When the bright colors of late summer and fall start to fade the garden can begin to look dull and drab. Winter pansies provide a great way of adding color and interest to the garden during dark days.
Pleasingly cold tolerant, there are not many plants that are happy to grow let alone flower during the dark days of winter. Luckily, winter pansies provide masses of color and interest.
If you want to learn more about these hardy flowers, this guide to winter pansies is packed full of useful information from sowing the seeds to transplanting and prolonging the flowering period.
A reliable bedding plant, cold hardy types of pansy can add color to winter gardens.
What are Winter Pansies?
Part of the Viola genus, winter pansies belong to the same plant family, the Violaceae or Viola family, as spring and fall pansies. Basically, different types of pansy can flower at different times of year.
While the pansy is part of the same plant family as the Viola, there are some key differences. Violas tend to be smaller and flower in the spring. Additionally, the pansy tends to be larger and has heart shaped petals. Most types of pansy are available in a wide range of colors.
Native to Europe and Western Asia, like other types of pansy, these cold tolerant blooms have been developed by hybridizing other flowers in the Viola family.
Unlike early flowering types of pansy, winter pansies have been bred to be more tolerant of cold weather and adverse conditions. The Latin name for these plants is V. Hiemalis. The word “hiemalis” is the Latin word for winter and refers to the plant’s cold tolerance. Most varieties are capable of tolerating temperatures as low as 25 ℉ or -4 ℃. Many even continue to flower during snowy spells.
While a hard frost may kill the flowers and foliage, with a little protection the roots survive and plants return when temperatures warm up.
These plants can bounce back even after exposure to snow.
Also known as ice pansies, these cold tolerant flowers tend to be smaller than other types of pansy. A low growing flower, they can bloom in a range of colors including white, pink, yellow, purple, blue, orange and red. You can also find bicolored varieties.
Similar in appearance to other types of pansy, V. Hiemalis flowers typically consist of 5 petals; 2 on the top, 1 on each side and 1 at the bottom. The blooms usually measure 2 to 3 inches in diameter, however large flowering types are also available. .
Different Types of Winter Pansies
You can either grow V. Hiemalis plants from seed or purchase transplants from garden stores and plant nurseries.
Some of the most commonly sold varieties include:
- Cool Wave, ideal for flower beds these plants display good overwintering capabilities and flower in a range of different colors. Hardy in USDA Zones 4 to 8, Cool Wave plants are cold tolerant and achieve a spread of 24 to 30 inches.
- Matrix produces large, robust flowers that are either clear or blotched. Hardy in USDA Zones 6 and higher, Matrix plants are often sold in mixes. These compact plants have short stems and are bred to resist stretching and floppiness. This makes them a good choice for planting in garden beds, pots and window boxes.
- Colossus is another large flowering type. Hardy in USDA Zones 7 to 10, when fully open the flowers can measure up to 4 inches wide, practically obscuring the green foliage below.
- Majestic Giants are both heat and shade tolerant. Hardy in USDA Zones 6 to 8, these reliable plants produce large, contrasting blooms.
- Crown produces clear faced, bright flowers. These are supported by thick, strong leaves and stems. Crown types are considered hardy in USDA Zones 7 to 10.
- Delta and Delta Premium are prized for their consistency in both size and flowering. Hardy in USDA Zones 7 to 10, they are both a reliable choice for garden beds.
- Heat Elite plants flower freely even in the shade. Hardy in USDA Zones 8 to 11 Heat Elites are a good choice for gardens that experience warmer winters. In cooler climates they continue to flower well into summer. Despite being a small, compact plant Heat Elite reliably produces large, colorful flowers.
Bright pops of color add interest to the garden.
The Ideal Temperature for Winter Pansies
The ideal nighttime temperature for V. Hiemalis plants averages around 40 ℉. Daytime temperatures should average 60 ℉.
Hardy flowers, these plants can tolerate temperatures as low as 25 ℉. While they may tolerate brief exposure to temperature below this, prolonged exposure can kill the plants.
If colder temperatures are forecast, mulching the soil can protect the root system. You can also cover the plants with a floating row cover or horticultural fleece.
Plants growing in pots should be moved inside if very cold weather is forecast.
In USDA Zones 6 to 9 you can plant winter pansies in the fall long lasting color. Often the plants continue flowering well into the following spring.
Like other types of pansy, these are heat sensitive plants. Once daytime temperatures regularly average over 60 ℉ they start to struggle. However, growers in moderate climates can, with the help of some afternoon shade, prolong flowering until June or July.
If cold weather is forecast, move any plants growing in pots inside.
Can The Plants Survive a Frost?
