Dear Problem Lady

The African violet I received for Christmas has begun to wilt. What might I be doing wrong?

Our biggest mistake as amateurs is to water an African violet too much. When waterlogged, its fine roots die for lack of oxygen. So water only if the top of the soil is dry to the touch. Using lukewarm or warm water, apply from either the bottom or the top. Remove excess water after the plant has taken up all it needs. Violets bloom best when pot-bound. Place in bright but indirect light close to, say, a north-facing window. An African violet on a table in the middle of a room won’t get enough light to keep blooming.


When we bought our house on Capitol Hill the first thing I did was double-dig the compacted clay earth on the entire front “garden” space. We then removed about half the clay and mixed the remaining clay with compost. That was 1995. I fear that over twenty years, our soil has reverted back to solid red clay. How can I get the lightness back into it without digging up all my plantings and starting over?

If you have healthy plantings in place, the soil is probably not so far gone as you fear. Plant roots themselves work the soil to a degree. But if plants lack oxygen, they stop being able to access nitrogen, phosphorus and other essential chemicals. You can still do much to bring your soil back to friability. When the growing season begins, apply a three-inch layer of composted organic matter – homemade or purchased. This would include peat moss, composted leaves, composted manures, perhaps a bit of sand. In addition, do make sure your soil is protected from being walked on. Create walkways or stone islands upon which to stand. When you see worms again you will have begun to succeed.


Do oak leaves make good mulch? I’ve heard they’re too acidic, and decompose too slowly.

Oak leaves do not affect pH appreciably. When they first fall you should shred and compost them with green leaf waste and manure. But if you merely left the leaves where they fell, they are now leaf mold, protecting plants in winter, but in springtime needing additions of composted manure and peat moss to decompose enough to help your soil.


Capitol Hill Garden Club meetings are free. On Tuesday, March 10, 2015 at 7 pm at the NE Library, corner Maryland Ave. and 7th St. NE, author Barbara Glickman will present a slide show of magnificent DC-area public gardens, based on her book, Capitol Splendor. Join us at We are Washington area residents interested in gardening and the environment.

Feeling beset by gardening problems? Send them to the Problem Lady c/o The Capitol Hill Garden Club at Your problems might prove instructive to others, and help them feel superior to you.  Complete anonymity is assured.

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