When the temperatures drop and the summer flowers fade, colorful pansies become a focal point in our gardens, able to withstand the cold weather and bloom even after a frost. In the spring, they’re also among the first plants to bring color back into our winter-dreary landscapes.
Pansies, like violets, are in the Violaceae family. The word “pansy” comes from the French word pensée, meaning “thought” or “remembrance.”
These pretty, delicate-looking flowers are not hard to grow, but they dislike heat, and flowering often shuts down as the thermometer rises. Gardeners in hot climates often treat pansies as annuals—although they are actually cold-hardy biennials—growing them during the fall and early spring, and then composting them as summer sets in. Pansies are generally cold-hardy into USDA hardiness zone 4.
Although pansies are usually inexpensive enough to buy in flats, you can start them from seeds, if you prefer. In the South, sow pansy seeds in early fall, in well-worked soil that’s been raked free of rocks and clumps. The lower temperatures will give them a chance to develop strong roots, and fall-sown pansies may produce blossoms up to twice as large as spring-sown seeds.
Northern gardeners can plant pansy seeds in a cool room in the house or directly outdoors. After the seedlings emerge, they’ll need lots of bright, cool light to help them grow strong and sturdy. They should be hardened off, or gradually exposed to natural sunlight and temperatures, before being transplanted to the garden or outside containers.
Start your seeds in a partly shaded location, if you’re planting outdoors, and cover them lightly with soil. Water gently, so the tiny seeds don’t float away. When the seedlings emerge, in about 6 to 10 days, thin them to every 4 inches. After your pansy seedlings are about two inches tall, or when you're transplanting them from flats or pots, give them full sun.
Whether you grow them from seeds or as starter plants, pansies are heavy feeders, so fertilize them regularly. Water regularly, too, but don’t let the plants stand in puddles, which can cause root rot.
Keep your flowers deadheaded to encourage re-blooming, and mulch around them to conserve moisture. Pansies usually recover from winter weather unless the temperature stays below 15 degrees F for some time. The plants can be insulated with more mulch on top to help protect them.