How to Select and Grow Pansies

Pansies are old-fashioned favorite flowers that are gaining new popularity. Improved varieties and better hardiness are why more gardeners are buying and planting these cheerful spring bloomers.
Pansy Basics
Red Pansies And Purple Larkspur The markings that form a "face"
are the pansy's most recognizable
feature. Some varieties have
plain petals without the blotches.

Gardeners in warmer Zones have long known that pansies can be planted in fall and continue to grow and bloom all winter and into spring. What isn't as well known is that pansies can overwinter as far north as Zone 4, making them hardy even in parts of the northern United States and southern Canada.

Many gardeners chafe at the idea of splurging for flowers that may not last more than a month in the ground. However, if planted in fall, pansies can last up to eight months, from September to April or May, providing fall and spring color. That's a pretty good deal.

Pansies aren't attractive in the middle of the coldest winters. In fact, they can look downright pitiful (when they're not buried under snow). But they're just biding their time until spring, when they hit their stride. The bonus for keeping them around is that the spring bloom is usually much more robust when the plants have been in the ground since fall.

Pansies vs. Violas

Multicolored Pansies Climbing Post Viola tricolor is a relative of
the pansy, and just as hardy.

Pansies are Viola hybrids, officially known as Viola x wittrockiana, with a complex ancestry that includes several species. They're short-lived perennials but are used as annuals or biennials. Similar to pansies and offered in garden centers at the same time are Johnny jump-ups (Viola tricolor) and Viola 'Jackanapes'. Both of these have hardiness similar to pansies.

Pansies come in Series that offer the same plant and flower characteristics but in a variety of bloom colors. This gives you great flexibility in working with flower color because you can buy individual colors of a Series, if you wish, or a mix of colors from the same Series.


Overwintering Pansies

Clustered Pink Pansies Some varieties of pansy, like
'Raspberry Rose', shown here, have
veins instead of blotches.

  • Plant as early as possible. The more established the plants are, the better they'll be able to withstand cold, desiccating winter conditions. That means planting in September, if possible. The farther south you are, the wider your planting window, and October may also be acceptable in warmer Zones. But in Zones 4-7, early planting is key.
  • Choose healthy plants. Healthy plants establish more quickly, rapidly growing the root system that's so critical to winter hardiness.
  • Choose hardy varieties. Generally, varieties with medium-size flowers overwinter better than large-flowered types, but there are several exceptions. In any case, obtaining the very hardiest cultivars is only a concern in northern areas such as Zones 4 and 5. Varieties that have overwintered well for the Green Bay Botanical Garden in Wisconsin include the Sky, Delta, Bingo, and Accord Series. Icicle pansies (and violas) have been bred specifically for cold hardiness and also have tested well in Zone 4. Other pansies that are reported to grow well in the north are Crystal Bowl, Presto, Skyline, Universal, and Maxim.
  • Ensure good drainage. Pansies are susceptible to saturated soil. They have been known to overwinter successfully, only to succumb to excessive moisture as the winter's snow and ice begin to melt. Be sure they're growing in a well-drained location.


Mixing Pansies with Other Flowers

Non Bloomed Verigated Red and White Pansies Interplanting pansies and
tulips is a great strategy for
extending spring color.

A technique gaining in popularity is to plant spring-blooming bulbs in fall in the usual fashion, then install pansies in the same bed, right over the bulbs. The bulbs will emerge and bloom as usual in spring. When their flowers die down, the pansies will just be starting their spring bloom, providing additional color while the bulb foliage ripens. This is a great way to get more color from your beds until it's time to plant summer annuals.

Continued on page 2:  Shopping for Pansies