The violas are back in town….


DSCF6661DSCF6669DSCF6673Violas from the Coconut series, ~ ice, ~ duet, ~ swirl etc., Charming little faces, which belies their near indestructible hardiness and immense flowering capacity. In addition to these colours, violas come in an extraordinarily wide palette from clear white and golden yellows to near black, though a spectrum of blue and well, violet.

Winter pansies and violas: How to grow

Graham Rice advises on growing small plants that make a massive impact

Our winter gardens changed forever back in 1979. This was the year that ‘Universal’ pansies first made their appearance and, although they could be grown for the summer, it was their ability to flower in winter that made such an impact.

But this is probably their last season in our seed catalogues and garden centres as Goldsmith, the US breeder and producer of seed, has withdrawn the variety.

‘Universal’ and other winter-flowering pansies and violas were developed by breeders in Britain and beyond with three features in mind: the capacity to flower in the short days of winter; tolerance of cold, wet and windy weather; and the ability to stay compact and not stretch and flop over when mild weather eventually arrives.

In general, pansies produce large flowers, up to 7.5cm (3in) and more across, but not many of them; violas carry far more flowers but they’re smaller, sometimes less than 2.5cm (1in) across. Violas are tougher and more weather resistant; both come in a spectacular range of colours, colour combinations and patterns.

The trial of winter-flowering pansies (violas are excluded) currently under way at the Royal Horticultural Society’s garden at Wisley includes an amazing 254 different cultivars.

An initial lesson that I took from my time spent on RHS trials judging panel is that, in early winter at least, the small-flowered pansies, which are closer in style to violas, have been more impressive than those with larger flowers. Nine small flowers look far more colourful than two large ones.

This is why. First, the flowers of many pansies are so large that the petals simply do not have the strength to support themselves. The tops of the flowers hang over, the effect is lost. Violas, on the other hand, produce such a constant succession of flowers, if one is damaged by the weather another soon opens. And, with alpine species in their ancestry, violas are simply tougher.

Seeing so many winter-flowering pansies together on dull winter days led me to another conclusion: dark colours make no impact. Crimson, deep purple and dark blue, especially if they feature black-blotched faces, never really stand out, but white, primrose, sky blue and pale pink sparkle on even the most overcast days.

In garden centres, or when ordering seed for next season from catalogues, names to look out for amongst violas include ‘Sorbet’ (24 colours and colour combinations, and probably the most prolific), ‘Penny’ (25 colours), ‘Velour’ (23 colours) and ‘Angel’ (33 colours).

Where pansies are concerned, look for ‘Ultima’ (41 colours), ‘Cats’ (five whiskered colours) and ‘Northern Lights’ (an attractive pastel mix).

When buying plants in flower at this time of year you will be restricted to what your local garden centres have on display. For the best choice, grow your own from seed or seedlings next year.

And what will replace ‘Universal’ pansies? It is ‘Mariposa’, which doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

How to Grow

Pansy and viola flowers follow the sun – or, on dull days, they follow the best light. Plant them where you look at them with the sun or light behind you – then their flowers will face you.

Winter pansies and violas will thrive in any good soil and appreciate plenty of sunshine. Plant plain-faced types en masse in beds and borders, and bicolours and whiskered types along paths and in containers where you can appreciate the delicacy of their pretty patterns.

Finally, the one thing that helps all pansies and violas give their very best is regular dead-heading. So as soon as the flowers fade, nip them off. Use kitchen scissors or thumb and forefinger.

Good companions

Create instantly colourful containers by choosing pots of dwarf tulips or small-flowered daffodils in bud or in flower at the garden centre and matching them with violas or pansies in just the right shades. Set the boxes and pots side-by-side before you buy so you can see how they look.

White violas can be slipped into almost any gaps where you need a little brightness, the colour never clashes. Choose appropriate colours to tuck around dwarf shrubs and conifers, hellebores, bergenias, winter arums, lamiums, and they make splendid companions for the shorter bulbs.





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