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Pansies - Growing a Cool Weather Favorite

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Bi-coloured White and Purple Pansies (Viola) 'Columbine Colin Leftley/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Overview:

The names 'pansy' and 'viola' are often used interchangeable. There are many cultivars within the genus Viola and most of them are hybrids of the same handful of species, so there are a lot of similarities and probably only a botanist really cares which is which. The gardener knows pansies as cool weather flowers with almost heart-shaped, overlapping petals in bright colors or bi-colors and often with face-like center markings.

Description:

Pansies are one of the most popular and recognizable cool weather annuals. Breeding has produced pansies that are better able to stand up to the cold, but there hasn’t been much luck producing more heat tolerant varieties. Many pansies are bicolored, making them striking plants for their small size. Although delicate, they are surprisingly hardy. And like their cousins the violas and violets, the flowers are edible.

Botanical Name:

Viola x wittrockiana cultivars

Common Name(s):

Pansies

Hardiness Zones:

Although technically pansies are hardy in USDA Zones 7 and higher, they are very short-lived as perennials and tend to deteriorate after their first year of bloom. Pansies are usually grown as annuals or biennials. However, they can self-seed.

Exposure:

They will bloom best in full sun to partial shade, but will stay fresh looking and keep blooming longer is grown in partial shade as the weather warms.

Mature Size:

Most pansies don't get very tall and, if they do, they will flop and cascade a bit. Expect most varieties to reach a height of 4 - 8 inches and to spread 8 - 12 inches.

Bloom Period:

Traditional pansies will bloom from spring through early summer, with some repeat bloom in the fall. USDA Zones 7 and above can grow pansies throughout the winter and there are newer varieties, like the ice pansy that are bred to withstand light snow.

Design Tips:

As compact, low growers, pansies are ideal for edging and for squeezing between rock walls and paths, as long as they can be removed in summer. They’re a great choice for early and late season containers and complement spring flowering bulbs, flowering as the bulb foliage begins to fade. If you like the variety of colors but still want a sense of cohesion, select plants from the same series. They’ll be similar in size and markings, regardless of the color.

Suggested Varieties:

  • Bingo Series - Large-flowered in 14 colors from pale blue to burgundy. Bingo blooms earlier than the popular Majestic Giants series. Winter/spring.

  • Joker Series - Very pronounced faces. They are bicolored in complementary colors. 'Jolly Joker', an orange and deep purple flower, was a 1990 AAS winner. Spring/summer.

  • Princess Series A compact growth habit and dainty flowers. Most are clear monochromatic tones from cream to deep purple, with yellow centers. Spring/summer.

Growing Tips:

Starting Pansy Seed: Pansies can be difficult to start from seed. They require cool temperatures (60 - 65 degrees F.) and darkness, to germinate. Covering the soil with black plastic will help germination, but the soil should be checked daily to make sure it doesn’t dry out under the plastic. Once the shoots are visible, the plastic should be removed. Seeds generally germinate in 1-2 weeks, but allow 15 weeks from seeding to bloom.

Choosing Pansy Plants: When buying plants, choose pansies that are stocky, bushy and have plenty of buds. Avoid plants full of open blooms, because they will be stressed to near exhaustion from working so hard in a tiny pot.

Soil: Although pansies are not fussy plants, they will grow best in a loose, rich soil with a slightly acid pH (6.0 - 6.2).

Growing Conditions: They flower best in full sun and will get spindly in deep shade. Pansies do not like heat at all and will begin to decline as the days warm up. Regular watering will help them hang on a bit longer, but don’t expect your pansies to last all season.

Maintenance: If you can allow your pansy plants to remain in your garden and rest during the hottest months, they will probably begin blooming again in the fall. Shearing the plants back when they start to set seed, will encourage new growth. Deadheading will encourage more blooms.

Feeding: As with any long blooming annual, pansies appreciate some fertilizer. However too much food will just make them leggy. They respond well to monthly foliar feeding.

Pests & Diseases:

There are few problems growing pansies. Slugs can be a nuisance during wet seasons, especially if growing in partial shade. Use a slug bait or thin out the planting so it’s less damp.

Occasionally aphids will attack pansies. Insecticidal soap should remove them. Use caution if you prefer to kill aphids with a strong blast of water, since pansies are rather small and delicate.

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