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Plant Pansies NOW for Bloom Through Next July!

Q. Dear Mike: Is it myth or fact that there is a pansy that will bloom in both spring and fall? If they do exist, when should such pansies be planted? And is it better to grow from seed or to buy flats of already started plants (if one can find them)?
                      ---Bob Weinberg ("who loves pansies AND You Bet Your Garden"); Delaware Cty., PA

A.    It's a fact that I know from personal experience, Bobby me boy! I've been 'overwintering' pansies for a good decade now (not the same ones of course) and it works GREAT!  You get to enjoy those big, beautiful blooms all fall, often throughout the entire winter, and then again from super early in Spring till summer's heat finally blasts them out. AND those blooms are also deliciously edible and unbelievably nutritious—but we'll get to that in a minute.

If there's a real 'secret' to pansies, it's the fact that the only time they DON'T grow well is in the hottest months of summer—July and August in the Philadelphia region, extending into June down South. So if you live in a 'medium level' (USDA zone 6) climate and plant them around September 1st, you have a chance of enjoying an amazing ten months of bloom if we have a mild winter! Down South you may 'only' get eight or nine months of flowers before the heat shuts them down—but how bad is that?

Obviously, if you want pansies this year, you'll have to buy a flat of plants at this point. And that shouldn't be hard—more and more nurseries and garden centers are carrying pansies in the fall. (Yes, some varieties are said to be better for overwintering than others, but you can assume that any pansies available right now are good for Fall planting.) I just picked up a mixed flat of six packs in colors that ranged from yellow to blue to a brilliant 'blotched' purple. And despite the negative implications of their common name, pansy blooms are not tiny or the least bit shy—the flowers are HUGE and held high above the plant, like colorful little faces looking at you. Violas, violets and Johnny jump-ups—their equally edible first cousins—are more delicate in size, but not in character like pansies, they'll laugh at weeks of snow cover.

Ideally, plant your pansies where they'll get some shade now, but lots of sun when the trees soon lose their leaves and the weather cools.Then they'll get the benefit of that cooling shade when those trees leaf out again in Spring and the weather warms up. Remember, they love SUN, but DON'T like heat.  Mix some compost into the ground, plant as you would any annual flower, water well, and then just stand back and enjoy. The plants will pump out lots of new blossoms until (or maybe I should say 'if' with global warming getting worse) it gets REALLY, REALLY cold.

Then, if you're in zone 6 (weather generally like the New York to Philly to Wilmington region) or anywhere North of there, you should be prepared to give the plants a little winter protection when the weather gets REALLY cold. (Note: this does NOT apply if you're actually IN a big city in zone 6, where the buildings create an almost Mediterranean climate.)  

The ideal way to provide this protection is to place a few evergreen boughs gently overtop the plants. That keeps really cold, really dry air from desiccating the flowers; and more importantly, the naturally springy boughs prevent the plants from being crushed if you get heavy snow or ice. Cut branches from discarded Christmas trees are perfect for this, and they're available in huge quantities for free just when you need them!

If we get a really warm spell mid winter, remove the boughs and let the plants enjoy it—they'll probably even flower for you! If it doesn't get really cold this winter, just keep the boughs handy and enjoy the show as the plants bloom continuously. Again, South of the Philly area, you don't need winter any winter protection (at least for your pansies). You can just plant and enjoy!

If you do use winter protection, remove it as soon as the first Spring bulbs begin to poke up. Don't worry about a few late cold snaps—these super-hardy posies are totally frost-proof, and will begin flowering again quickly, providing you with tons of flowers till summer's heat finally blasts them out around July (which, by the way, is also the time to start seeds in a cool, well-lit area indoors for planting out that Fall).

And like I said earlier, these tough little posies aren't just pretty to look at—the flowers of all pansies (and their first cousins: Violets, volias and Johnny jump-ups) are wonderfully edible; they're the flowers you often see adorning fancy salads in really classy restaurants. And those tasty flowers contain a big nutritional bonus! My good buddy, retired USDA botanist and best-selling author ("The Green Pharmacy"; Rodale Books) Dr. Jim Duke notes that pansies are one of the best plant sources of rutin—a nutrient that strengthens capillaries and thus helps prevent or reverse disfiguring spider and varicose veins! So plant LOTS right now—and enjoy colorful blooms and healthy salads all Fall! And Winter… And Spring…

Speaking of Fall Planting…
It's WAY too early to plant Spring bulbs right now, but it's prime time to acquire those plants-to-be. You heard me right—even listeners in our Northernmost regions shouldn't put those bulbs in the ground yet—they could sprout prematurely and ruin next season's show! Prime time for bulb planting in the Philly area is between Halloween and Thanksgiving, soon after Thanksgiving in the mid-South, and in December further down.

Yes, I know that stores are selling them now, often with big signs saying "Spring bulb planting time is here". It's not. You should wait to plant—but NOT to buy. Wait till the correct planting time and you could wind up empty handed.  So purchase your supplies NOW and you'll get exactly the varieties and colors you want—in the best possible condition.  Then keep those plants-to-be in a cool airy spot till it's time to plant. DON'T seal them up in plastic bags! Hanging in open mesh bags in a cool spot is ideal.

You Bet Your Garden  ©2004 Mike McGrath


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