Growing Pansies

Pansies are wonderful for spring and fall color. They will over winter with minimum protection.

Pansies have come a long way in the past 15 years. What was once considered a drawback to growing these beautiful, easy, and colorful plants, their aversion to heat, has become an asset. We now realize that they can be set out in the fall to provide late-season color and will winter over, leaping back to life in late January or February to put on a great show until summer heat strikes them down.

A COLOR FOR EVERY TASTE

Once limited to yellow, mahogany red, blue, and purple, pansies now come in a full spectrum of colors from red, all shades of pink, lavender, mauve, orange, a full range of blues, yellows, white, and even black. You can have brilliant colors or soft pastels, solid colors, startling contrasts (orange and purple), and the familiar "faces." There are even ruffled pansies that almost look double and every size from tiny to huge blooms several inches across on tall and sturdy stems.

THE NATURE OF PANSIES

Pansies are classified as half-hardy annuals. This means that they will survive very cool temperatures without being killed. They can be set out in the fall or late summer and, with only a little protection, will winter over and be ready to burst into bloom as soon as the days begin to lengthen and the sun starts warming them.

There are a few varieties that are herbaceous perennials, true pansies, not violas, that will continue to grow year after year. Lilac Frost is one such perennial. While it is unlikely that plants of this variety can be found at an ordinary garden shop, you can grow them from seed (available from Thompson and Morgan, online at www.thompson-morgan.com) and some of the specialty perennial growers may offer plants. Try Andre Viette in Staunton, Virginia, an old and reputable grower or Bluestone Perennials in Madison, Ohio, another fine perennial nursery (www.bluestoneperennials.com)

Because pansies will tolerate cold well, they can be planted in partial shade in the south. Planting beds that will be shaded in the heat of the late afternoon will prolong the flowering season of these cheerful flowers. In northern states, zone 6 and colder, pansies will take full sun in the summer but need more protection if they are to be over wintered successfully. In states where there is usually a covering of snow on the ground during the coldest part of the year it is only necessary to cover the plants with a thick layer of salt hay, pine straw, or evergreen boughs. The snow will provide a snug blanket and keep the plants from really damaging cold temperatures.

PREPARING A PANSY BED

Pansies like slightly acid soil and a well-drained location. This is especially important when plants are expected to over winter. Standing water will freeze around the plants and kill them.

Depending on the part of the country in which you live, arrange for the bed to be either in full sun (zone 6 or colder) or shaded in the afternoon (zone 7 and warmer). In the deep south pansies will often be seen growing all year round, and as long as the spent flowers are removed they will keep blooming.

Dig the bed about 8 to 10 inches deep, incorporating compost or well-rotted manure. Smooth the soil with the back of a bow rake and you will be ready to set out the plants.

PLANTING PANSIES IN THE PREPARED BED

The best way to start with pansies is to buy started plants from a local nursery. These plants have become so popular recently that they are available in fall and spring. For fall planting be sure to select varieties that are the most hardy and able to withstand colder temperatures.



When you go to the nursery for plant, expect to see many in full bloom. DO NOT buy these plants. They are already past their prime and will be leggy and root-bound. Instead, select those plants that are still small and do not have buds. These will be the exact size for transplanting into your new beds.

Remove each young plant from its pot or cell and gently tease the root ball apart, being careful to keep it all in one piece. Breaking the young roots encourages them to branch out and grow into the surrounding soil. Otherwise they might stay in a tight clump and never grow properly.

Place the young plants about 8 inches apart at the same level that they were growing in their pots and firm the soil around them. When all the plants are in the ground water them well and apply a few inches of mulch, either bark or shredded leaves.

This is all that you have to do until the weather starts turning cool. Within a week or so, the plants will start blooming and you can enjoy them until frost threatens. Remember to dead-head your plants so that they will not waste energy setting seed. Pansies will take light frosts and keep on blooming but when heavy frost and winter weather is expected cover the beds with a light to heavy (depending on your location) layer of pine straw, salt hay, or evergreen boughs.

Remember to uncover the pansy beds when the days begin getting longer. Depending on your part of the country this can be anytime from late January on.

SOME SPECIAL VARIETIES TO LOOK FOR

If you need more cold hardiness, look for the Majestic series of pansies, the Maxima series, the Bingo series, and Purple Rain. The Maxima series will also tolerate more summer heat, making it a useful plant indeed for zone 7 gardeners. Purple Rain pansy has a spreading habit and tends to bloom two weeks earlier than other types. It is dark purple with a small yellow eye.

The Maxima pansies are the blotched type and come in a full range of colors. Majestic Giants are a series of pansies with very large blooms. They come in blotched faces and solid colors. Both the Maxima and Majestic series are available in mixed colors and single colors but you may have to search for the single-color flats.

For clear solid colors with very either tiny eyes or none at all, look for the Clear Crystal series. Crystal Yellow, Crystal White, Crystal Orange, and Crystal Blue are very lovely and can be bought in single-color flats or mixtures.

Look for Romeo and Juliet if you want soft romantic pastels in shades of yellow, pink, mauve, blue, white, and rose. Sterling Silver is a lovely soft pink with a darker center and small yellow eye. Jolly Joker is half bright orange and half purple. The Impressions series comes in rose and blue and the flowers have darker blotches or faces.

Whichever varieties and colors you end up with you can be sure of having a beautiful display, both fall and spring, of cheerful and colorful blooms.

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