Very cool: Pansies for spring and fall

Icicle pansy 'Violet Face'/Fearnlea Flowers Lts.

Icicle pansy 'Violet Face'/Fearnlea Flowers Lts.

Everyone knows the happy-faced pansy, big brother to the tiny violet. These cold-hardy perennials are among the first plants to show up in garden centers each spring, already in bloom and pretty as a picture.

What everyone doesn’t know is that some pansies can double your pleasure. Yes, you can buy them now and tuck them in the garden among the daffodils and tulips. Planted in the fall, they will keep blooming straight through the early weeks of winter and (after a brief dormancy), flower again come spring. Double your pleasure, double your fun. 

The pansies most heavily marketed for this two-act performance are the Icicle pansies developed by Fernlea Flowers Ltd. of Ontario, Canada. These are guaranteed to bloom in spring after a fall planting -- a claim the company supports with a money-back pledge. (See for “where to buy” info.)

Truthfully, many of the pansies developed over the past 15 years also will over-winter in New Jersey’s Hardiness Zones 6 and 7. The Matrix series from Simply Beautiful, the Bingo varieties from PanAmerican Seed/Ball Horticultural Co. and the Majestic Giant group from Sakata Seed all have excellent cold tolerance.

What this means is that gardeners now have another great performer for fall gardens – one that adds colors not found among the mums, asters, sedums and goldenrods of autumn. As a tantalizing bonus, fall-planted pansies grow bigger and bloom more profusely than those popped in the ground in spring because they have the advantage of a better developed root system. Spring planted ones will catch up in time.    

There are, of course, some tricks to getting the most from your pansies. They don’t do at all well in hot weather, so it’s best to set them out in cool temperatures. Choose a spot under deciduous trees where the pansies will be shaded while trees are in leaf, but exposed to at least six hours of sun when trees are bare.

Well drained soil is essential -- avoid locations where the ground stays wet and soggy in the winter or roots may rot. Pansies prefer a fertile soil and regular feeding. The lazy gardener’s way to do this is by mixing in a slow-release fertilizer when you plant. Plan to use a non-toxic slug bait, like Sluggo or Escarg-Go!, to fend off one of the pansy’s worst enemies.

Pansy and bulb planting can go hand-in-hand since these plants are such congenial spring companions. Once bulb flowers fade, pansies can help distract the eye from their foliage, which must remain until it dies back in order to recharge the bulb for next year.

Bingo 'Sunrise'/Ball Horticultural Co.

Bingo 'Sunrise'/Ball Horticultural Co.

As fall gives way to winter, your pansies will bloom happily on, defying cold and even snow. When air temperatures drop below 25 degrees, foliage may wilt and lose its vibrant green color, but don’t be surprised to see the plants revive and even bloom on warm winter days.

For added protection in the bitter cold of January and February, consider mulching your pansies with pine needles, or laying boughs cut from your discarded Christmas tree over the bed. This security blanket can be removed when growth resumes in spring.

The wild ancestor of the modern pansy is Viola tricolor, a weed of European farm fields that went by a number of common names, including Johnny-jump-up for its tendency to self-sow freely, and heartsease, for the belief that it could cure a broken heart.

Blame the French for “pansy,” a muddled version of pensee meaning “thought.” Might a flower that appears to have a face not have something on its mind?

Shakespeare’s Ophelia knew of this connection (“There’s pansies, that’s for thoughts.”) and Puck used the juice of pansy leaves as a love potion in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” But they were still fiddling with the wild flower -- cultivated pansies weren’t introduced until the 1800s, when British gardeners began to improve the species.

In the late 1800s, the Swedish botanist Veit Brecher Wittrock wrote the definitive text that sorted out the more than 400 varieties then available in the trade. He left his mark on this plant, which was officially designated Viola x wittrokiana, a name almost no one uses.

Intensive breeding over the last 200 years has produced even more pansies in a rainbow of colors. The sight of pansies bravely blooming in the cold will put a little spring in your garden no matter what the calendar says.