A favourite plant of many people is the pansy. The patterns on the flowers often resemble little faces.

The pansy is a versatile plant and during the cooler months of the year thrives in sun or shade and wet or dry.

This adaptability means pansies are used in many situations. They are grown en masse in traffic islands and public parks. Our own council here in Whanganui often has them planted in parts of the main street.

On a smaller scale, many people buy just a few and grow them in pots, where the intriguing and varying patterns of each are individually appreciated. These plants bring much joy to many people.

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With autumn well and truly here, we are in the midst of the main time for pansy planting. The garden centre is fill of these garden delights in options to suit everyone. They come in 6-pack punnets, 24-pack bulk lots, or single pots in flower to give instant appeal.

There are hanging baskets available with them already well established ready to be taken home and hung up, looking the part immediately. There are also bowls of flowering pansies – perfect to place by the front door step on your way in and leave it there to greet guests and offer cheer.

These happy, easy-going flowers are easy to grow and, if left to their own devices, will often self sow and come up by themselves year after year. They will naturalise in cracks of paving or concrete, pop up throughout a garden, or self sow in containers or pots nearby.

They seem to survive in the toughest of spots with little water or sun and thrive in well-watered, fertile, sunny areas.

Pansies establish quickly, reaching flowering stage from first seedling appearance or planting in a matter of weeks. They then proceed to flower prolifically for six months or more. It is little wonder the pansy is such a popular plant.

Pansies thrive through the cooler seasons of the year, but dislike the hot, intense sun of summer. The cooler weather, while slowing the speed of establishment a little, doesn't seem to slow the flowering. The pansy is an excellent plant to grow for colour during the dull winter months.

The pansy is more popular than ever before and for many good reasons. Its versatility and tolerance of such a range of conditions has allowed this plant to gain popularity through the generations and will ages of gardeners and non gardeners alike.

There are a number of ways you can use these cheerful, easy-to-grow, colourful plants to brighten up your winter abode and capture the imagination of others.

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Pansies in hanging baskets

They are excellent for growing in hanging baskets. Planting both the top and sides of the basket will create the appearance of a ball of colour which will look spectacular wherever you hang them.

Pansies look stunning grown in hanging baskets, but watering needs to be monitored more carefully as they dry out quicker than pots on the ground.
Pansies look stunning grown in hanging baskets, but watering needs to be monitored more carefully as they dry out quicker than pots on the ground.

Using a wire basket with a coconut liner will allow you to put a slit in the sides with a craft knife through which the seedlings can be planted. When growing in hanging baskets, watering needs to be watched more carefully as they tend to dry out quicker than pots on the ground. The addition of SaturAid to the potting mix, if it does not already contain it, will help dramatically with water retention.

Brighten the front entranceway

Nothing is more welcoming than a colourful floral display by the main entranceway. Whether it is a home, shop, business or community building, a display of pansies will provide an eye-catching and colourful display for winter and spring in garden borders and pots.

Colours include purple, white, blues, black, scarlet, yellow, gold and mixed colours. All are vibrant and produce a bright mix of cheerful flowers on strong compact plants for a long period of time.

When growing in pots, don't be tempted to reuse old potting mix – tip this into the compost heap and start again. More than half the success of any plant depends on the soil it grows in. Select a decent potting mix and you're on your way to success. In the garden centre we recommend (and use ourselves) Natural Bark Potting Mix.

Pansies are happy, easy-going flowers that are easy to grow.
Pansies are happy, easy-going flowers that are easy to grow.

Pansy or viola?

What is the difference between these two similar but slightly different flowers? Plants considered to be pansies have four petals pointing upwards, and only one pointing down. Violas have three petals pointing up and two pointing down. I think the common description that most of us generally use is simpler: the term "pansy" is used for the multi-coloured, large-flowered hybrids that are grown for bedding purposes every year, while "viola" is usually reserved for smaller, more delicate annuals and perennials.

Slugs and snails

The biggest pests for pansies, as with most annuals and bedding plants, are slugs and snails. These critters seem to disappear during the daytime and come out at night when no-one is watching and devour young seedlings. When planting, it is prudent to spread slug pellets around to protect your winter colour display. The only other problem that is sometimes encountered when growing pansies is mildew. This shows up in the form of violet grey powder on the tops and/ or undersides of the leaves. It is a sign of humidity and in Whanganui it usually only shows itself in late spring at the end of "pansy season" when the plants are best removed to make way for summer plantings of annuals.

Pansies: The secret food for success

The little-known but favourite food of pansies is dried blood. This is not a fancy trade name but the name of the actual product, 100% organic from the meatworks. It comes as a powder in a 300g sachet which can be sprinkled around the plant and watered in.

It is high in organic nitrogen and iron and, if applied regularly as a side dressing, will help prolong the flowering season and improve the health and strength of your pansies.

Just a note, this is a quite different product to blood and bone, which contains phosphate at a relatively high level which promotes more root establishment than top growth and flowering promoted by dried blood. Use dried blood for pansies planted in baskets, pots or in the garden – you'll be pleased with the results.

Gareth Carter is general manager of Springvale Garden Centre.