How to Plant and Care for Pansies

During cool spring and fall seasons, with few other flowers out in force, pansies fill gardens with color and subtle fragrance. The exuberant blooms and “smiling faces" of these nostalgic flowers have captivated generations of children and adults. Favored for years by savvy gardeners who relish their cool-season blooms, pansies enjoy new popularity as edible blossoms favored by prominent chefs. These versatile flowers stand ready to bring color, aroma and flavor to fresh cuisine, petite bouquets or garden beds.

Derived from common woodland wildflowers, pansy varieties were limited for many years. Now modern gardeners choose from hundreds of varieties in a kaleidoscope of colors and growing habits. From dainty 1-inch flowers to billowy 4-inch blossoms, pansies can grow short and compact or trail in petunia-like waves up to 2 feet wide. Colors range from saturated solids of white, yellow and blue to two-tones, tri-colors and purples so deep they appear black. Whatever your preference, there's a pansy to suit it.

Understanding Pansy Timing

Pansies come in a variety of colors, with and without “smiling" blotches.

Pansies flourish during the cool nights and warm days of spring and fall. Some fortunate gardeners with moderate southern winters enjoy color from fall-planted pansies all winter long — even frosts and freezes don't stop the blooms.1 In many northern gardens, fall-planted pansies provide colorful complements to fall mums, and then take a winter break and reappear to bloom alongside early tulips, daffodils and other spring-blooming bulbs.

Whether planted in spring or fall, pansies gradually dwindle and die out as nighttime temperatures warm and summer heat arrives. Fall-planted pansies tend to have larger, more numerous spring blooms, but spring- planted pansies may tolerate heat better.2

Spring Plantings

Pansies grow best when soil temperatures range between 45 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit.1 Spring planting roughly coincides with planting your earliest spring vegetables. Long, cool springs in northern gardens equate to long-lasting pansy displays. In southern and mid-southern climates, summer comes fast, so pansies take their leave quickly.

Even so, it's important not to plant too soon. Overly cold soil stresses pansies, causing stunted growth, poor flowering and discoloration.1 An inexpensive soil thermometer, available at most hardware and garden stores, will help you determine when it's prime time for planting.

Fall Plantings

Pansies go into fall gardens after summer soil cools, but in plenty of time for roots to establish well before winter. If planted too early, overly warm soil leads to weak growth that's susceptible to damage from cold, disease and pests.1

Planting time varies significantly between regions. Minnesota gardeners, for example, plant fall pansies in August, if they hope for winter survival. Georgia gardeners accomplish the same with October plantings. Small-flowering pansies typically display the greatest resilience against cold.2

Prepping and Planting Pansy Beds

Pansies are planted during cool spring or fall months.

Pansies prefer sites that provide full, direct morning sun, yet shield them from intense afternoon rays. Well-drained, fertile soil that's high in organic matter helps fuel abundant pansy blooms. Create a nurturing environment for pansy growth by layering 3 inches of organic matter, such as compost and earthworm castings, over your planting bed. Work it deep down into soil, and then add a complete, balanced fertilizer, such as Pennington UltraGreen All Purpose Plant Food 10-10-10, to give pansies a solid nutritional foundation.

To get the most from soil, fertilizers and pansies, test your soil before planting. Soil test results give advice on amending soil, so that pansies can give you their all. Pansies prefer acidic soil with pH near 5.4 to 5.8.1 At higher pH levels, iron and other essential pansy nutrients become less available, and nutrient shortages result. These deficiencies inhibit pansy blooms, leave foliage yellow and pale, and encourage root disease.1 A soil amendment such as iron sulfate lowers soil pH and adds extra iron, too. Soil test results reveal precisely what you need. Your local county extension agent can help with kits and information.

If your planting goal is a mass of vibrant pansy color, with no hints of rows in sight, plant your pansies 6 to 10 inches apart, but stagger your rows so each pansy sits between the two above and below to form an “X" pattern. To keep it simple, place your pansy plants before you dig your holes. Once arranged, dive into planting, and then water thoroughly when you're through.

Caring for Garden Pansies

Frosty weather doesn't faze resilient pansy blooms.
For a single display of spring or fall color, proper planting and general garden care get pansies through one season. But if your climate allows for winter displays, or you're banking on a repeat spring performance, give pansy plantings some extra TLC:

  • Feeding: Periodic feedings during active growth fuel prolific pansy blooms. Pennington UltraGreen Color Blooms & Plant Food 15-10-10 offers complete, balanced nutrition plus added iron pansies need. Where fall-planted pansies take a winter break, fertilize in fall and again when the ground thaws and spring growth begins.
  • Watering: Consistent moisture keeps pansy blossoms soft and supple, but roots won't tolerate soggy soil. Water pansies regularly through the growing season, but allow soil to dry slightly between waterings. The drier soil conditions also help pansies harden off and tolerate cold.1
  • Protecting: During flowering season, organic mulch protects soil moisture and discourages weeds. During cold-climate winters, a protective covering of straw safeguards roots against rapid temperature fluctuations and heaving. Apply straw after the ground freezes, and then remove it as soon as snow and ice melt in spring. Don't be surprised to find pansy buds ready and waiting to burst into blooms.
  • Defending: Pansies are prone to insects, such as aphids and spider mites. Visible damage can be tiny holes and brown spots on leaves. Sevin Insect Killer Ready-to-Use kills on contact and will not harm pansies. Hold the sprayer about 1 foot from the infected area and spray evenly.

With pansies added to your garden plans, you can count on cool-weather color that extends the season and your enjoyment. Pennington and the Pennington email newsletter are here to help you learn and grow, so you can enjoy beautiful, productive gardens and share your success with family and friends.

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1. Wade, G.L. and Thomas, P.A., “Success with Pansies in the Winter Landscape: A Guide for Landscape Professionals," University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, October 2012.

2. Anderson, R., “Kentucky Garden Flowers: Pansy, Viola," University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension.