Care Free Festive Monkey-faced Blooms? Think Pansies!

04/04/2014 | Ken Lain, mountain gardener Container Gardens, Flowers, Plant of the Week

Pansy-Mammoth[1]Legend has it that pansies could transfer the thoughts of sweethearts without a spoken word. The flowers were a popular ingredient in “love potions”, and have appeared in the writings of many authors including D. H. Lawrence, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Wordsworth, and Shakespeare. Pansies have been in fashion since Victorians supposed them to be the flowers of lovers.

Pansies remain the most popular mountain flower at the garden center. Daily, trunk loads of these dainty gold, purple, blue, and red flowers are carried home by gardeners to perk up otherwise monotone spring landscapes.

Members of the viola family, pansies technically are perennials but are used best as annuals or biennials.  Their first spring season tends to be magnificent, but because they deteriorate in the heat of summer (unless shaded) they should be used in the cooler seasons of spring, fall, and winter.   Mountain gardeners plant them as cheery bright spots in spring gardens, replacing them with heat tolerant plants for summer.

pansy-bowl[1]Pansies are planted in September and October to give us color throughout the winter. Freezes shut them down for a short period in January, but as soon as temperatures moderate, they spring back to life with even more vigor and bloom.  Tough little plants, they are perfectly suited for rock gardens and in containers.

Over the years I have perfected the germination of pansies, a process not as simple as scattering a few seeds in a pot of soil and waiting for that bit of green. After sowing the seeds, sprinkle about 1/8″ of seed starting mix over them, and cover the flats with a board or cloth. Pansy seeds require 10 – 20 days of total darkness for germination. Check on their progress frequently. Move the seedlings to a cool, bright area as soon as they emerge, taking care to keep the seedlings moist. They can be transplanted as soon as they have two sets of true leaves.

Not to worry if you’re not into seedlings.  The first flowers to show up at local garden centers in spring, pansy starts are very affordable. Because mountain spring weather can turn cool quickly I suggest planting only 4-inch and 1-gallon sized flowers this early in spring, staying away from the smaller 6-packs until after April.  The additional size and maturity of the larger plants makes them more robust should a last winter blast hit the gardens.

Pansies like sunny moist conditions. They bloom best when there is ample water provided by rich soils in raised beds and container gardens. They are also heavy feeders, so for maximum color and fragrance feed them twice a month with water soluble ‘Flower Power 54’.  Deadheading promotes more flowers that will bloom for longer periods of time.  Snails and slugs like pansies, but they are easy to overcome; slug bait is the means to eliminate these slimy insects.  Aphids also are attracted to pansies, but they can be exterminated with ‘Home Harvest’ insect spray.

Stay away from harsh pesticides if you use pansies in the kitchen. Yes, the colorful blooms are quite edible and make pretty garnishes for salads and desserts. With a little imagination, pansy blossoms make beautiful additions to spring meals, even if only as decorations. Blossoms frozen in ice cubes add spark to any summer gathering.
With their monkey-face-like markings pansies long have charmed people and achieved an interesting history.  Their resilient determination to bloom in just about any conditions makes them excellent choices as spring bloomers. Spring is here! It’s time for pansies!

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For local landscapes Bailey Compact Maple is a better choice than the Japanese Maple.Plant of the Week is the Bailey Compact Flame Maple.  Its dark green foliage forms early in spring, changes in fall to a crimson color resembling Japanese maple leaves, and loses its leaves only in extremely bitter winters. The Arizona-sun-hardy shrub grows to 10 feet tall with an equal spread.  It thrives in drought hardy landscapes that need a showy plant under power lines, between boulders, along a driveway, or as a hedge.

Flame maple is a low, low maintenance shrub that grows best in full sun, full wind. As it may ‘bleed’ sap if pruned in late winter or early spring, it prefers a light pruning in summer after the leaves have fully developed. This variety has no significant negative characteristics and naturalizes easily.

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Until next week, I’ll see you in the garden center.