Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.
One of my favorite spring flowers are pansies. I just love their happy little faces. But they didn’t always have faces.
What are Pansies?
Pansies (Viola tricolor var. hortensis) are hybridized versions of violas (V. tricolor). They have been bred for large flowers, blotches on the lower petals and cold hardiness. The blotches that are so characteristic of pansies are non-existent in violas. Violas have lines on their lower petal that all lead to the reproductive organs. They are called “nectar guides” and guide pollinators to the pollen. The blotches on pansies are referred to as “faces”.
Hybridization of violas began in the 19th century by gardeners in Great Britain. The resulting flowers with many colors and shapes started a pansy craze. Unfortunately, the plants were very delicate and nearly impossible for ordinary gardeners to successfully grow. Hybridizers then concentrated on producing hardy plants that would be easy for anyone to grow.
The result is our modern day garden pansy. It has five petals: two overlapping on the top, two side petals and a fifth petal at the bottom. The flowers come in a number of colors, such as yellow, orange, red, lavender, blue and even black. The plants are biennials that are usually grown as annuals because they do not tolerate hot summer temperatures well. They are hardy in zones 4 through 8. In colder regions, they should be heavily mulched in the winter to help them survive. They can grow to 6 to 9 inches tall and spread 9 to 12 inches. Space your plants 7 to 12 inches apart to give them enough room to grow without crowding. They can tolerate full sun but do better in light shade.
How to Grow Pansies for Spring Color
The easiest way to grow pansies is to buy a few flats of them already grown and blooming at your local nursery. If you want a little more challenge, you can try growing them yourself from seed at home.
Start your seeds indoors 14 to 16 weeks before your last frost date. Gently press the seeds into the soil and barely cover them with soil. Cover the entire container with black plastic because the seeds need darkness to germinate. Pansy seeds need cold stratification so place the covered container in your refrigerator for two weeks.
After two weeks, remove the container from your refrigerator to a cool room with temperatures between 50⁰F and 65⁰F if possible. Remember to keep your soil moist during this period. Your seed should germinate in 1 to 2 weeks after they are removed from the refrigerator.
After a period of hardening-off, your seedlings can be planted in your garden as soon as the soil is workable, up to a month before your last frost date. If you have never hardened off seedlings before, it’s very easy. You just place them outside gradually for 1 to 2 weeks. Just a few hours each day, gradually lengthening the time each day until they are outdoors for the entire day.
You can extend the bloom time of your pansies by deadheading them. Deadheading prevents the plants from producing seed. Eventually the heat of summer will stop their blooms. At this point, shear the plants down to the ground. They will return in the fall to bloom again.
How to Grow Pansies for Fall Color
For fall blooming pansies, start your seeds indoors 6 to 8 weeks before your first frost date. Give them the same darkness and the same cold stratification period as you would in the spring. You can transplant your seedlings outdoors when daytime temperatures are below 70⁰F after the initial hardening off period. Be sure to deadhead them to prolong their bloomtime. A light frost will not harm your plants, but you should mulch heavily before a hard frost if you are in zones 4 through 6. Your winters are very cold and they will need protection from the extreme temperatures to survive the winter and reward you with springtime flowers.
Pansies are versatile cool season flowers. They can be grown in containers, as borders or as ground cover. Pansies thrive in the shade providing much-needed color in a shady corner of your yard. They come in so many different colors that you are sure to find some that will suit your landscape.
© 2018 Caren White
Caren White (author) on March 27, 2018:
Jo, you're welcome! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Jo Miller from Tennessee on March 27, 2018:
I think of pansies as spring plants. I will have to try some for the fall. Thanks for the information.
Caren White (author) on March 19, 2018:
Mary, I agree. Beautiful and hardy, a great combination in the garden. Thanks for reading and commenting.
Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on March 19, 2018:
Pansies are really beautiful. I love the variety of colours. They seem to be hardy as well.