2017: Year of the Pansy

Homemade hydronic system for tomatoes. iGrow photo

By David Graper
SDSU Extension Horticulture Specialist and Director of McCrory Gardens

Reprinted from the National Garden Bureau http://ngb.org/

Pansies are such a friendly-faced flower! But I bet you didn’t know until the 19th century most people considered them a weed. Today, pansies are a hybrid plant cultivated from those wildflowers in Europe and western Asia. Much of the collection and cultivation of pansies can be attributed to plantsmen and women in the UK and Europe more than 200 years ago. For example: Lady Mary Elizabeth Bennet, daughter of the Earl of Tankerville, and her gardener cross-bred a wide variety of Viola tricolor (common name “Heartsease”) and showcased their pansies to the horticultural world in 1813. Further experiments around the same time eventually grew the class to over 400 garden pansy varieties.

Garden pansies (Viola x wittrockiana) are a mixture of several species, including Viola tricolor. Oftentimes the names “pansy”, “viola”, and “violet” are interchangeable. However Modern pansies are classified by the American Violet Society as having large-flowered blooms with two slightly overlapping upper petals, two side petals, and a single bottom petal, with a slight beard in its center. They’re considered annual bedding plants, used for garden decoration during cooler planting seasons. Pansies come in a rainbow of colors: from crisp white to almost black, and most all colors in between. They are also a great addition to your spring or fall vegetable garden as they are edible and pair well with lettuces. They can also be candied and used to decorate sweets or other dishes.

In the late-1830s the classic pansy “face” was discovered in a chance sport that produced a broad dark blotch on the petals. It was released to the public by James, Lord Gambier with the name “Medora”. Further hybridization of V. tricolor, V. Lutea and a blue-flowered species of Russian origin, V. altacia, lead to breeders selecting plants for more unusual pansy colors, different color combinations, and a larger flower size.

Most pansies fall into a few categories: Large (3 to 4 in.), Medium (2 to 3 in.) Multiflora (1 to 2 in.) and a new category of Trailing pansy. Some modern Large-flowered pansy series are Majestic Giant, bred by Sakata (where Majestic Giant White Face was a 1966 All-America Selections Winner); Delta, bred by Goldsmith Seeds; and Matrix, bred by PanAmerican Seed. Medium-sized pansy series include Crown by Sakata and Imperial from Takii & Co., Ltd. (Imperial Blue won an All-America Selections in 1975). Multiflora pansy series like Maxim and Padparadja won AAS awards in the early 1990s. New on the scene for hanging baskets and ground cover are WonderFall from Syngenta, and Cool Wave® pansies, from PanAmerican Seed – the makers of Wave® petunias. These Trailing pansies spread over 2 ft. wide and overwinter in fall gardens. Today’s garden pansy varieties can fill any sunny space – large or small, hanging overhead or growing underfoot – with soft fragrance and happy blooms.

While many retail garden centers offer pansies in handled-packs, hanging baskets or individual pots, many gardeners still start their own pansy flowers from seed. To germinate, start your pansy seeds indoors with a soilless mixture (this helps prevent disease on the seedlings). Plant seed 1/8-in. deep with a light cover and a gentle watering. Pansies prefer darkness for germination. The media temperature should be 60-65°F and keep air temperature at 70-75°F. The media should stay damp (covering with a plastic wrap or damp newspaper will help retain humidity. A fine spray or mister can be added if the media dries. Germination occurs in 10-20 days. When shoots appear, remove covering and move the flat to a brightly lit but cool room to continue to grow. Continue to grow cool. Separate seedlings into larger containers after two sets of leaves appear. Begin to feed with diluted plant food.

For transplants or purchased finished plants, space your pansies 6 to 10 in. apart in a well-drained and fertile soil location. The best location is an area that receives morning sun. Adding granular or time-release nutrition to the soil is encouraged, especially for trailing pansies as this increases their vigor and number of blooms. Offer plenty of water at planting and during their adjustment period to help establish roots and minimize stress. Mulching can help retain moisture and reduce any weeds that may compete with your plants. Pansies planted in the spring will enjoy the warm days and cool nights of the season. Most V. wittrockiana will begin to diminish or go out of flower as nighttime temperatures begin to rise in the summer. When planted in the north for fall outdoor decorating, pansies will enjoy a shorter but colorful season of blooms and in many cases will overwinter to pop up again the following spring. Southern gardeners often use pansies as their winter color and enjoy them all season long.

