Pansies and their small-flowering sisters the violas are the No. 1 bedding plants for Texas landscapes, and they have been for probably 40 or 50 years.
That’s as measured up against stalwarts like periwinkles, pentas, lantanas and marigolds.
How can that be? Simple: In the warm weather you get to choose from several dozen different types of colorful annuals. In the winter there are far fewer, and pansies are the most durable of them all, and their prime planting time runs now through mid-November.
Yet, as tough as they are, there are still ways you can fail when you grow pansies in Texas. Let me outline the ground rules to success with pansies here in our state.
Start with vigorous transplants. When I was a kid with a nursery in College Station I met the bus from Tyler (Lindale) each October, and I got my pansies rolled up in wet newspaper. I rode my bike from customer to customer planting their front beds full of those pansy transplants.
Surprisingly, they did very well. But in the past 50 years all of those transplants have ended up in 4-inch pots, and it’s become even easier.
Look for healthy, vigorous plants that are compact and full. Avoid lanky plants that have stretched due to this year’s late September heat. Hot weather is not pansies’ friend.
Plant in full sun. Pansies have to have it to grow and bloom to full potential. Be especially careful planting them on the north side of your house. That bed may be in full sun now, but as the angle of the sun moves in late fall and winter, the plants may not get enough sunlight.
Plant in raised beds. Good drainage is critical. Pansies that are planted at ground level will struggle and die during prolonged winter and early spring wet spells. If you raise the planting bed, even by as little as 2 or 3 inches, incident rainfall will be carried away from their roots. You’ll see a marked difference in your plants’ performance.
Amend the soil generously. As with the raised planting beds, this is also about good aeration. Our native clay soils are not suitable for good growth of pansies. Incorporate several inches of organic matter, preferably of several types.
I like to add 2 inches of sphagnum peat moss and 1 inch each of compost, finely ground pine bark mulch, rotted manure and expanded shale. I rototill that to a depth of 10 or 12 inches. That ensures good drainage and ample oxygen around the plants’ roots.
Space the plants far enough apart that they won’t crowd one another, yet close enough together that they can grow and fill in and be seen as one mass of color. That usually means 9 or 10 inches apart, checkerboarded across the bed.
Fertilize pansies regularly. They grow and bloom best when they are nourished regularly with a high-nitrogen, water-soluble plant food. Fertilize every second or third time that you water them. Look for specific directions on the product’s container.
You probably won’t have to “dead-head” spent blooms. Pansies don’t produce enough seeds to slow down additional flowering. If you’re growing large-flowering varieties, however, you may find it more satisfying if you pinch off the old flowers as soon as they start to fold up and dry.
Speaking of flower size, you’ll get the very best floral display if you plant smaller or mid-sized varieties. They’ll produce masses of flowers that will be seen as a colorful blanket.
Large-flowering types are sometimes used as cutflowers in bowls, but they don’t make as dramatic a show in the landscape. Varieties with solid colors are also showier than those with contrasting “faces.” Masses of one color make the most impact, but in recent years growers have created some very attractive blends of harmonious and complementary colors that many gardeners find appealing as well.
Pansies are wonderfully suited to patio pots and decorative containers. Large pots handle extreme cold better because the plants’ roots won’t freeze as rapidly. Always keep the plants thoroughly hydrated when a strong cold front is expected.
Their foliage and flowers may shrivel badly during the actual freeze, but if they’ve been watered a day or two prior to the cold, the plants will almost always bounce right back after temperatures climb back above freezing.
You can also give them a few degrees of added protection by covering them with lightweight frost cloth from the nursery. It can actually be left in place for extended periods of time if necessary. Just don’t let it press the plants down.
Pansies combine well with other sources of cool-season color. Use them in contrast to ornamental cabbage and kale or alongside pinks or snapdragons.
All of those are reasonably winter-hardy to temperatures into the low 20s and even below. But when the chips are down, pansies are the best of the bunch.