The right mix of water, light, etc.

African violets have a finicky rap, but fans say it ain't so. They do concede this: It may take some experimenting to get the right mix of light, water, soil, fertilizer, temperature and humidity, pot size, and proper grooming.

Here's how it works:

Light: 12-14 hours of filtered light per day, natural or fluorescent, or a combination. Insufficient light prevents blooming; direct sun burns leaves. Best exposures are east or west, but southern is OK during winter months, when sunlight is less strong. Rotate plants frequently.

Water: Keep moist, not soggy, and never completely dry. Water from the bottom - keep it warm - but never leave standing water.

Soil: Very light, porous potting mix. You can buy one made for violets or make your own, using vermiculite, perlite, and peat moss.

Fertilizer: Feed African violet formula when plants are in bloom. Use 1/4 teaspoon per gallon every time you water.

Temperature and humidity: 60-80 degrees with 40-60 percent humidity. You can use a humidifier or group plants over a water-filled tray of stones. Like most of us, violets hate cold drafts and temperature extremes.

Pot size: Small - one-third the diameter of the leaf span. Repot once or twice a year, when plant is out of bloom. Violets are weird; they bloom best when pot-bound.

Grooming: Routinely remove spent blossoms and damaged leaves. Once in a while, gently bathe leaves in lukewarm water. Blot and air dry.

Some violets need a resting period after a heavy bloom; most, if they're happy, will bloom constantly. If your plants get thrips or mealy bugs, you can fight or withdraw with honor. Most violets are reasonably priced - even collectors' beauties are only a few dollars - and easily propagated by rooting leaves.

After all this, you might find yourself developing a fondness for your charges that borders on the parental. This is normal for violet-lovers, who often call their plants "my babies."

"You have to provide everything it needs," explains Rob Robinson, a breeder from Naples, N.Y. "If you don't provide water, it dies. If you don't provide light, it won't flower. You must provide every single thing. Violets are completely dependent on you."

If that turns you on, you'll find everything you need to know on the African Violet Association of America's Web site (http://www.avsa. org/). Just click on "Magazine" and scroll down to "Articles."

- Virginia A. Smith