Pansies are among the first plants to appear outdoors at the garden center in the spring. And despite their sweet, colorful faces and sometimes intricate bloom markings, they are remarkably hardy. If you think ahead, seeding pansies yourself allows you to choose from a wide range of varieties to add to container arrangements and the garden. In this article, I’m going to share some tips for growing pansies (and their Viola cousins) from seed both indoors and out, as well as advice on how and when to plant your seedlings outside.
Pansies come in a vast range of colors, from oranges and yellows, to pinks, purples, and almost-black. Some have intricate veining on the petals. Some have ruffled petals. That’s why it’s so fun to grow your own. There are a lot of options to choose from. Also, pansies are edible, so they look really pretty in salads or when they’ve been candied for a baking decoration.
What is the difference between pansies and violas?
Pansies have been hybridized from Violas, also called Johnny-jump-ups, which are part of the violet (Violaceae) family. Pansies tend to have larger flowers and their five petals are arranged a bit differently. When looking at a Viola flower, two petals point up and three point down. With pansies, four petals point upwards, with one pointing downwards. All of them are a cheerful part of a spring garden.
Are pansies annuals or perennials?
Pansies are sold as annual plants at nurseries and grocery stores in the spring and late summer. But pansies are actually considered short-lived perennials. This means they grow for a period of about two years. They are hardy in USDA zones 3 to 8, the median temperatures being between -40°F to -30°F (-40°C to -34.4°C) for the former and a minimum of 10°F to 15 °F (-12°C to -9°C) for the latter.
When should you think about seeding pansies indoors?
Pansy seeds can be sown either indoors or out. Let’s discuss indoor pansy seeding first. While eager green thumbs can risk seed-starting their vegetables and flowers too early, if you’re growing pansies from seed, you’ll want a head start of at least 10 to 12 weeks indoors. That’s around January or February if you live in a cold climate. It’s recommended that you sow seeds and place the trays in darkness until germination takes place. Black plastic over the seed tray (but not touching the soil) can be useful to provide that requisite dark environment.
Steps for seeding pansies indoors
Start with filling cell packs or pots with dampened soilless mix. Sprinkle the tiny seeds into the growing medium, gently pressing them into the mixture so they’re covered. Remember, they need darkness to germinate. Use a mister to keep the soil moist and place the tray in a dark room. A heating mat may help speed up germination. Or, keep them in a warm room that’s about 65°F to 75°F (18°C to 25°C). A wicking mat works well for watering if you have the right type of setup. Pansy seeds can take anywhere from one to three weeks to germinate.
Once the seeds have germinated, move the tray to a location with bright light. I place mine under grow lights, keeping the soil lightly moist until they’re ready for early spring planting.
Before I knew this helpful germination tip about starting the seeds in darkness, I tried growing pansies under lights from the start. It did work, but just took a really long time for them to germinate. Seeds can also be started indoors or outside in the summer for a fall planting.
Planting pansy seedlings outside
While flowering pansies are impervious to the unpredictably cooler temperature fluctuations of spring, young indoor-grown plants need to be slowly acclimated to their new outdoor growing conditions using a process known as hardening off. A cold frame is the perfect place to acclimate your plants. Or, if you don’t have a cold frame, harden them off by bringing them outside for a few hours at a time. This article explains what to do. You can start the process about a month before your last frost date. However, keep an eye on the forecast. Wait until temperatures are above freezing before you start to harden them off.
If there is frost in the forecast and you’re concerned about your plants, bring your pansies into a garage for the night or cover with row cover to protect them.
Choose a sunny spot for planting (partial shade is okay). Plant them in the ground—if the soil is around 45°F to 65°F (7°C to 18°C)—or in pots in well-draining soil amended with organic matter. When planting in containers, make sure there are sufficient drainage holes. Read your seed packets carefully to determine how much the plants will spread and how tall they’ll become. Space accordingly. And water regularly, if there is not much precipitation in the forecast. Deadhead plants throughout the spring season to encourage more blooms.
Seeding pansies outdoors
You can also sow pansy seeds directly into outdoor garden beds and skip the grow lights and hardening off.
If you live in a mild region (but not a hot one, which is not suitable for pansies), late July through August is the best time for seeding pansies outdoors. It will take about 6 weeks for them to be large enough to move to a new location if you so desire, and another few weeks to establish before cool weather arrives. Sometimes they’ll even bloom in the autumn and then again in the spring in mild climates.
If you live in a colder climate, you have two options for seeding pansies outdoors.
- Plant the seeds outdoors in a garden bed in June or July and allow them to grow for the remainder of the season (remember to cover them with a thin layer of soil to keep them in the dark!). That fall, protect the young plants from the coming winter by placing a portable cold frame over them, covering them with bottomless milk jugs, or mulching with straw. A University of Minnesota study found that pansies grown from summer-sown seeds are more uniform in growth and bloom than those grown from transplants. Remove the covers or straw mulch in the spring before the plants bloom.
- Plant the seeds just after the first hard frost. The seeds will sit dormant through the winter and germinate in very early spring. Seedlings planted this way grow very quickly in the spring. Pansies readily self-seed on their own and this technique mimics that.
Caring for pansy plants over the summer
If pansies are planted in full sun in the spring, once the warm weather hits, the plants will visibly start to decline. The foliage starts to get leggy and look rather sad. They may be cold tolerant, but they have pretty low heat tolerance.
Most people probably toss them in the compost to make way for warm-weather annuals at this point. However, if you move them to a shaded spot in the garden and remember to water them over the summer, they may bloom again for you in the fall. You can use an organic fertilizer to give them a boost, but make sure it’s one formulated for flowers as too much nitrogen will just encourage leaf production. I’ve had pansies bounce back and bloom right up until winter! Add them back into your containers as part of your fall arrangement. And do keep in mind they are tasty to pests, like deer and rabbits, as well as slugs.
If you’d like to try and keep your pansy alive over the winter, protect it with a layer of straw mulch.
More flowers to grow from seed
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