Growers are Champions at the Violet Barn

Driving from Naples on County Road 12, toward Bristol Springs, your attention is riveted by a stunning view of lovely Canandaigua Lake. With the gem of the Finger Lakes on the horizon, its easy to miss the 100-year-old unpainted barn that houses one of the world’s most interesting horticultural enterprises.

The discrete sign in front announcing “The Violet Barn” gives you a hint – but newcomers who enter are unprepared for the profusion of thousands of America’s favorite houseplant.

The Violet Barn is a labor of love in more ways than one. In 1992, Rob Robinson, an economics professor at the University of Buffalo, decided to leave academia and follow a childhood dream – growing and selling violets to fellow gardeners who appreciate the plant’s delicate beauty.

With no business background but plenty of passion for his pursuit, he moved to Naples, rented an old family barn overlooking the crown jewel of the Finger Lakes, and “slipped” his first plants.

“I always enjoyed teaching but ever since I was a little kid, I had a passion for plants, especially violets. Finally, I gave up teaching to grow and sell violets full time. It was tough at first. I definitely wasn’t in it for the money, but deep down I had a yearning to grow and sell these as a career,” says Rob.

A half a world away in Taiwan, Olive Ma told of a similar dream. “I always harbored a desire to grow and sell plants as a career,” she says. “Of course my parents thought it foolish to get into something that didn’t pay more. I did what my heart told me to do!”

In 1995, Rob was living and running his violet business in a barn in Naples and Olive Ma was pursuing her lifelong dream in Taiwan 6,000 miles away. It seemed inconceivable that the two would ever meet, but their strong admiration and love of the violet eventually brought them face to face.

Olive ordered violets from Rob and they began correspondence about the thousands of varieties of the Gesneriaceae family (African violets and related kin). They met at an African Violet Society conference and discovered they had the right ingredients to love, live and work together. They tied the knot in Taipei in 1997.

Rob and Olive now live with their thousands of plants in the remodeled Violet Barn overlooking Canandaigua’s blue-green waters. “We have six employees who work year-round and we love what we do, even though we work 12 hours a day,” Olive says.

Rob and Olive have earned international recognition for their efforts. They are considered among the best violet hybridizers and growers of Saint Paulia in the world. They have hy­bridized hundreds of their own plant varieties that carry their own names. Rob’s Cherry Soda and Ma’s Debutante are in big demand from violet collectors.

“We absolutely love doing this,” Rob tells customers. “We wouldn’t want to do anything else; that we can do this together is even better.”

Desiring to share their ventures into the violet world, the Robinsons now publish their own bimonthly magazine, Violetsfun. Their shop/nursery, the Violet Barn, located at 7209 County Road 12 in Naples, is open daily from noon to 5 year-round.

Anyone interested in a Violet Barn catalog or ordering a subscription may contact the Robinsons at 585-374-8592 or through their website at

Box Tips
At the Violet Barn,
Some plants are pink
Other violets are blue
Follow these suggestions and yours will
Bloom well for you!

Tip #1 – Curling Leaves
When leaves curl around the pot, it’s due to improper light or too much water. Good drainage and good light will cause leaves to grow out in a flat rosette. Also, if temperature is much below 72 degrees in daytime or below 60 degrees at night, you may get curling.

Tip #2 – Failure to Bloom
May be due to insufficient light for bud formation. Happens in winter. Move them to a bright window or resort to fluorescent lights. Too many crowns can be cause of no bloom. Take a razor and cut off some, reroot in water.

Tip #3 – Bud Drop
Leaking gas, even in the tiniest amount, will cause buds to drop. It’s natural for some blooms to shed after pollination, so don’t worry. Dry soils and dry air cause buds and blooms to drop. Overfeeding causes blooms to ripen too fast and shed, so don’t over feed.

Tip #4 – Light Requirements
African violets are sensitive to light. With too little light, plants make vigorous growth and produce few or no flowers. Grow in bright north window or just out of the sun of other windows. Best temperature 60-62 degrees at night and 70-72 degrees in daytime. Lack of light will prevent buds or blooms. Too much light causes yellowing of leaves.

Tip #5 – Feeding Violets
More plants are over-fed than under-fed. Every three or four months use some liquid plant food, such as Rapidgro, applied to the soil surface. Once each year remove most of the soil and repot the plant in new soils. Vermiculite or perlite added to the soil mixture is helpful.

by Doc & Katy Abraham

As this issue of Life in the Finger Lakes was being prepared, George “Doc” Abraham passed away at the age of 89. The beloved gardening expert from Naples, along with his wife, Katy, wrote more than 20 books and a weekly newspaper column. They also hosted a radio show, “The Green Thumb” for over 50 years.

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