How to Plant, Grow, and Care For Pansies in Your Garden
Thinking of adding some pansies to your garden this season? Pansies can be the perfect compliment to many different flower combinations and make an easy-to-care for flower in your flower garden. In this article, certified master gardener Laura Elsner walks through how to plant, grow, and care for pansies this season!
Pansies are one of my all time favorite flowers. These old-fashioned short-lived perennial flowers have such big wide smiling-faced blooms. It is a sure sign that spring has arrived and the warmer weather is on its way. For those of you that live in zone 7-9, it is a sign that the summer heat will end and some cool weather relief is in sight.
I have planted a ton of pansies in my years as a gardener, well over 10,000 I am sure! The bright pop of color and their intricate designed faces that come in so many patterns and colors are what make the pansy a garden mainstay.
They are simple to grow and easy to maintain. They have a lot of different applications in the garden, which I will get into further. So sit down, grab some tea, and let’s talk about pansies.
Pansy Plant Overview
Short Lived Perennial
All-Seasons (Zone Dependent)
To Crown of Plant
Aphids, Spider Mites
Stem and Root Rot, Powdery Mildew
Pansies are English flowers. In the early 18th century, Lady Mary Elizabeth Bennet was growing, collecting, and cultivating violas in her father’s garden. These violas were later cross bred and turned into more of the pansy flower that we think of today.
Around the same time, Lord James Gambier was also cultivating and collecting violas. By the mid 19th century there were plenty of pansies being grown in all sorts of English gardens. There are now over 500 species of pansies, and they come in so many sizes, shapes, and color patterns. Viola x wittrockiana is the most common variety that we see in our gardens today.
The typical garden pansy that we know and love in our gardens today is a hybrid known as viola x wittrockiana. The parent flowers for this hybrid are viola tricolor. More commonly known as Johnny jump ups, which are considered a weed (I dunno, I kind of like them).
If you let your pansies self seed, Johnny Jump ups are what they turn into. The other parent can be viola luteal, viola cornuta, or viola altaica. These are all different varieties of violas that will determine the size, shape, and patterns on garden pansies. The hybridization of these species is what created viola x wittrockiana.
Pansies are easy to obtain and easily propagated, making them an easy and affordable addition to the garden. Here are some methods to obtain pansies to add to your garden.
I’ll start with the easiest, and most obvious, method of obtaining pansies. Purchase them from your local garden center or greenhouse. They are cool-season plants so they will be available for purchase at that time. For me, in a cold climate, that is early spring. But for anyone in a hot climate, they are a winter perennial that thrive in cool winters and fry in hot summers.
Greenhouses are usually jam packed with various colors and designs of pansies. Purchase ones that you love, and look for striking color combinations, such as dark perennial purple and bright perennial orange pansies.
The next method is another popular way to obtain pansies for your garden. Starting them from seed. You can collect seeds from your pansies, but be warned that a lot of the pansies we purchase are hybrids. This means that the seed from the parent plant will not grow into an exact replica of the parent plant.
If you leave pansies to self-seed in the garden, they will usually produce sweet Johnny Jump-Up flowers, which are common violas, and also considered a weed in some places. They are pretty, but if you want a specific variety of pansies and want to make sure you will get what you plant, your best bet is to purchase seeds.
Purchase seeds from a reputable seed seller. A lot of internet seed companies are full of wild and crazy plants that aren’t real. Try and find named varieties, and do your research. Or go to a reputable garden center and purchase seeds from them.
Planting Your Seeds
Pansy seeds need to be started very early. 10-12 weeks before the start of your pansy season. Get a container, or container, with drainage. This could be a purchased seed starting tray with a lid. But it doesn’t have to be that fancy. Yogurt containers, berry containers, red solo cups, or plastic take-out containers all work great.