Hardy plants, V. Hiemalis plants may suffer slightly during colder spells but quickly bounce back.
The day before a predicted frost, water the plants well. Well hydrated specimens are better able to tolerate cold snaps and frosts. Flarmor Floating Row Covers can also be used to protect plants from harsh frosts.
Interestingly yellow, purple, blue and white flowering types tend to be more cold hardy than orange, red, rose and bronze flowering plants.
The plants quickly bounce back after a frost.
How Long Do the Plants Last?
As long as the weather doesn’t get too cold, winter pansies can last for a long time. It is not unusual for specimens planted in the fall and well cared for to continue flowering well into April or May the following year. Like other pansies, these cool weather loving flowers tend to die away in the summer heat.
Are Winter Pansies Perennial?
Like other types of pansy, these plants are typically grown as annuals. However, with the right care, it is not unusual for the plants to return or continue to flower until the following spring. Best described as a short-term perennial with the right care the plants can last for up to 3 years.
Additionally, if allowed to, the spent flowers can set seed. This can lead to volunteer plants returning the following year.
You can cultivate the plants as short-term perennials.
Growing From Seed
Sow your seeds into their final growing position when the air temperature measures between 65 and 75 ℉. For most growers this is during September.
Weed the soil before watering. This encourages the seeds to stick in place. Sow the seeds thinly and evenly before covering with a light layer of soil.
Continue to water the soil regularly until the seeds germinate. A watering can with a fine spray is unlikely to disturb the seeds too much.
Undercover, germination typically takes 10 to 20 days.
Alternatively, you can start the seeds undercover and transplant in the fall. Start your seeds undercover in June or July. Fill a tray with seed compost and tamp down to make a level surface.
Sow the seeds as thinly as possible. This makes it easier to prick out and transplant the seedlings. Cover the seeds with a layer of soil or vermiculite.
Place the tray in water. Soaking the soil from the bottom up helps to prevent seed disturbance. Once the soil is damp remove it from the water and place the tray in a warm greenhouse or on a sunny windowsill.
Germination typically takes 14 to 21 days.
When the seedlings are large enough to handle, transplant into individual pots and grow on until you are ready to transplant.
Plants growing from seed tend to start flowering after a few weeks of continuous development. With the right care and regular deadheading they continue to flower for months.
How to Plant Transplants
Many growers find growing V. Hiemalis plants from seed a difficult process. Even after germination the seedlings are prone to failing in wet weather. It is often easier to purchase transplants from a garden store or plant nursery.
If you decide to purchase your plants, try to select the largest plants possible. Plants growing in 4 or 5 inch pots tend to take better than smaller specimens that are still growing in cell trays. Remember, once the cold weather arrives growth slows or stops. Large plants give a fuller appearance.
If you select small plants, plant them closer together to give a fuller appearance.
Whether you purchase your plants or grow from seed, the process of transplanting the flowers into their growing position is the same.
Before planting, prepare the soil by weeding and working in any necessary amendments. Your soil should be light and well draining. Winter pansies dislike having wet feet and are prone to root rot.
Aim to plant when the soil temperature measures between 45 and 65 ℉. Too warm and the plants wilt and fail, too cold and they become dormant.
To plant, make a hole in the ground and position your plant in the center. The top of the root system should sit just below soil level. Backfill the hole and water.
Space your plants roughly 8 to 12 inches apart. Be careful not to overcrowd the plants. This can hamper air flow and lead to fungal issues developing. If you are planting V. Hiemalis plants in baskets, pots or planters, you can plant the transplants slightly closer together to create a fuller appearance.
Where to Plant
Like other members of the viola family, winter pansies do best in a light position and well draining soil.
Avoid planting anywhere that is exposed to direct sun. While these flowers like lots of light, too much heat can cause them to wilt or fail.
Plant in a light position.
When to Plant
Planting winter pansies at the right time is key to a long and colorful floral display. Remember, like other types of pansy, these are heat sensitive plants.
If you plant too soon the plants may be exposed to late season warmth. This can stunt growth, cause plants to wilt or even deter flowering. If you wait too long the soil may be unworkable or too cold for the plants to properly settle.
If your summer plants are still going strong, plant your winter pansies in Kinglake 6 inch Plastic Pots and grow them on until you are ready to transplant. Digging up summer bedding plants that are still healthy and flowering is pointless.
Planting in Different USDA Zones
When you plant depends on which USDA planting zone you are in.
In USDA Zones 4, 5 and 6a you are advised to grow your pansies as spring and fall annuals. If planted in the fall the roots may survive the winter if you mulch or protect the soil. However, even with a protective layer, it is best to assume that the flowers won’t return.
