Pansies and violas remain cool weather favourites

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Pansy F1 Frizzle Sizzle Picture courtesy Ball StraathofPansy F1 Frizzle Sizzle Picture courtesy Ball StraathofPansies and violas are easy to grow in full sun and will bloom for many months. Who can resist their cheerful little 'faces' that are sure to bring a smile to your face on even the dreariest of winter days.  Read more below on how to plant, grow, and care for pansies and violas.

Pansies and violas are timeless winter and spring flowering favourites that never go out of fashion. One of their common names is "little faces" because their pretty heart-shaped flower petals often have delicate patterns that resemble little pansy 'faces'. Pansies and violas come in a staggering range of bright or pastel colours: including pink, blue, yellow, gold, orange, purple, violet, red, russet, white, and even black. They are available in clear single shades as well as bi-colours, and many are painted with black blotches around a yellow eye, with lines radiating from the centre, like cat's whiskers.

Pansies and violas vary slightly in height from about 15 to 20cm, and their small stature makes them perfect for borders and containers. The flowers range in size from small to enormous, with petals that are soft and velvety, and often ruffled and frilly. Viola flowers are much smaller than those of pansies, and the modern F1 hybrid pansies come in several sizes, from the smaller 5 to 6cm ones which flower most prolifically, to the medium, large, and extra-large pansies which can produce flowers the size of a small saucer! The small to medium sizes produce more flowers per plant than the very large flowering varieties, and for this reason the smaller types are the most popular with gardeners. If you simply can’t resist the extra-large Pansy 'Mammoth Mix' Picture courtesy Ball StraathofPansy 'Mammoth Mix' Picture courtesy Ball Straathofflowers, buy some to impress your friends, plant them in containers and place them where they can serve as a focal point.

According to legend all pansies were once white, and only when cupid shot an arrow into the white pansy, did the beautiful coloured varieties emerge. Even in ancient Greece violas were associated with love and fertility and used in love potions. In Victorian times pansies were also thought of in terms of love, and it was believed that if you sent your lover a bouquet of pansies, he or she would think of you. In William Shakespeare’s "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" pansies were used as a love potion, and played a significant role in creating a central theme throughout the play of love manipulation.

All the pansies we know and love today are hybrids that were developed from the wild viola species (Viola tricolour) and are named Viola x wittrockiana hybrids. The Viola family contains over 400 species, with many sub-species, which are widely distributed over the temperate zones of both the Northern and Southern hemispheres.

The name "pansy" is derived from the French "pensée" meaning 'thought' and was so named because the flower resembles a face nodding forward, as if deep in thought. Because of this, the pansy has also long been a symbol of free thought.

Viola Sorbet 'Antique Shades' Picture courtesy Ball StraathofViola Sorbet 'Antique Shades' Picture courtesy Ball StraathofPansies and violas continue to inspire plant breeders to produce even more exciting garden varieties, with exciting colours like the new antique mixes, as well as gorgeous new bicolour combinations. Breeding is also focused on producing even more compact and floriferous plants. Grab a couple of trays of pansies and violas from you garden centre and plant them in a few key locations in the garden, they are worth their weight in gold!

Uses:

Pansies and violas are one of several edible garden flowers, and their mild, minty flavour makes for a pretty edible garnish for salads or desserts.

In the Garden:

Pansies and violas are easy to grow and perfect for hanging baskets and containers of all kinds. They are charming when combined with spring flowering bulbs and also grow well with other winter and spring flowering annuals for full sun. Line the borders of the vegetable, flower or herb garden with them to attract bees and other valuable pollinators at a time when food is scarce.

Violas can take a bit more shade than pansies making them perfect for brightening up semi-shady areas. Violas will also often re-seed themselves in the garden.

Pansy 'Cool Wave Mix' Picture courtesy Ball StraathofPansy 'Cool Wave Mix' Picture courtesy Ball StraathofCultivation/Propagation:

Pansies and violas love full sun, and are grown as annuals throughout South Africa. Generally they are sown or planted out in autumn and winter to flower in winter and spring. In the cool, mist-belt regions they can be kept blooming for months and months if they are planted in areas of the garden which receive full winter sun, but are semi-shaded in summer, i.e. under deciduous trees. In these regions they can also be sown in spring, but then they will need semi-shade.

Pansies and violas do not like heat and humidity, and in hot regions of the country they are planted out during the coolest months. They are hardy to frost, surviving freezing weather, even when in full bloom. In extremely cold regions place a thick mulch of straw or bark chips around their roots to protect the soil from freezing. In the winter rainfall regions the soil must have perfect drainage.

Some varieties of viola like "Johnny Jump-up" are easy to sow from seed, but pansies are generally finicky from seed, and it’s a lot easier to buy established plants from a local garden centre. Plus, you’ll get blooms a lot sooner.

Pansies and violas must not be planted in the same soil season after season as harmful organisms can build up in the soil and eventually kill the plants, so practice plant rotation, just like you would in the vegetable garden.

They enjoy fertile, humus rich soils, but to avoid root-rot it is vital that the soil has excellent drainage. Dig the beds over well adding compost and a dressing of bone meal. Never transplant your seedlings deeper than they are growing in their trays, and ensure that no soil is covering the crown, or Pansy Panola 'Clear Mix' Picture courtesy Ball StraathofPansy Panola 'Clear Mix' Picture courtesy Ball Straathofthe plants will wilt and die. It is also important to space the plants correctly, and spacing will vary, so check the information on the plant labels.

Remember to water regularly, as one of the most common reasons pansies and violas fail is because they are not watered enough, so if your pansies are not doing well, try watering them more. However, it is vital that you do not overwater, and it is best to water well every couple of days, rather than giving a sprinkling of water every day.

Potted pansies and violas can be grown in a good potting soil which drains well, and in pots they can be planted slightly closer together for effect. Potted plants need more frequent feeding and watering than those growing in garden beds, so check your pots regularly. It is easiest to feed potted plants with liquid fertilisers, so invest in one for flowering plants.

To keep your pansies and violas blooming for a long time it is important to nip out all the dead flowers on a regular basis. Otherwise they need little further attention, beyond a feeding every 4 to 6 weeks with a fertiliser for flowers.

As the season wears on you’ll probably notice the plants getting leggy. Go ahead and cut them back by as much as one-third, but be sure to leave some foliage to nourish the plant. However, if it’s late in the season and the plants aren’t looking too vigorous, you’re better off just pulling them out and replacing them with summer flowers.

Pansy 'Panola True Blue Mix' Picture courtesy Ball StraathofPansy 'Panola True Blue Mix' Picture courtesy Ball StraathofSeeds are best sown in seedling trays in late summer to early autumn. In cool, temperate regions they are also sown in spring. The ideal soil germination temperatures are between 18 and 24°C and the seeds can take up to a week to germinate.

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

Because pansies and violas are winter annuals they do not suffer from many pests, but as the weather warms up in spring and early summer, suddenly the pests can arrive from seemingly nowhere, so keep an eye out for common garden pests like slugs, snails, and aphids.

Most diseases like crown and root rot can be avoided by planting in well-drained soil, ensuring spacing is correct, and by watering correctly. Pansies and violas do not like heat or humidity and under these conditions are susceptible to downy mildew, powdery mildew, rust and grey mould. 

Warning:

Pansies and violas are not poisonous and the flowers are used to garnish salads. However, it is always good to supervise small children in the garden and to discourage pets from chewing on plants.