Make sure whatever container you use has some decent-sized drainage holes poked into the bottom so that water can freely drain out of them. Get a specially blended seed starting mix (potting mix works too if you are in a pinch). Fill the container of your choice with the potting mix. I like to mix the seed starter mix with water in a big tub before I begin. It should be evenly moist, like a wrung sponge.
Pansy seeds are very small. Sprinkle them evenly onto the containers, you will probably have to thin out the seeds later on. Cover the seed gently, they need to be buried about ¼” with soil. This is important as pansies need darkness in order to germinate.
After they are planted I will spray the seeds to ensure everything is evenly moist. Cover the pansies with a dome lid, this doesn’t have to be clear since they germinate in darkness. If it is a clear lid just make sure you pick a dark spot for the seeds, such as inside a cupboard.
Now for the hard part. Patience. Pansies can take anywhere from 2 weeks to just under 2 months to germinate. Keep them in a dark place until the seedlings start to emerge. When they start to sprout, remove the cover and place in bright light. If there are too many growing in one space pinch off the weaker looking ones and leave the strongest one to grow.
Yes, you can grow pansies from cutting. I must admit, I love growing plants from cuttings (I am the coleus queen). But I generally do not grow my pansies from cuttings. I think it is because I prefer a larger, more established pansy to plant right away. But, it is entirely possible to grow pansy cuttings.
Take a 3 inch cutting from an existing pansy plant. Make sure it includes a node (the point where the leaf meets the stem). If you place this cutting in water it will make roots. However, cuttings grown in water that have established roots struggle to be transplanted into soil.
So instead dip your cutting straight away into a rooting hormone powder (this isn’t entirely necessary, but it does help get things going quicker) and then stick it into a container with evenly moist potting soil. I will cover the cutting with a baggy or plastic dome lid for a week to hold the moisture in. Remove the cover in a week and keep it watered.
Sometimes a pansy plant can become a monster, I’ve seen them over a foot wide. In this case, you can dig up the pansy and split it in half, or maybe even thirds. Then replant all of them. Water all pieces in well and keep an eye on them for the first week or so.
Hardening off Pansies
Hardening off your pansies is an important step if you started them from seeds or have been growing cuttings indoors. Plants grown indoors are not used to the real elements that outdoor life brings. Do not skip this step, or all your hard work will be ruined. The whole process only takes a few days.
Start by taking your new pansy plants outside to a shady area and leave them there for a couple of hours, then bring them in. The next day leaves them in the sun a few hours then back to the shade, then inside. Gradually add more sun, and then leave them out overnight.
Keep them watered throughout this process. If at any time they look really wilted, bring them to the shade. Honestly, pansies are pretty hardy, and this should be a relatively quick and painless process.
When it comes to planting, pansies have a nice and straightforward process. Simply slide the plant out of its container. Be sure not to pull the plant out by the stem or else it could snap off. I stick my thumb and forefinger into the pot and pick out the rootball.
Next, if the pansy has been in its pot for too long it will be rootbound. Make sure you crack the roots. I usually just squeeze the plant and dig my fingers into it and pinch it in half one way, and then do that again to make sure the roots are nice and separated. This step is important. If you leave the pansy with roots in the shape of the pot it will grow around and strangle itself this will result in stunted and struggling plants.
Dig a nice big hole for the pansy, twice as wide as the root ball and deep enough so that the crown will be level with the surface. Then plant the pansy and fill it back in with the freshly dug soil. Water well, and keep watering until they are established. This usually takes a couple of weeks.
How to Grow
Pansies are one of the hardiest and most forgiving plants to grow. They will tolerate a wide range of conditions. However, there is a sweet spot for growing the biggest pansies with the most blooms. Here is the list of requirements for growing pansies:
Pansies like the part sun. They may tolerate shade and full sun, but they will thrive in part sun.
If they are planted in too shady conditions they will grow leggy and spindly. Reaching and creeping outward, but not getting big green foliage and very few blooms. In too much sun the pansies will not grow as fast and they will have crispy-edged leaves and bleached-out flowers.
