For all the years I have worked in the industry winter pansies have gone on sale to the public during August, mainly for people who have neglected their summer pots and hanging baskets, and wish to replace their wilted plants with another splash of colour.
The main surge of sales of winter pansies is from early September to mid-October. This is the ideal time to plant them as in these months your soil is still warm and new compost will be warmed by the early autumn sunshine.
Planting your winter pansies at this time of year makes them grow quickly making them produce bushy tops and a vigorous root system. And bushy tops produce more flowers and because the plant is stronger it will flower throughout the winter.
From late October onwards we can’t really rely on the heat from the sun to warm the soil enough to encourage strong growth, and this is why we have always ceased sales of winter pansies around Bonfire Night because if planted in November they don’t produce as many flowers through the winter.
But if for some reason you don’t have any other option than to plant in late October or November, plant more winter pansies and plant them closer together as this will make a bigger impact. And remember no matter when you plant them, all winter pansies have a final explosion of flowers in late winter and early spring.
Planting in September does leave us with a dilemma though because most people’s summer plants will still be going strong and will be reluctant to just rip them out for winter pansies.
One way to tackle this is to purchase or use empty pots and hanging baskets you may have laying about, plant them with winter pansies and have them waiting on the sidelines as a substitute for when your summer plants have finally worn themselves out or have been hit by a frost.
Thus giving you the best of both worlds, getting to keep your summer plants until they have finished their final flourish and having bigger and more established winter pansies that will flower more throughout the winter.
Another option is to re-pot them into 5” (13cm) pots with a good multipurpose compost and create a mini nursery. Simply nurture these freshly potted plants in a warm sunny spot of your garden until you are ready to replace your summer bedding.
Years ago we never used to have this problem as summer bedding was normally wiped out by early frosts in September, but the weather seems to have shifted and we now get warmer weather in the autumn here in the UK.
Due to this shift in weather, I believe this has lead to less winter bedding plants being sold in general. Sales of winter pansies are down, there is hardly a market for chrysanthemums and wallflowers have all but ceased to exist.
Winter Pansy Tips
Even though sales of chrysanthemums have rapidly declined they make an excellent companion for winter pansies as do mini cyclamen. You can also add a spring surprise by planting spring flowering bulbs below your winter pansies, m
Pansies are a bit like sunflowers in that they like to follow the sun throughout the day. So try and plant them where you look at them with the sun behind, and then the flowers will face you.
Sometimes we get an Indian summer and September can be hot. This may cause your pansies to set seed and pansies that set seed stop flowering. Inspect them weekly during September and early October to see if any seed pods are forming. If they do, simply sip them off to ensure more flowers are produced. Once the weather cools down and the bees go into hibernation the flowers aren’t pollinated and your plants won’t set seed but will flower.
Growing Winter Pansies From Seed
Winter pansies are not difficult to grow from seed and should be sewn 6-8 weeks before you plan on transplanting them.
Fill a seed tray to within an inch (2.5cm) from the top with a 50/50 mix of a good quality seed and plug compost and perlite (to give good water retention and aeration).
Lightly sprinkle the pansy seeds so they spread evenly over the surface of the soil.
Cover the seeds with a thin layer of your compost mixture.
Stand the seed tray in water for 10 to 15 minutes so that the compost draws up the moisture.
They are then ready to go in a propagator or on a windowsill until the seeds germinate.
Prick the seedlings out when they are large enough to handle using the seed and plug compost. They can be transplanted into trays or a 3in (7cm) pot and grown in a cool frame or greenhouse until September when should be ready for planting.
Winter Pansy Problems
Pansies suffer from a few problems:
- Aphids are the most common and a regular spray with a suitable insecticide will see them off.
- Slugs can cause problems in wet seasons.
- The problem that causes the most concern is leaf spot. Brown or white spots appear on the foliage but a cure is difficult to achieve, spraying with a fungus fighter should help stop further spread.
Watering Winter Pansies
Amazingly you do need to still water during the winter months, especially if your pots and hanging baskets are close to your house or are under shelter. Although we typically have wet winters, we are also susceptible to high winds that dry out the compost.
Dry compost leads to starving plants, and hungry plants don’t grow or flower well. Check pots and baskets weekly, by pushing a finger under the foliage to check for dry compost.
History Of The Pansy
Violas were cultivated in 4th century Greece for herbal-medical use.
The would “pansy” is derived from the French word pensée, “thought”, and was imported in Late Middle English as a name of Viola in the mid 15th century, as the flower was regarded as a symbol of remembrance. The name “love in idleness” was meant to imply the image of a lover who has little or no other employment than to think of his beloved.
They were an inspiration to William Shakespeare, in Hamlet, Ophelia distributes flowers with remark, “There’s pansies, that’s for thoughts”.
And in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the “juice of the heartsease” is a love potion and “on sleeping eyelids laid, will make a man or woman madly dote upon the live creature that it sees.”
