Living Columns & Blogs

Winter annuals add color to the landscape

Try planting pansies.
Try planting pansies. RHS / Mike Moore

I’m still holding to the belief that cooler temperatures (and hopefully some rain, too) will be here before we know it. These warm temperatures make it more difficult to shift gears and start thinking about cool season plantings.

Annual flowers, such as pansies and violas, will be a welcomed burst of color in drab winter landscapes. Now is the time to start preparing for them. Popular now for more than a century, they are quite diverse, available in many colors and more than 300 cultivars, or “cultivated varieties.”

Pansies and violas will bloom any time that the temperature is above freezing. Their peak bloom is in the spring with blossoms fading during the onset of hot, summer temperatures. Healthy plants can generally survive short periods of temperatures in the single digits!

During October, as soil temperatures (hopefully) begin to fall, is the ideal time to plant pansies and violas. Pansies are larger and available in more colors, possibly adding a greater punch to the landscape. However, they require deadheading. Violas are more tolerant of some shade and warmer temperatures in the spring, and they are self-cleaning. They require more fertilizer than pansies.

As with other plants, soil testing is recommended. Pansies and violas prefer a slightly acidic soil pH, between 5.4-5.8, to avoid nutrient deficiencies and disease. Organic soil amendments can be added to the bed to loosen clay soils, improve water movement and provide nutrients. A rule of thumb for flower beds is 1 part fully-composted amendments to 3 parts native soil. Remove old vegetation and mulch from existing beds before planting to minimize disease carry-over.

Pansies and violas hate wet feet! Plant them in well-drained locations. You may want to consider elevating the bed 6-10 inches above the existing grade to ensure good drainage and improve the visibility. Start with good quality plants. Inspect for disease and insect issues prior to purchase. Also, verify that root systems are whitish and not root-bound. Larger plants will typically establish more quickly and bloom longer.

Pansies grow best in sunny locations. Small-flowered cultivars should be planted 6-8 inches apart; large-flowered varieties should have 10 inches between plants. A thorough watering immediately after planting will eliminate air pockets around the roots. Apply a 3-inch layer of fine mulch, such as pine straw or pine mulch, on top of the soil.

Since cool-season annuals will soon be growing in cold soil, they will not be able to take up nutrients in the same way as warm-season flowers. To help them to establish quickly before cold weather, fertilize them at planting time. Use a slow-release flower fertilizer, according to package directions.

Maintaining a pansy or viola bed requires little effort. Deadheading pansies (removing spent blossoms) on a regular basis encourages more blooms and reduces the chance for disease problems.

If we have a stretch of extremely cold temperatures, like last winter, cover the entire bed with a thin layer of pinestraw to hold heat in the soil and shelter flowers from harsh winds. Remarkably, these hardy plants protect themselves during cold weather by temporarily wilting, and then recover beautifully when the temperature warms.

Pick up some pansies or violas this week at your local garden center and enjoy the show all winter!


2017 Bibb County Master Gardener Extension Volunteer Program: Classes will be held Thursdays from Feb. 2-April 27, 2017. Prior plant experience is not necessary; a heart for community service is! Applications are due Nov. 30. Contact Kathy at 478-751-6338 or for more information.

Contact county Extension agent Karol Kelly at