Ideally, plant pansies in an area that gets dappled shade in the heat of the afternoon. Morning sun is best for pansies. They thrive in eastern exposures that get lots of morning sun and then are protected from the afternoon sun’s harsh rays.
Pansies will tolerate more sun if you are committed to providing them with more water. Also, having lush, well-draining moisture-retaining soil will help keep them thriving.
If you find you’ve planted your pansy in the wrong location. If they are getting leggy, or the leaves and flowers are getting crispy. Then simply dig the up and move them. They don’t mind. More sun if they are leggy, less sun if they are crispy.
This brings us to soil requirements, pansies are also very forgiving when it comes to soil. However, they so prefer rich loose well-draining soil.
You will often read that plants like slightly acidic conditions, which is true for pansies. Soil full of organic matter is naturally slightly acidic. Whereas heavy clay soil is alkaline. To make garden beds slightly acidic top-dress them with compost, aged manure, sea soil, or worm castings. Add an inch or two of compost every year or every second year. I don’t till this in, just top dress, and all the nutrients will seep down as you water.
Pansies will turn yellow at the base if they are planted in really heavy soil and they won’t grow as big and lush as they would in nice fluffy light soil. If you grab some of your garden soil and squeeze it should just crumble away and not hold a shape. If you squeeze it and it holds its form in a ball, you have dense clay soil. Mix in peat or coconut coir (I prefer coconut coir as it is renewable) to loosen the soil.
Light fluffy soil that is full of organic matter is what pansies thrive in. The good news is most of your other garden perennials that would be planted with your pansies like this same sort of soil so it is a good base for your garden.
Watering is the thing that will determine your success with pansies. They need to be watered in to establish themselves, then they need less water once they are established.
Pansies do not like being overwatered. This will cause them to turn yellow and the stems will rot right off. In the beginning, however, they do require more water. When you first plant your pansies are sure to give them a good long soak.
Every day after that give them a soak. You may notice them laying flat on the ground, they will perk back up after you water them. After a couple of weeks, they can just be part of your regular garden water routine. For me, that’s a drip hose that a put on for a couple of hours once a week, depending on the weather.
Climate and Temperature
This is why I love pansies so much. Being a cold climate gardener I love how pansies can handle cold and frost.
When early spring rolls around here I head out to the garden center to buy pansies. This is a good 2 months before our last frost date. People at the garden center see these big sunny flowers in my cart and they think I’m crazy for planting them. But I smile and tell them how hardy these little flowers are. They can handle temperatures as low as 23F (-5C)! I’ve actually planted them in colder weather, they do get frost burned leaves, but they grow back.
If you plant them and a late spring/fall snowstorm falls, leave the snow cover on them. This will insulate them from the cold night temperature, and might even save them. They will look droopy and terrible, but once things warm up they will perk back up.
In zones, 1-6 pansies are planted in the early spring. They will start suffering as the hot summer comes, but if you manage to keep them alive through the heat they will perk back up again during the cooler fall months.
In zones 7-9 they are planted in the fall and look great through the winter up until the hot summer makes them fade. They will perk up again when the cooler temperatures return.
Pansies can grow in some of the most terrible soil. But if you want beautiful pansies that are thriving, and not just surviving, fertilizer is your friend.
If you have beautifully amended garden beds full of organic material like compost or aged manure, you don’t need to worry about fertilizing.
However, if your beds are average (most garden beds are average), then consider adding fertilizer. In garden beds, I like using the shake and feed granular fertilizer. A 10-18-9 is a good blend for extra blooms. I will apply this monthly.
For pansies in pots, or you can do this in beds too, use a dissolvable fertilizer. I like a simple 20-20-20 blend for all my pots and I apply it every 2 weeks.
Make sure when you are fertilizing your water first. Do not apply fertilizer to dry plants. This will burn them. Always water first, then apply the fertilizer.