In Victorian times, the pansy was second only to the rose. Pansies convey loving thoughts in the language of flowers and were a popular posy in Victorian tussie-mussies, nosegays that carried messages via blooms.
Pansies are relatives of the Johnny-jump-up and the sweet violet, belonging to the genus Viola, a large group containing some 500 species.
In the early years of the 19th century, Lady Mary Elizabeth Bennet (1785–1861), daughter of the Earl of Tankerville, collected and cultivated every sort of Viola tricolour (commonly, heartsease) she could procure in her father’s garden at Walton-upon-Thames, Surrey.
Under the supervision of her gardener, William Richardson, a large variety of plants was produced via cross-breeding. In 1812, she introduced her pansies to the horticultural world, and, in 1813, Mr Lee, a well-known florist and nurseryman, further cultivated the flower. Other nurserymen followed Lee’s example, and the pansy became a favourite among the public.
About the same time that Lady Bennett was busy cultivating heartsease, James, Lord Gambier was doing the same in his garden at Iver under the advice and guidance of his gardener William Thompson.
A yellow viola, Viola lutea, and a wide-petalled pale yellow species of Russian origin, Viola altaica were among the crosses that laid the foundation for the new hybrids classed as Viola × wittrockiana, named for the Swedish botanist Veit Brecher Wittrock (1839–1914).
A round flower of overlapping petals was the aim of some early experimenters; in the late 1830s a chance sport that no longer had narrow nectar guides of dark colour on the petals but a broad dark blotch on the petals (which came to be called the “face”), was found. It was developed in Gambier’s garden and released to the public in 1839 with the name “Medora”.
By 1833, there were 400 named pansies available to gardeners who once considered its progenitor, heartsease, a weed. Specific guidelines were formulated for show pansies but amateur gardeners preferred the less demanding fancy pansies.
About this time, James Grieve developed the viola and Dr Charles Stuart developed the violetta, both smaller, more compact plants than the pansy.
In the late 1970s, our winter gardens changed forever with the introduction of the ‘Universal’ pansy. Although they could be grown for the summer months, it was their ability to flower in winter that made such an impact on the gardening world.
Since then other winter flowering pansies and violas have been developed by breeders in the UK and around the globe with three main features in mind:
- The capacity to flower in the short days of winter.
- Tolerance of cold, wet and windy weather.
- The ability to stay compact and not stretch and flop over when mild weather arrives.
Trial of Winter Pansies (2007-2008)
In the autumn of 2007 to the spring of 2008 the Royal Horticultural Society carried out a trial on winter pansies at their Wisley garden in Surrey.
The objectives of this trial were to:
- To recommend the Award of Garden Merit [AGM] to cultivars considered excellent for ordinary garden use.
- To assess continuity of flowering through winter and spring.
- To demonstrate the range of winter flowering pansies currently available from seed.
There were 254 entries in the trial, submitted by various seed companies from the UK and across Europe.
4 cultivars received the Award of Garden Merit (H4) following the trial of winter pansies.
The entries that received the award were:
(Skyline Series) Skyline Yellow Blotch AGM (H4) 2008 sent by S&G Flowers from Lancashire.
Flower: Yellow with an almost black face
Flower Diameter: 5.5cm (2in)
Plant Height: 20cm (8in)
Plant Spread: 30cm (12in)
Flowered From: 27th September
The RHS observed that it had clean upward facing flowers with bold black faces on a good bright yellow. Flowered well from October, throughout winter and on into spring.
(Nature Series) Nature Ocean AGM (H4) 2008 Sent by Takii Europe from Holland
Flower: Rich deep violet with a small deep purple face
Flower Diameter: 4.5cm (2in)
Plant Height: 15cm (6in)
Plant Spread: 32cm (13in)
Flowered From: 27th September
The RHS observed that it had an attractive flower colour: would combine well with ‘Nature Yellow’. Good foliage and flower colour contrast. Flowered consistently to AGM standard from October, throughout winter and into spring.
(Nature Series) Nature Yellow AGM (H4) 2008 sent by Takii Europe from Holland
Flower: Yellow with a deeper glowing-yellow flush
Flower Diameter: 4cm (2in)
Plant Height 17cm (7in)
Plant Spread 30cm (12in)
Flowered From: 18th September
The RHS observed that it had an excellent impact, bright-yellow flowers lasted well and looked fresh despite the weather. Good size plants, flowered consistently to AGM standard from October, throughout winter and into spring.
(Nature Series) Nature White AGM (H4) 2008 sent by Takii Europe from Holland
Flower: White with short
dark violet-blue rays and a yellow eye
Flower Diameter: 5cm (2in)
Plant height: 16cm (6in)
Flower Spread: 28cm (11in)
Flowered From: 18th September
The RHS observed that it was a floriferous, healthy plant with a neat habit. Flowered consistently well to AGM standard from October, throughout winter and into spring.
The breakthrough of the true winter hardy pansy has revolutionised winter gardens and patios.