The National Garden Bureau recognizes and thanks PanAmerican Seed as author of this fact sheet. This Pansy fact sheet is provided as an educational service of the National Garden Bureau. There are no limitations on the use. Please credit the National Garden Bureau.

Please consider our NGB member companies as authoritative sources for information. Click on direct links to their websites by selecting Member Info from the menu on the left side of our home page. Gardeners looking for seed sources, select “Shop Our Members” at the top of our home page.

Pansies in your garden

By David F. Graper

SDSU Extension Horticulture Specialist

Pansies are a much-loved annual flower in many areas of the world, including here in the Northern Great Plains. Their broad range of flower colors are hard to beat, plus the variety sizes and color patters provide even more diversity. On top of all of that, they are also easy to grow. They are often some of the first bedding plants to bloom and can be planted out into the garden or in containers quite early in the spring since they are quite cold tolerant, even withstanding periods of below freezing temperatures, particularly if they were properly hardened off before being put outside. But we do face a challenge with pansies in this area, namely the weather and specifically the temperature. If our spring is cut short by warm, summer-like temperatures, pansies can go downhill in a hurry and may even die if they are not provided with afternoon shade and have adequate moisture. If they do make it through the heat of the summer, they can rebound and begin flowering once more, when temperatures cool once again in the fall.

Of the different species of pansies, the one that most people are familiar with as a plant that may come back in the spring is the cute little Viola cornuta or Johnny Jump-Ups. However, it is my guess that in most cases these plants are coming back from seed produced the previous year instead of actual plants that have survived the winter. In either case, their small, 1” flowers are a welcome sight in the garden. Most varieties will have lavender to blue or purple flowers but they may also be white or yellow.

A little further south, pansies are a commonly used fall bedding and container plant. As frosts take out the summer bedding plants, they are often replaced with pansies to provide color long into the fall. Then, when the weather warms up in the spring, they perk up and begin flowering again to put on their spring show. They blend in well with spring flowering bulbs too, filling in gaps around the base of the foliage. Then, later in the spring, they are usually removed to make room for the summer bedding plants to be installed. This planting rotation can work for us but probably only in those often rare winters when we have a good blanket of snow to help the pansies from getting too cold or desiccated from our winter winds.

A Question from one of our Readers

Q: A few weeks ago you wrote about growing plants hydroponically. This isn’t really organic though is it? If it typically isn’t an organic way of growing plants, is there a way to do it that would be organic?

A: You are absolutely correct! Almost always growing plants using a typical hydroponic system is not organic, in fact it is about as far from organic as you can get since almost all of the nutrients that are used in an organic system are inorganic in nature. But I have gotten a number of people inquiring about growing plants organically using hydroponics. The basic definition of hydroponics is to grow plants without soil, usually in a water-based solution that contains the nutrients that the plants need to grow. While in most cases those nutrients are inorganic, they could come from poultry or fish waste as well. An off-shoot of hydroponics is aquaponics where fish are produced in a tank that has a pump that circulates the water from the fish tank, through a hydroponic system. The waste produced from the fish provides the nutrients needed by the plants. The benefit of this system is that you get to harvest the fish as well as the produce that is produced using the fish waste.

The challenge with a hydroponic system though is that a nutrient solution based growing system is often quite unforgiving in regard to nutrient balance, pH and other factors that can greatly influence how well plants will grow. Growing plants hydroponically is often a lot trickier than growing the same plants in a more traditional growing medium that contains soil or in one of the more commonly used artificial growing media that contains mostly peat moss and vermiculite.

If you are interested in learning more about hydroponics or aquaponics, there are numerous web sites with information and videos on how to get started with your own small system right at home.