While I always praise pansies for being wonderful, simple flowers, they actually do require some maintenance to make them thrive.
Deadheading is the key to keeping pansies blooming. If I have ten minutes to spare in my garden I grab my bucket and do a quick deadhead of as many flowers as I can. I focus especially on pansies since they bloom way more with a quick deadhead.
To deadhead, I use my thumbnail and pinch the flower at the base of the stem. Don’t just pop the flower head off and leave the stem. You can also use a small pair of scissors to snip them.
I am very aggressive when it comes to deadheading, especially when I am in client gardens that I only visit once every one or two weeks. If a flower is starting to wilt and look on its way out, I snip it off.
If there are any long and leggy runners growing off my pansy I trim them back to keep them bushy. This could be a sign they are not getting enough sun.
Now onto the fun part! Deciding which kind of pansy to grow in your garden. I think the best way to decide is to go to the garden center and see what is available and what jumps out at you. Here are a few of my favorite varieties that I love planting in my garden and my client’s gardens year after year.
Matrix Blue Blotch
Matrix Blue Blotch is a beautiful purple-colored large-faced pansy. It has a yellow center and a dark purple ‘blotch’ on the inside of the petals. Plant these mixed with Matrix Yellow Blotch for a bright spring combination.
Matrix Solar Flare
Another on in the Matrix series. I like this one for autumn pansy growers because of its fall color palette. It features a yellow centre and an almost black blotch in the center. Then it is bright yellow that fades into red edges.
If you Google this one you will find a lot of pictures of Laurence Fishburne. So make sure you include the word pansy. This is a classic pansy that is easy to find. It has large flowers. The three bottom petals are bright yellow with purple edges. They have cat whisker veining through the center. Then the upper two petals are a nice medium purple color. This variety screams spring.
Cool Wave Frost
The cool wave series is spreading pansies. These make great trailing flowers that can spill out the edges of spring or fall container designs. They also look great filling a hanging basket. Cool Wave Frost has small white flowers with a yellow center and small black whiskers. Then it fades out into a light lavender color. It is very dainty and very pretty.
Frizzle Sizzle Burgundy
The frizzle sizzle series features big wide pansy faces that have ruffled edge flowers. Frizzle sizzle burgundy is a gorgeous velvety burgundy, with a darker center and a bright yellow eye.
Sorbet XP Pink Halo
This variety is technically a viola, so it has smaller flowers than a traditional pansy. But in the store, it is always with the pansies and it is always the one I notice. It has a yellow center and then what looks like a sweet little scrunched-up angry face because of the pattern of the ‘whiskers’. Then it has a border of purple that fades to white. They are so cute!
Pansies have many applications in the garden. From use in containers, to low growing areas around garden beds and edges, they can be found in just about every way you can think of. However, there are a few more uses that are more common.
I always grow pansies in pots in spring. The soil in my pots is warmer than the soil in the ground (which is often still frozen here). I will buy smaller Six-pack sized pansies and I will plant them in containers. I usually mix them with forced spring bulbs, carnations, and other plants that don’t mind frost.
Then when the time comes to do my summer pots I take the pansies out. They have had enough time to grow big and beautiful. I then transplant them into my garden beds that have now warmed up.
Pansies will also happily live in containers for the entire season. Keep the evenly moist, not soggy. Deadhead the. Often to keep them blooming.
Pansies are low-growing perennials and flower throughout the season. They are perfect for creating a long sharp border. I usually will use a single color, or I will color block a few different colors. When I set out to plant these borders I line up all the plants in a staggered pattern.
I will do the row with either two or three layers of pansies depending on how much room I have and how much impact I want the border to have (more rows = more impact).
I like adding pops of colors to garden beds. Pansies are very short so make sure they go into the front of a garden bed. They are a great way to fill holes in the garden.
I will add pops of 3, 5, 7 or 9s depending on how much space there is. Odd numbers are always more appealing. One pansy placed here and there will get lost, so it is better to group them.
