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Master Gardener: Pansies, mums brighten fall gardens

Master Gardener: Pansies, mums brighten fall gardens

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Now is about the time when many of our annuals are starting to look a little tired. They have been troupers all spring and summer, but the heat has taken its toll and it’s time to start thinking about winter replacements … if we are so inclined. And whenever gardeners think fall color, the first two plants that come to mind are pansies and mums.

Pansies are great for many reasons. One of those reasons is that they are darn tough. I don’t know how many years my pansies have been covered with snow, only to reveal themselves when the snow starts to melt away just as beautiful as before.

The ancient ancestor to the pansy we know today is the viola, and there are more than 500 varieties in the viola family group. Violas were known to Greeks in the 4th Century BC and were cultivated for medicinal use. They even inspired Shakespeare to name one of his characters Viola in “Twelfth Night.”

Somewhere along the way, an astute observer noticed a plant that was similar to the viola but with a larger flower growing in areas with greater sunlight. It’s possible this happened in France because the word “pansy” can be traced to the French word “pensee,” which means thought, remembrance or an idea.

By the mid-1800s, many Europeans were breeding pansies to create new colors and larger flowers. Here in the states, many gardeners welcomed these new cultivars into their landscapes, so much so that in an 1888 mail-order catalog, pansies were touted as its most popular flower with sales of more than 100,000 packets of seeds a year. So our love of the pansy goes way back.

In some parts of the country, pansies can be a perennial, but here in Oklahoma, our summers make them an annual. The hardest part of planting pansies is choosing which color or colors you want because they come in purple, red, bronze, blue, pink, yellow, black, white, orange, lavender, apricot and mahogany. Some gardeners choose to fill their beds with a single color, while others like to mix it up with a variety. This is a chance for you to be you.

If you like growing your flowers from seed, that ship has probably sailed this year, but next year, if you want to grow your own pansies, start them indoors about six to eight weeks before planting time. One thing to remember is that pansy seeds like to germinate in darkness, so no need for a grow light to get these little ones started.

Once you have made the tough decision on which colors you have to have, planting is a breeze. Just loosen up your soil and plant your pansies 6, 8, or even 10 inches apart. If your pocketbook can afford it, the closer spacing will make the bed appear lusher and fuller. But spacing on the wider end of the spectrum will increase air flow and help minimize any issues with disease, although pansies, as a rule, are pretty problem free.

Once planted, you will want to apply a light layer of mulch around your plants and then water them in well. This watering in is a critical step, as it will help eliminate air pockets around your newly planted friends. And remember, these flowers will still need to be watered in the winter. Forgetting to water in the winter is a common mistake and will weaken your plants, causing them to not be as vigorous in your garden.

Once our soil temperatures get below 60 degrees, you can begin a liquid fertilizer program with a good water-soluble fertilizer every 14 days.

When we do get a cold snap, and we inevitably will, your pansies can look a little off. But as the weather warms up and they start getting bathed in the sun again, they will perk back up.

We would be remiss if we were not to mention mums as a fall color favorite also. Mums have earned their fall seasonal favorite status right up there with poinsettias for Christmas and Lilies for Easter. Because of that, the local nurseries are packed with many beautiful potted mums.

One of the questions we get concerning mums is, “Can I plant my mums so I can enjoy them next year?” The answer is a definite maybe.

Many of the mums you might find for purchase this year have been forced into blooming for the season. This process makes introducing them into your garden more challenging. Some are also bred specifically for pots and are likely not as hardy as the mums you see in gardens. These potted mums may have an extensive root system in the pot, but that does not guarantee they will be able to establish themselves before winter. As a result, they just can’t survive. This doesn’t mean you can’t try. It just means you might want to treat them like your pansies — enjoy them for the season and move on.

With this perfect weather, now is the time to get out there and brighten up your garden with some beautiful color from pansies and mums.

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Get answers to all your gardening questions by calling the Tulsa Master Gardeners Help Line at 918-746-3701, dropping by our Diagnostic Center at 4116 E. 15th St., or by emailing us at

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