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Get your pansies and get them planted

Pansies and their cousins, the Johnny-jump-ups, are among the best plants for the spring gardens.

I returned last week from a trip to Goldsmith Seeds, a favorite plant breeder in Gilroy, Calif. The scientists at Goldsmith are hard at work to improve some of the plants mentioned in last week's article. At the top of the list — pansies.

In its literature, Goldsmith, a multinational company that specializes in the development of flower plants, says its "plant breeders are dedicated to creativity and ingenuity when breeding new varieties."

Looking at Goldsmith's trial gardens, you can see their handiwork. Few, if any flowers surpass Goldsmith's pansies in the broad range of colors — red, purple, blue, bronze, pink, yellow, lavender, mahogany, apricot and orange, as well as an almost true-black and white.

There are more than 250 cultivars or varieties of pansies. Most of the cultivars are part of a series. A series consists of several cultivars that vary in color but share qualities, such as hardiness, form and markings.

Goldsmith is currently promoting the Karma series with the following description: "Large flowers provide nonstop color for fall and spring. Strong plants and root systems allow this plant to handle the rigors of overwintering."

They also feature the Mariposa series, "a multiflora bred for robust root systems that enhance overwintering performance." Together, these two series provide some 38 cultivars with different colors and interests.

Although botanically pansies are biennials, in our area they are grown as winter annuals. Planting them in the fall lets them root in well, and they bloom any time that the temperature is above freezing. Their peak bloom is March, April and early May. Pansies thrive in cool weather but fade and need to be discarded when the hot summer weather begins.

The compact plants seldom grow more than 12 inches high or wide. Individually, pansies are not very showy, but when they are planted together in large drifts or masses of mixed or matched colors, they are spectacular. Use them as under-story plants, providing a background to taller flowers such as tulips and daffodils. You can also edge your beds with them or fill your containers and window boxes with them.

One of the secrets to getting pansies to bloom well is to buy quality plants. Choose those that have stocky stems with dark-green foliage. Most people try to buy plants with the most blossoms, but look for those that are not stretched with few blooms but many buds.

Many common types of pansies have a dark center called a face, but there are varieties with no markings. Some pansies have a sweet scent that is most fragrant at early morning and dusk.

Like any other plant, they can develop problems. The most common are root rot and fungal leaf spots. Powdery mildew can also be a problem if you leave them in when it gets hot. Good soil drainage is essential to avoid the root-rot problem.

Although the cold temperatures reduce insect and related pests, aphids, spider mites and slugs may attack your flowers. The best control is to replace pansies in the garden by about mid-May.

There are many other popular series that are available locally. Among these are the "Majestic Giant" series, which has a free-flowering habit and tolerates heat and cold well. The flowers are 3-4 inches across and all have faces.

The "Imperial" series is prized for vigorous growth and non-fading colors. Most of the blooms are 2-3 inches wide and faced. "Crystal Bowl" series pansies are small, faceless flowers. The plants are compact, free-flowering and do not sprawl in the garden.

Two interesting orange pansies have preformed well here. "Jolly Joker" has a velvety purple blossom with an orange face, and "Padparadja" is a brilliant orange with heat-tolerant flowers. Both types grow on compact plants.

The "Universal" series has masses of early blooming flowers that are clear or faced. They are cold-and heat-tolerant. "Antique Shades" is a mix of colors from apricot to rose. The silky blooms are 3 inches across and are heat tolerant.

Get your pansies and get them planted. The beautiful, showy blossoms will beautify your gardens this fall and lift your spirits as they bloom throughout the spring. No garden should be without them.

Larry Sagers is the horticulture specialist, Utah State University Extension, at Thanksgiving Point.