Many pansies are edible! They are beautiful edible flowers that can be used in salads, cakes, and fresh salad rolls. I love adding flowers into my vegetable gardens for visual interest and to attract pollinators. Tuck pansies in an around the veggie garden, or do a whole row of them along the front border. They look great and have a lovely floral taste and a velvety mouthfeel.
Pests and Diseases
Pansies are fairly unbothered by pests and diseases. Just another reason they are super hardy little guys. But, like all living things in the ecosystem, pansies can sometimes be affected by pests and diseases.
The best method of dealing with pests is to keep your pansies growing in the ideal growing conditions that I outlined above. However, that isn’t much help if you are already plagued with pests and disease. Here Are a few pests and diseases to look out for on your pansies.
Aphids are a common pest to have on garden plants. If there are aphids present it is usually a sign the plant is not in good health to begin with. Aphids prey on the weak. So after you deal with the infestation take a look at the affected pansy’s growing conditions and see if there is an area they are lacking (light, water, soil).
To deal with aphids, never underestimate the power of a good blast with the hose. Spray the aphids off, or get in there and squish them. They will be found along the stems and undersides of the leaves. They are small greenish transparent bugs. If this doesn’t do the trick apply and insecticidal soap weekly, or as directed on the label. This should clear up the problem.
If it is looking like a losing battle, I will pull my pansies. I might replace them with new pansies, or a different plant that is more suited to the conditions depending on how much time is left in the season.
Powdery mildew is the big one for pansies. This is definitely directly related to unideal growing conditions. Most likely a combination of not enough light and too much water.
Powdery mildew appears as a fine silt like powder that coats the leaves of the pansy. This will lead to stunted growth and eventually the death of the plant.
Avoid this by growing your pansies in part sun and watering them to establish them, but then cutting back on the water after. I see a lot of pansies that are watered on an irrigation system that is on too often. Pansies really dislike being constantly wet.
I tend to pull pansies that have powdery mildew. But you can purchase a copper fungicide and apply it to your pansies.
Root rot is also directly related to improper growing conditions. Too much water, and usually not enough light. The lower leaves of the pansy will start to turn yellow and then the stem and crown will just dissolve and rot off.
Root rot is more of a life lesson, there is not much that can be done once the pansies roots turn mushy and the stem rots off. Cut your losses and then plant pansies in drier, brighter conditions next time.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do pansies like sun or shade?
Pansies like somewhere in between. In too much sun the leaves will get crispy and the flowers will bleach out. In too much shade pansies become leggy and stringy and they hardly bloom. I think the sweet spot would be lots of early mornings or late afternoon sun and some shade in the heat of the afternoon.
What do you do with pansies in the summer?
Pansies really fizzle out in the heat of the summer. I try and keep them looking as good as I can by watering and deadheading whatever little blooms they have. Then they either succumb to the heat or struggle until they get a second wind in the fall.
Will pansies bloom all season?
Yes, they bloom throughout the cool season in your region. To keep them blooming they need to be deadheaded. This means pinching the fading flowers off at the stem. This will signal to the plant to produce more flowers and keep them blooming all season long.
Do you deadhead a pansy?
Yes! Pansies require frequent deadheading to keep them blooming. Simply pinch, or snip off any fading blossoms and the stem. If I have 10 minutes to spare in my garden, I always focus on deadheading to keep things blooming.
Do pansies come back year after year?
They are considered short-lived perennials in zones 7 and higher. However, I grow them happily as annuals in my zone 3 garden.
I have loved pansies since I was a little girl watching their wide smiling faces telling Alice to get out of their garden in Alice in Wonderland. They are a welcome sign that spring is in the air. Or, for hotter climate gardener’s they are a sign that cooler weather is on its way. They are easy to grow and propagate, or you can find them at almost any garden center. They may be common, but there is a reason for that, they are hardy, reliable, beautiful, and easy to care for.