Starting Pansies From Seed: A Late-Winter Project for Gardeners

Before you buy transplants from a nursery, see how easy this winter gardening activity can be. Starting pansies from seed is the way to go.

by Jessica Walliser
PHOTO: Jessica Walliser

The common garden pansy (Viola x wittrockiana) is a descendant of the viola. Breeders have been “playing” with pansies for generations, selectively breeding them for larger flowers, bolder colors, and improved cold hardiness and heat tolerance. Today’s pansies bear colorful, velvet-like flowers during the cool temperatures of spring and fall. You might think that the best way to grow pansies is by purchasing transplants from the nursery, but starting pansies from seed is easy and fun. Plus, it’s a great way to exercise your green thumb during the cold winter months.

Pansy Particulars

Pansies are cool-weather flowers that tend to go dormant during hot summer weather. That’s why you only see them on the shelf at the garden center in the very early spring or late in the autumn. Their blousy blooms come in a stunning array of colors, from purple and orange bicolored varieties, to pink, lavender, yellow and even black. As with vegetables, starting pansies from seed will enable you to grow a greater diversity of varieties; certainly more than you’ll ever find at your local nursery.

Because pansies don’t thrive in summer’s heat, to prolong their bloom time, plant them where they’ll receive afternoon shade. This is especially important in southern climates. But, even if they die back when summer arrives, don’t give up on pansies. Simply cut the plants back to the ground and more often than not, they’ll resprout when the cooler weather of fall arrives.

Depending on the variety, pansies can have incredible winter hardiness, with some varieties easily overwintering as far north as USDA zone 5.

Starting Pansies From Seed

Pansies are quite easy to grow from seed, though they take a good bit of time to germinate and they’re fairly slow growers. Patient gardeners are rewarded, however, with many weeks of cheery pansy blooms.

When starting pansies from seed, you’ll want to begin the task about 10 to 12 weeks before your last spring frost is expected. Here in Pennsylvania, I begin starting pansies from seed anytime from mid January to mid February.

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Use new or sterilized seeding flats filled with high-quality seed-starting potting mix to start pansy seeds. You won’t need grow lights until after the seedlings germinate. Pansy seeds require complete darkness to germinate, so after planting the seeds about 1/6″ deep in seeding flats, be sure to cover the seed flats with a black plastic garbage bag to block all light. Place the seed tray on a seedling heat mat to raise the soil temperature a few degrees and improve germination rates and speed.

Even with a heat mat in place, pansy seeds take about two weeks to germinate. Starting pansies from seed is certainly an exercise in patience, but starting at the 10 day mark, begin peeking inside the black plastic bag every day for signs of seedling emergence.

Once you spy a few seedlings poking out of the soil, it’s time to remove the bag and place the flats under grow lights. Run the lights for 18 to 20 hours per day and make sure your pansy seedlings stay well watered, but don’t allow the flats to become water logged.

As soon as your pansy seedlings develop their first set of true leaves, it’s time to transplant them into cell packs or small nursery pots. Use a standard potting mix for this. You can also begin to fertilize the seedlings at this time, using an organic liquid fertilizer, such as fish hydroslate or kelp emulsion, diluted to half of the recommended strength. Fertilize every week.

Hardening Off Pansy Transplants

When early spring arrives, it’s time to more your pansies outdoors. But take your time with this process. Like all other aspects of starting pansies from seed, this should not be rushed. To properly harden off pansy transplants, move them outdoors to a sheltered location for a few hours every day, gradually increasing the amount of time they spend outside and the intensity of light they receive over the course of a week or two. Once your seedlings are outdoors full-time, it’s time to transplant them out into the garden.

Starting pansies from seed is fun and fulfilling. These festive little plants make a great addition to beds, borders, containers and window boxes.

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