When northern gardeners get restless in the spring and head for the garden store in April, they usually return with pansies. When southern gardeners finally get cold weather that turns the garden dreary, they head to the garden store and come back with pansies. Who doesn't like pansies? They make cool weather colorful and give gardeners an easy-to-grow option when they just need to plant something.
Many years ago pansies were dug out of the ground in cool weather and offered to gardeners as bare-root plants or jammed into wooden strawberry boxes with a bit of soil from the field. Today you are more likely to find pansies in flats and pots like other annual plants. Pansies are heavily promoted to keep gardeners buying in the cooler months. They are so colorful it's hard to resist them, and if you venture into garden stores when it's cool, you are almost certain to return home with pansies.
Pansies are planted in early spring or late fall, depending on where you live. Pansies do not like heat; some varieties are more heat-tolerant than others, but few pansies will bloom in hot weather. There are some varieties of pansies that will put on a show in the fall until covered with snow, then, when the snow melts in spring, they resume blooming as if nothing has happened. In Zone 6 and above, pansies are planted as soon as the ground can be worked in the spring or they are planted in containers and set outside when temperatures get above freezing. Pansies are generally removed and replaced with warm-weather annuals after the last frost. If they are planted in pots, pansies can be moved to a shady area when the weather warms. Cut them back to a few inches and keep them well watered. If you are lucky, they will survive the hot weather and be ready to bring back into the sun in cooler fall weather to resume blooming. In Zones 7 and below, pansies are usually planted in late fall after cold weather has dimmed the colors in the garden. They will often continue to bloom all winter. When hot weather resumes, pansies are replaced with other plants. In mountainous or coastal areas with cool summers, pansies will bloom most of the year.
Pansies like full sun, although they may tolerate some light shade. They need to be kept moist, but make sure they never sit in waterlogged soil. A slow-release fertilizer mixed into the soil at planting will aid flowering, especially in areas where pansies will be blooming for many months.
Pansies are annuals; they live for about a year. Keep the dead flowers picked off so they don't go to seed to prolong bloom. If you do let a few go to seed in the garden, they may pop up on their own next year.
Pansies can also be started from seed indoors. Pansy seed germinates well, and plants are fairly easy to grow. They like to be started in a cool area, with daytime temperatures in the 60s and nighttime temperatures in the high 40s to low 50s. Pansies need a sunny area or good supplemental lighting to develop into sturdy plants. They will need to be started about 10 weeks before you want to plant them outside.
There are hundreds of pansy varieties on the market. There are large-flowered varieties and small-flowered pansies. There is every color pansy in the rainbow, some solid-colored, some with the traditional "cat's face." Botanically there is no difference between pansies and violas, although some species of viola are short-lived perennials in the garden, as are most violets, another relative. Modern hybrid pansies usually have larger flowers than violas and they are less likely to retain any fragrance.
Tags on pansies sold in stores may just say "pansy hybrid, mixed colors." That's because most people choose pansies by the color and markings that appeal to them. Here are a few named varieties: Crystal Bowl Supreme series features 12 solid-colored, small-flowered pansies. Majestic Giants is an old series with large flowers and many colors and markings. Bolero hybrids have large, ruffled double blooms in a wide range of colors. Pink Panther series features medium-sized flowers in shades of pink, wine and lilac. Bowles Black is a medium-sized pansy that appears black. Medium- and small-flowered pansies hold up better in rain and snow than the larger-flowered pansies.
In the garden, pansies are used to brighten up early spring or fall and winter gardens. They can hide the dying foliage of early spring bulbs. Pansies are excellent in containers to add a bit of color to porches or decks in cool weather. Children love the "faces" on pansies, so they are excellent choices for a child's garden. Pansies are edible and can be used to decorate cakes or added to salads. Pansies make good cut flowers and they are charming when dried and used in crafts.
If you are looking for eye-catching blooms throughout the growing season, annuals are the way to go. Though they only last for one year, annuals pack a lot of color into their short lives. These versatile plants are relatively easy to care for and fairly inexpensive.
If you are struggling with sandy, poor soil in a sunny location and want lots of color then lantana is the plant for you. This lovely plant thrives in situations many plants would struggle in. Lantana is tough as nails and attracts butterflies to the garden as a bonus.