Pansies are popular for cool-season flowerbeds

Richard Bogren, Gill, Daniel J.  |  9/28/2009 8:51:17 PM

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For Release On Or After 10/23/09

By Dan Gill
LSU AgCenter Horticulturist

The pansy is a popular, cool-season annual used to beautify gardens in Louisiana during the fall, winter and spring. Pansies thrive in the chilly nights and cool-to-mild days of our cool season from November to April. And the occasionally freezing weather we get, even if it should reach the teens, will not bother pansies in the least.

The origin of the plant we now call pansy began in Iver, Buckinghamshire, England. In the early 1800s, Lord Gambier and his gardener William Thompson began crossing various Viola species. The records they kept indicate that crosses were made among V. tricolor (Johnny-Jump-Up), V. lutea and a blue-flowered species possibly of Russian origin, V. altacia. When evaluating the offspring of their crosses, they selected for unusual colors, color combinations and increasing flower size. The initial results were similar to V. tricolor.

History credits the gardener, William Thompson, with a cross that began the new hybrid species V. x wittrockiana we call pansies. He also found the first pansy that no longer just produced dark lines on the face (often called “whiskers” and still common in viola bedding plants) but also large blocks of dark colors on the lower three petals, which we now call a “face.” Discovered in 1839 and named Medora, this pansy and its progeny became the forerunners of today’s varieties. Later, clear-colored flowers without faces or whiskers were developed – and credit for this is given to a Scottish grower, Dr. Charles Stewart.

In the past 50 years, much of the innovative pansy breeding has been in Germany, the United States and Japan. The pansy now has one of the widest color ranges of any garden annual, including red, purple, blue, navy, bronze, pink, black, yellow, white, lavender, orange, apricot and mahogany. The five-petaled flowers generally have a round shape and may be of a single, clear color or have two or three colors with a face.

The plant itself is compact, generally not more than 6 inches in both height and spread, and bears many stems. The medium-green, coarsely notched leaves are oval or heart-shaped.

Gardeners creating colorful cool-season gardens will find cell packs and pots of pansies at local nurseries or garden centers now. Select the flower colors that suit your garden design, and choose plants that are stocky with dark green foliage. Unless you need an immediately full-looking bed, small pansy plants in cell packs are a better bargain than pansies in 4-inch pots. Planted this early, they have plenty of time to grow into large, robust plants. When planting after February – late in the cool season – choose larger plants in 4-inch pots for best results.

Plant pansies in well-prepared sunny to partly shady beds. Although pansies like full sun, they perform well with morning sun and afternoon shade. Prepare the bed by digging in a 2- to 4-inch layer of compost, peat moss or aged manure and a light sprinkling of a general-purpose fertilizer. Pansies are heavy feeders and will not perform as well without sufficient fertilizer. Apply more granular fertilizer in January. If you’d rather, you may apply a teaspoon of slow-release fertilizer in each hole as you plant them, and you shouldn’t need to apply more fertilizer later. Alternately, you can fertilize once or twice a month with a soluble fertilizer using a hose-end sprayer.

When planting, first water the pansies while they’re still in their containers or cell-packs. Then, carefully remove the plant from the container. For pansies in cell-packs or pots, place your fingers gently around the top of the container and turn the container upside down. A firm squeeze or push on the bottom should dislodge the plant right into your hand. Place the root ball in the hole, and push soil around it to cover the roots. Make sure you leave the crown of leaves above the soil because planting pansies too deeply can lead to crown rot. Don’t space pansies too far apart, or they won’t fill in the bed. From the center of one plant to the center of the next, the distance should be about 6 inches.

Finally, mulch and water the newly planted pansies thoroughly. Moving the pansies from container to garden is stressful to the plants, so it’s crucial that they receive adequate water during this adjustment period.

The pansies you plant now should last until April or early May of next year. To encourage continued flowering over a longer period, pinch off faded flowers if you can.

It’s relatively easy to keep pansies free from damage caused by diseases and pests, but you may encounter a few of these common problems.

The first sign of the fungal disease root rot is yellow leaves, and then the plant becomes stunted or dwarfed. Make sure beds are well-drained. This disease is worse when weather is mild and wet. Another fungus disease, botrytis, attacks the flowers and leaves during warm, wet weather and causes brown spots. You can control this by spraying benomyl, chlorothalonil or another labeled fungicide.

Aphids and spider mites cause damage by sucking the sap out of the plant. Control them with insecticidal soap, Malathion or horticultural oils.

Slugs chew holes in pansy leaves and flowers and are generally most active at night. Treat them with iron phosphate snail-and-slug baits according to label directions.

Rick Bogren

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