Growers in USDA Zones 6b to 7a can plant their winter pansies in September.
Growers in USDA Zones 7b should plant the flowers in early October.
In USDA Zones 8a and 8b, plant in late October.
If you are growing in USDA Zone 9 plant your V. Hiemalis plants in November.
Finally, growers in USDA Zones 10 and 11 should plant their flowers in partial shade either late November or December. In these areas treat the plants as colorful annuals replacing them with more heat tolerant plants in the spring.
Your growing zone determines when you should plant your late season flowers.
What Should I Do If I Plant My Flowers Too Early?
Planting too early risks exposing the plants to a late season warm spell. Regularly watering the plants and mulching the soil can keep them cool. Deadhead the flowers as they fade to prevent the plants from going to seed.
What Should I Do If I Plant Too Late?
In general larger plants can be planted slightly later than smaller plants.
Planting your flowers too late means that the soil has already started to cool. While they still flower, smaller plants are unlikely to grow to their full size. Planting your winter pansies closer together can help to create a fuller appearance.
Caring for Winter Pansies
These colorful flowers are pleasingly low maintenance additions to the garden. All they require to thrive is lots of light, a regular drink of water, an occasional light dose of fertilizer and regular deadheading.
When to Water
Water only when the top inch of soil is dry to the touch. You can also use a soil moisture sensor to measure how wet the soil is.
If it doesn’t rain, plants growing in the garden require around one inch of water a week. Specimens planted in pots or planters may require more frequent watering.
Plants in containers may require more regular watering.
One of the most visible signs that your plants require watering is the foliage turning a gray-green color. Drooping plants are also a sign that they require water.
Do not over water the plants. The pansy is prone to a number of issues which are caused by overwatering including rot. Allowing the plants to dry out slightly between waterings also helps them to better tolerate frosts and cold spells.
If a cold snap is forecast, water the plants well. If the soil around your winter pansies is too dry when entering a freeze, it can slow their recovery in the following warmth.
Do I Need to Fertilize?
Not the heaviest feeding plants, fertilize your winter pansies regularly to encourage flowering.
Plants growing in pots may need a more frequent dose of fertilizer. In general I like to fertilize my winter pansies once every two weeks.
If you don’t want to have the trouble of regularly fertilizing your plants you can use a slow release fertilizer. A slow release granular fertilizer, such Schultz Slow Release Bloom Fertilizer, can be applied to the soil when planting your V. Hiemalis plants. A second dose can be applied in early spring to prolong the flowering period.
Deadheading Spent Flowers
Deadheading spent blooms not only keeps your winter pansies looking neat and tidy. It also encourages more flowers to form, prolonging the flowering period. Regular deadheading also helps to prevent legginess.
Deadheading flowers as they fade encourages more to form.
Preventing Pests and Diseases
When planted in a favorable position and correctly cared for winter pansies are usually problem free. This is largely because many common pests, including aphids, spider mites, snails and slugs, that love to feast on other types of pansy are rarely active during the colder, darker months.
Keeping the soil around the plants weed and debris free removes potential places of shelter for pests. A layer of mulch can also be applied to keep the soil warm and deter slugs or snails.
Allowing the plants to sit in wet or soggy soil can cause the leaves to turn yellow. Discolored foliage is often one of the first, and most visible signs of root rot. Difficult to cure, allow the soil to fully dry out before watering again. If you are growing winter pansies in pots, repotting the plant into a fresh container and dry, well-draining potting soil can also help.
Yellowing leaves can also be a sign of a lack of fertilizer.
Discolored spots developing on the foliage are often a sign of downy mildew. An unsightly fungal disease, cut away and destroy any affected foliage. Do not place diseased leaves, stems or flowers on the compost heap.
If the entire plant is affected, lift it up and destroy it. Do not replant pansies in the same soil because fungal spores may still be present.
Winter pansies are a great way to add color and interest to your garden during the darkest months of the year. You can plant winter pansies in the garden, containers or window boxes with other cool season annuals such as Dianthus, Snapdragons and Nemesia. Violas are another reliable companion plant.
Early flowering crocuses are a good companion choice.
Polyanthus is a popular companion plant. A compact, mound forming specimen with short stems it provides lots of winter and early spring interest.
With its button-like flowers,Bellis or Spreading Daisy, is another attractive plant that compliments winter pansies.
Other companion plants include:
Pleasingly hardy, V. Hiemalis plants add color and interest to bare gardens.
Bright and colorful, winter pansies are a reliable addition to an otherwise bare garden. With the right care you can encourage the plants to continue flowering well into the spring, adding color and interest to a range of different planting schemes and garden styles.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.