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Plant Picture-Perfect Pansies in October

Growing pansies in winter is one of the great benefits of living in the South. In plant hardiness zones 6, 7 and 8, pansies' rich, velvety texture and gemstone hues provide a striking contrast to the monotones of winter.

Pansies are remarkably durable in the cold. I've seen them tolerate temperatures as low as 8 degrees above zero, freeze solid and then bounce back with vigor when warm weather returns.

Plant breeders have provided us an amazing array of color choices, too. You can find pansies from white to rich gold, orange, purple, rose, maroon and violet, just to name a few.

You can also choose from solid colors to blotches (having a darker center), two-tones and all sorts of color blends and pastel shades.

Some varieties have petals with crinkled or ruffled edges, too. And some new pansies have flowers up to 4 inches across!

The modern pansy, Viola X wittrockiana, is thought to have been derived from Viola tricolor, a native of central Europe. The genus Viola is large, with more than 500 species.

Greeks in the 4th century B.C. used pansies for medicinal herbs. The name pansy stems from the French word pensee, meaning thought or remembrance.

Experienced landscapers will tell you that growing a picture-perfect pansy bed involves far more than simply selecting colors.

Pansies have their own unique set of cultural requirements that differ from summer annuals.

Planting time, for instance, is critical. If you plant too early, before the weather cools, plants will often become weak and spindly in the late-summer heat. Then they're more susceptible to winter cold damage, diseases and insects.

As a rule, the ideal time to plant pansies is Oct. 1 to Oct. 15 in north Georgia and Oct. 15 to Nov. 1 in south Georgia.

Before planting, make sure the plants are well-watered. A dry root ball is hard to rewet once it's in the ground.

Pansies bloom best when planted in full sun. They also like moist, well-drained soils and can't tolerate heavy, wet soils. To ensure good drainage, plant them on a raised bed about 12 inches above the normal soil grade.

Since pansies are short, compact plants, a raised bed helps show them off better in the landscape, too.

For the best color display, a 10-inch spacing between plants is ideal. This will require 144 plants per 100 square feet of bed area. Mulch the plants well to keep soil moisture from fluctuating between waterings.

Pansies' fertilizer needs differ from those of summer annuals. Start by broadcasting a complete balanced fertilizer, such as 10-10-10 or 8-8-8, over the bed before planting. Use 1 pound per 100 square feet.

Then, right after planting, water the bed thoroughly with a liquid fertilizer, such as 20-20-20 or 15-30-15 soluble fertilizer dissolved in water.

When nights cool into the 40s, begin watering once a week with a liquid fertilizer.

Use one with some nitrate nitrogen (check the label). The plants absorb nitrate forms of nitrogen more readily than ammonium nitrogen from the cold winter soils. Sprinkle the foliage and soil thoroughly at each watering.

To keep pansies blooming well, remove the old blossoms as they fade. This "deadheading" keeps seed pods from forming that would rob the plant of its energy. Deadheading the bed may be a once-a-week chore throughout the winter, but it leads to much better flowering.

Whether you plant a patio pot or a large bed, pansies are a great way to add life and vitality to the otherwise drab winter landscape.

Gary Wade is a Cooperative Extension horticulturist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.