA's Pink Pet" compose the trio that earned best commercial collection in a 1999 national show and were featured on the cover of "African Violet" magazine.

Tucked among the plants is Shirley's favorite, "Maverick's Faded Jeans," a sky-blue blossom with green edges, and "Ness' Crinkle Blue," best liked by Sandy.

In their two decades of violet experience, the couple have found ways to streamline the care of their "babies."

"It used to be hard to go on vacations or go to shows, but with light timers, wick watering and the air conditioner running continuously, it allows us to be gone up to two weeks," Sandy says.

Of their two-decade passion, Sandy says, "It's a hobby that got out of control. We had to support our habit just to cover our electricity bill for the lights, which averages $500 a month in July and August."

And so they started Shirley's House of Violets, a mail-order business, 18 years ago. Offering nearly 150 varieties including other growers' plants, the couple make shipments March through September in the United States. Long-standing customers in Taiwan, Russia, Japan and Australia are shipped leaves only to comply with agricultural import regulations.

The couple, who celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in December, divide their responsibilities with the violets.

"I started out with all the 'go-fer' duties, cleaning stands, changing the lights, and I have always made our soil," says Sandy, who retired from careers with the military and civilian service.

The process used to involve a 12-gallon bucket and half a day to make 150 gallons of soil. Then, Sandy came across a $160 electric concrete mixer, which will blend the same amount of potting mix in an hour.

"Our babies do better and bloom more on this soil," Shirley says. The perfected soil recipe includes dolomite lime, Canadian peat moss, coarse-ground vermiculite, perlite, charcoal, trace elements and water. Sandy also makes the potting mix Shirley uses for propagation, using a ratio of three parts vermiculite to one part perlite. He is also responsible for all the business paperwork, packing and shipping of the plants.

"No one plants my babies but me," says Shirley, referring to the propagation of new plants. She also takes charge of cross-pollinating seeds, hybridizing species and testing successive plantings.

One of Shirley's greatest joys has been introducing "Dean," a violet named for her late brother, Dean Harold Hobbs. She recently mastered hybridizing her own varieties, which all include the prefix "Shirl" in their name.

"There is something very special about being able to say this is my hybrid," she says.

Over the years, Shirley has come to rely on some unexpected tools to help her with the planting process.

"These old syringe gadgets to put water in car batteries are getting hard to find, but they give you control to water plants, transplants, potting plants or get the wick started. A turkey baster would work, as well," she says. "I put chopsticks in the pencil sharpener to get a good point that make a hole in the soil by inserting it and moving it around to make a large enough area to plant a baby plant or when repotting."

For wicks, the couple uses netting material from a fishnet company in Arkansas. The plants are fed Hill Country Violets 12-36-14 fertilizer on a constant-feed system.

Enthusiastic about their hobby, the Sanderses are training their grand-nephew and a woman from their church with hands-on techniques in the violet house.

"We as growers have a passion to get others excited. That's why I work so hard. It's a love affair," says Shirley.

Sandy concurs, "We're typical of violet people. It's addictive."

The couple conduct community educational programs here and afar and field questions from other growers, new gardeners and customers regularly.

Sometimes members of the Magic Knight African Violet Club, the local group of violet enthusiasts, come to learn or help.

"I like to work alone with my plants. But Sandy and I have new members of the club come here and spend a day working with us," Shirley says. "There is no better way to learn about the plants than hands-on working with them."

And their love isn't limited to violets. The couple also grow begonia bonsai and gesneriads, a plant closely related to African violets with long, thick blade foliage and unusual orchidlike blossoms. The violet house is also home to multiple terrariums.

Sandy logs about four hours a day, and Shirley puts in six to seven hours tending plants. They take weekend afternoons off.

Relating the hazards of maintaining so many plants, Shirley splays her hands out and says, "I can get split nails, bloody hands and painful thumbs and forefingers from all the work. I sometimes groom the plants, which requires a lot of pinching of leaves and spent blossoms."

Surgical gloves help cut down on the wear and tear. "Sandy used to have to call me and make me take a lunch break, I would be so absorbed that I wouldn't want to stop and take a break. I look at those plants and I don't think I could live without them to give me breath. I'm so in love with those plants."

The Sanderses and other growers from Magic Knight African Violet Society will show and sell plants from 1 to 8 p.m. March 7 and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. March 8 at South Park Mall. They also will answer questions and give advice.

Cheryl Van Tuyl Jividen is a member of Bexar County Master Gardeners and is a San Antonio freelance writer.


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