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Pansies: More Than Just a Pretty Face


Thanks to the efforts of hybridizers who in recent years have significantly swelled the selections of pansy varieties, this colorful bedding plant is experiencing a surge of popularity.

"There's a whole new wave of interest," said Lew Whitney, president of Roger's Gardens in Corona del Mar. "They're one of our best-selling plants."

Several decades ago, the selection was limited to Majestic Giant pansies, King Henry violas and the tiny Johnny-jump-ups ( Viola tricolor ). Today, there are hundreds of varieties of pansies and their smaller viola relatives.

The color choices are seemingly limitless--black, orange, bright yellows, deep blues and reds plus the subtler antique shades of pinks, lavenders, blues and creams. Flower faces can be the traditional blotch, completely clear or in between.

Frank Burkard Sr.--who owned and operated Burkard's Nursery in Pasadena for almost five decades before turning the family business over to Frank Jr.--has had a lifelong interest in pansies, and each year plants masses of them at his San Clemente residence.

"The new varieties are stronger, less prone to disease and are better for our climate," he said.

Pansies and violas provide almost instant color to flower borders, edgings and in pots or window boxes. They're excellent cover for bulbs and begin blooming in winter and continue through late spring when the bulbous plants are in full flower.

Though they're technically perennials, they perform as annuals here because of the hot Southern California summers.

Pansies are very prone to soil diseases and insect attack, particularly from cut worms and sow bugs. The newer varieties are more disease-resistant and prolific, but Burkard and Whitney offer some planting tips to combat problems with soil fungal diseases.

Burkard likes to add organic amendment to the soil at each planting season. He's enthusiastic about a new product, Paydirt, that contains composted chicken manure, gypsum, redwood and peat moss.

"It really opens up our adobe soil and contains the minerals that pansies need," he said. "I also add bone meal and superphosphate to give the pansies an extra push."

He recommends changing the soil if pansies are planted in the same area year after year.

"Dig an eight-inch trench, and replace that soil with soil from another part of the garden where pansies haven't been grown," Burkard advises.

He also recommends placing the plants in the ground with their crowns at least one-third to one-half-inch higher than soil level to avoid stem rot.

Burkard likes to plant drifts of pansies, using the same color variety. He plants anywhere from six to dozens of pansies of the same color, depending on the space. He frames the border with Iceland poppies, then adds a second row of color using snapdragons. Pansies finish the border in the front.

He also recommends planting daffodils--he prefers the February Gold variety--before setting in the bedding plants.

Whitney likes to plant his pansies in containers to avoid soil diseases. He recommends terra-cotta pots with a single variety in each. A 10-inch pot will hold three pansy or six viola plants. He clusters the pots using several varieties and pot sizes to create a mass color effect.

"I like Azure Crown massed with Cream Crown and White Crown," he said.

He also uses the new antique shades of lavender, pink and peach. There's a new series of violas, the Sorbet series, that he also favors.

"I'm very excited about Blueberry Cream, Blackberry Cream, Princess Cream and Yellow Frost," he said, "because of their small flowers and rich shades of muted pinks, blues and yellows."

Whether in pots or in the ground, pansies need regularl fertilization to obtain the best blooms.

"Fertilizing plants is just like going to the bank," Burkard said. "Whatever you put in, you get out."

He cautions against using fertilizers that are high in nitrogen, as they promote leggy plant growth. He recommends liquid fish emulsion or a similar product with no more than 7% nitrogen. For best results, fertilize every two weeks and remove spent blooms to keep the plants from putting their energy into seed production.

Pansies need at least six hours of sunlight and can get leggy if there's too much shade. In a garden area with less sun, Burkard suggests selecting pastel or white shades. He also recommends planting them in plastic containers.

"Put each plant in a five-inch plastic nursery container and bury it in the soil," he said. "This helps the roots warm and encourages better growth when there is more shade than pansies should have."

While the plants are young, camouflage the pots by interplanting with Johnny-jump-ups or linaria.

Pinch back the plants if they grow leggy (whether in containers or in the ground). For indoor bouquets, harvest the flowers and float them in decorative containers. Pansies planted now will reward you with color in the winter and a strong flush of color in the spring.

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