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March 24, 2017

A Pansy Primer

If you haven't planted pansies or violas to jump start your spring garden you're robbing yourself of weeks of additional color. And no matter how mild March might be there's precious little color to be had before April in a Chicagoland garden, and that includes bulbs. Cue the pansies and violas, center stage.

While pansies and violas are in the same genus and species (Viola x wittrockiana), here's an admittedly simplistic differentiator. Violas are essentially small-flowered pansies that bloom more profusely than pansies. Those wanting to quibble should find a taxonomist that cares. Here's why they're both worth the effort:

  • Between the two, the color range is phenomenal. Blues in all hues, purple, yellow, orange, apricot, white, black (like Black Angus black, seriously), maroon, and many combinations thereof. It's a stretch, at least for me, to say there are true reds and pinks. The reds run more to maroon. The pinks are more rose shades. But the color range challenges petunias, which almost cover the rainbow.
  • The flower "faces" are intriguing. There are monochromatics that are pure, deeply saturated colors and beautiful jewel tones, too. There are interesting blotched pansies. There are bicolor and tricolor combinations. Some have striped veins that look like cat whiskers. Some of the newer series produce flirty, ruffled flowers.
  • The monochromatic orange, apricot, yellow, and white pansies often have light, but wonderful fragrance when temps are warm. The aroma reminds me of apricots for some reason.
  • With appropriately scaled small vases with narrow necks, they make sweet, long-lasting cut flowers. It's nice to appreciate the colorful complexity of the often intricate "faces" up close and personal.
  • They tolerate cold as well as they love "cool". While they don't laugh aloud at freezing temps, they certainly do scoff. If they've been hardened off (that is, acclimated to cold outside for a number of days at the growers) before shipping, they can survive being encased in frost or snow. When the sun melts the snow they'll return to an upright position. No harm, no foul. How many annuals can claim that?
  • Whether you need early color for hanging baskets, window boxes, containers, or beds, pansies and violas can do it all. They're especially nice in the foreground of beds, fronting the uninteresting ankles of taller tulips, daffs and newly emerging perennials.

Culturally, what do they ask in return for all this garden gorgeousness? Not much. Pansies and violas dislike heat and humidity equally. So, site them in full sun and enjoy the spring show until the temps start pushing 80 degrees. When they start getting "stretchy" and lax about reblooming, think "Discard" and move on to your summer crop of heat-tolerant annuals. Or, if you want to stretch the return on your spring horticultural investment, site them in an area where they'll receive afternoon shade when it gets warm. You'll squeeze additional weeks of bloom from them with that trick.

Keep pansies and violas evenly moist, especially as day and night temps remain elevated. The other recommendation is to deadhead. Timely removal of spent flowers really resets the bloom button and keeps the show going. Then there's feeding. While they're not particularly conspicuous consumers an application of a timed-release fertilizer at planting time, or several applications of a high phosphorous (P= middle number in a 10-15-10 analysis) water soluble product during their springtime with you will make a world of difference in bloom performance.

A few noteworthy series:

'Spring Matrix' - Large-flowered, perform well early in the cold, often sun-free conditions of spring.

'Imperial Antique Shades' - Huge flowers, in romantic apricot to rose shades.

'Spring Matrix' - Large-flowered, perform well early in the cold, often sun-free conditions of spring.

'Imperial Antique Shades' - Huge flowers, in romantic apricot to rose shades.

Oops, I forgot to mention the flowers are edible - great as a garnish or to color zap a salad. Honest. Pass the pansies, please. 





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