I am always intrigued by some of the questions I am asked once people find out I am a professional gardener. The most popular wintertime question has always been, “What do you do in January?” My answer is always the same: “There is a lot of work to be done to get ready for spring.”
Recently someone asked me, “What do you do in March?” I have long considered Valentine’s Day the unofficial first day of spring for gardeners, so what do I do in March? I actually had to think about it for a second and then I replied, “Everything.”
You can of course plant trees, shrubs, and perennials, move trees and shrubs before they break dormancy, mulch, cut back ornamental grasses, fertilize perennial gardens, and this list could go on and on. When the weather is favorable, March is the month to be working in the garden.
Cool season color
One of my all-time favorite flowers is the cool-season annual flower, the pansy. I can hardly wait for them to appear in our garden center. It’s generally the first week of March when the first colorful shipment of pansies arrives. We all run to unload the delivery truck with such excitement. The arrival of pansies brings a renewed spirit, filled with color and life that can only mean it is springtime in Kentucky.
Viola x wittrockiana, pansy, and Viola cornuta or V. tricolor, known as Johnny-jump-up, can be planted in either the fall or the spring in our area, and are a lot tougher than they look. Most species are hardy to approximately -10°, which allows us to plant them when air temperatures can be quite cold. Very few other plants, with the exception of narcissus or daffodils, can give us that bright pop of color that everyone is waiting for, signaling the end of winter.
Growth and flowers
Pansies grow 6-8 inches tall and violas can be slightly taller, growing up to 12 inches. Both are clumping, cool-season annuals that grow 8-10 inches wide. Both flower profusely, even in temperatures around 25-30° and even when there’s a slight snow cover. Flowers can be either solid colors or in color combinations.
Pansy flowers can be a large 3 inches in diameter for some varieties. I have found that varieties with slightly smaller flowers of 1-1/2–2 inches in diameter, in series such as Crystal Bowl, Bingo, and Dynamite, flower better in Kentucky. Farther south in Tennessee and Georgia, the larger flowered pansies like Majestic Giants do very well. I think it is just a little too cold here in the winter and early spring to get those really big buds up and out of the foliage in order for the flowers to open up.
Violas, or Johnny-jump-ups, are easily distinguished from regular pansies because the flowers are quite a bit smaller. With flowers that are only 1 inch or less in diameter, they make up for it in quantity. The flower looks like a combination between a pansy flower and that of our common weed, the ground violet. I really enjoy growing Johnny-jump-ups, and many times they are slightly more cold-tolerant than pansies. They are prolific seed producers, and occasionally I find them coming back from seed in the garden.
Treat as an annual
Even with their tolerance of our cold, pansies or violas are not generally grown as perennials in Kentucky. Our summer heat hits them hard and they start to look really bad, especially when the night temperatures creep up into the 70s in early June. My best advice is to grow them as cool-season or winter annuals. Plant them in either the fall or spring, enjoy them, and be ready to remove them and replace them in May with heat-tolerant summer annuals. By adding pansies or violas to your winter and early spring garden, you will be rewarded with a garden full of color even when you least expect it.
So as March rolls around, you can bet I am planting a few more pansies in my garden. More importantly, I am planning and thinking ahead about what I will be able to get done in April and May, when spring fever is rampant and everyone is in the mood to garden.
Ask the Gardener
by Angie McManus
How do I take cuttings from geraniums and start them for spring plantings?
Geraniums are easy to propagate from cuttings. Supplemental lighting may be needed for photosynthesis to occur in winter since the light levels are low. Using a clean pair of pruners or gardening scissors, take a 4- to 6-inch cutting just below a node, which is the segment of the stem where leaves and buds are attached. The cuttings should be taken from new growth. Gently remove all lower leaves and leave the top set of leaves attached. Dip the end of the cutting into water, then into rooting hormone (follow product instructions). Plant the cuttings 1⁄2-inch deep in a sand and peat, vermiculite, or perlite mix. Any mixture of a porous medium will work fine as long as it drains well and allows for air circulation. Put cuttings in a space with bright, indirect light and water evenly. Keep them moist but not sopping wet. They should develop new growth and roots within 4-6 weeks. Visit www.ca.uky.edu and search for “propagating plants” for more information.
Have a gardening question?
Go to www.KentuckyLiving.com, click on Home & Garden, then “Ask The Gardener” link to ask a question.