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Ask a Master Gardener: Extend the garden season with fall pansies

by Peter Sutter | September 18, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.


As you read this article, somewhere in North America pansies are blooming prolifically in a garden, much to the enjoyment of those observing them.

That same statement truthfully can be made any month of the year. This delightful garden plant flourishes in the winter in the far South and in the summer in the North.

Spring and fall are the times of the year we Midwesterners are able to enjoy their unique color and delicate fragrance. If ever there was a plant that deserved the title of "the flower for all seasons" it is the pansy, and September is an ideal month to plant them in Missouri for color that will extend for many weeks to come.

Pansies have been a popular choice for flower gardeners for long time. A 19th century seed catalog described the pansy as "The most popular of all flowers grown from seed -- our sales exceeding one hundred thousand packets a year." That was quite an accomplishment, considering the early date and the population of the United States at that time.

During the past several decades, pansy breeding has been carried out in a number of additional countries including the United States, Germany and Japan. These efforts have produced pansies with new colors, including new shades of pink, rose or orange, as well as flowers with unusual bicolor designs. Given the current popularity of the pansy, I believe the breeding improvements will continue.

Most gardeners choose to plant pansies that have been started by commercial greenhouses and are sold in bedding plant "packs." Choose plants that are "stocky" with healthy leaves and free from pests. Plants with several unopened buds are preferable to those whose flowers are all fully matured and likely will result in a greater display of color sooner.

Pansies enjoy cool temperatures and abundant sunshine. Unfortunately for pansy lovers, this combination of environmental conditions is available only in the spring and fall in Mid-Missouri.

To extend the useful life of the pansy in the spring or to get an earlier start on fall color, an exposure of morning sun followed by afternoon shade can be chosen. Although the pansy should be considered an annual in Missouri, fall-planted pansies frequently survive our winters and produce color in the late winter or very early spring after temperatures begin to warm.

Given the very fine and delicate nature of the root system of pansies, the soil in which they are planted should have plenty of organic matter for good soil aeration along with adequate water retention. Incorporating 3-4 inches of well-decomposed organic matter is a good idea for preparing most soils for growing annual flowers, including pansies. Additional fertilizer may be required depending upon the fertility of the soil, keeping an eye on your plants will help you tell if more is needed.

When planting, space pansies about 6-10 inches apart and water well, directing the water to the base of the plant. Pansies should never be allowed to dry and, in most settings, require 1-2 inches of water weekly. Additional fertilizer can be supplied in water soluble form, if required.

Pansies are relatively disease and pest free. Yellow leaves often indicate the presence of root rot which, most often, is caused by over-watering. A white, powdery substance on the leaves (and stems) is indicative of powdery mildew. Choosing a location with good air circulation can help to prevent the latter. In both cases, prevention is the best "cure" for plant diseases.

Insect pests include aphids and spider mites. Like pansies, aphids also thrive in cool weather and can build up large populations rapidly. Start with insect-free transplants and check regularly for aphid infestation. Spider mites are more likely to attack fall plantings of pansies than spring-planted due to the warmer temperatures. Leaves that looked "stippled" and begin to turn yellow are symptoms of spider mite damage.

If either of the two pests should occur, choose pesticides that have low mammalian toxicity and are environmentally friendly. Read and follow label direction when applying any pesticide.

If the end of the garden season has you a little depressed, pansies are a great way to extend the season with their ability to withstand sub-freezing temperatures. They might even be considered therapeutic.

Information in this article was provided by David Trinklein, University of Missouri Division of Plant Sciences.

Peter Sutter is a lifelong gardening enthusiast and a participant in the MU Extension's Master Gardener program. Gardening questions can be sent to [email protected]


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