Time to Plant Pansies
CAN YOU IMAGINE A GARDEN without pansies? These charmers have endeared themselves to gardeners for almost two centuries. In southern regions with mild falls and winters, they are as popular as colorful winter annuals. Farther north, pansies bring spring cheer and fragrance over a long period, providing especially perfect underplantings for tulips and other tall spring bulbs. A recent trend is to plant fall-hue pansies in late summer. These mix nicely with flowering kale, mums, and autumn foliage.
The pansies grown today are hybrids derived from several species of Viola, including V. lutea (wild violas) and V. tricolor (Johnny-jump up) from Europe and Asia. Botanically they are known as Viola x wittrockiana and belong in the large family Violaceae. The common name “pansy” comes from the French word “pensée”: a thought or reflection. This refers to the flower “face” that is created by bold blotching and veining on the petals. By contrast, violas (or bedding violas) lack markings on smaller flowers, and though charming, are not quite as distinctive. Single slender stems, 8–9 inches tall, carry rounded, velvety flowers that face outward or nod slightly. Usually 2–3 inches across, they consist of a pair of barely overlapping upper petals, a pair of side petals, and a single lower one. The latter may be adorned with a different color “beard” of hairs. Pansies come in a wide range of colors, from white and pale pastels to deep purple and black, with contrasting blotches and veining. They are sold in color mixes or individual colors. Mounded or trailing plants produce dark green, oval leaves, edged with rounded teeth.
CULTURE: Seedlings and young plants in bloom are displayed at garden centers and nurseries for several weeks each spring and again in early fall depending upon the climate. These are the easiest to grow, although experienced gardeners often enjoy the challenge of germinating their own seed. Plant in a sunny or lightly shaded place where the soil is high in waterholding organic matter but drains well. Avoid too much shade, which promotes straggly growth and fewer flowers. Set plants 6–12 inches apart and water gently. Tease apart the delicate roots of young seedlings carefully before planting to avoid damaging them. Few pansies enjoy hot weather, but they thrive where nights remain above 40˚F and day temperatures seldom top 60˚–65˚F. Keep well watered and fertilize routinely for best bloom. When summer heat kicks in, pansies become leggy and quit blooming. Rip them out and add to the compost pile; or cut back, lift, and pot special selections, and grow them in a cool, shaded spot protected from the heat. Recently, sales of pansy plants surged in early fall as nights cool and temperatures drop. A strain marketed as Icicle pansies took the market by storm. Bred for planting in the ground, not in containers, they bloom in fall, and repeat come spring. Flowers tend to be smaller, but the plants survive low temperatures to Zone 4 through winter, even blooming through snow. Mulch to protect from harsh temperatures and wind; avoid wet or very windy places, or next to paths or roadways that are salt-treated in winter.
PROPAGATION: These cute, short-lived hardy perennials are mostly treated as annuals or biennials, and they are commercially produced from seed by the million each year for early spring planting in Zones 4–8. To start from seed, wait until mid- to late summer, and protect the seedlings over winter (in colder zones) for spring bloom; alternatively sow seed indoors at 55˚F early in the New Year for summer bloom. If you collect your own seed, remember that hybrid plants seldom produce seed that results in flowers resembling the mother plant. Nonflowering shoots are a valuable source of soft cuttings for particularly desirable selections.
WHERE: In cottage and herb gardens, pansies are traditional, but these colorful plants are ideal for window boxes and containers, too. Combine with spring or fall-blooming bulbs, coralbells, sedges, or other attractive perennials. Tuck in among evergreens in rock gardens, or line pathways with them. Remember to protect them from browsing deer that find pansy feasts delectable. Wherever you plant them, you can’t go wrong.
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