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It's time to add color for winter gardens

Posted: October 21, 2012 - 12:05am

Winter flowering plants add color to the landscape. Pansies, violas, snapdragons, flowering kale and cabbage are good choices in the Augusta area. Pansies are popular for their color varieties, tolerance to cold, availability and planting options.

Pansies are available in white, rich gold, purple, red, rose, maroon, orange and violet – with many shades in between. Solid colors are called clear- faced pansies. Faced pansies have blotches of color. Some varieties have petals with crinkled or ruffled edges and flowers up to 4 inches in diameter. There are more than 300 varieties of pansies on the market.

Pansies are hardy plants able to withstand cold temperatures and frost. In the Augusta area, the best time to plant pansies is from the middle of October to the start of November. Pansies require soil temperatures between 45 and 65 degrees for best growth. Pansies planted after soil temperatures fall below 45 degrees show stunted, pale green leaves, little growth and, little or no flowering.

Pansies planted too early and exposed to warm temperatures flower poorly and are more susceptible to frost damage and disease. Fungus is prevalent during the warmer temperatures.

Pansies can be planted in planters, containers or existing beds. Regardless of container choice, the soil needs to have good drainage in order for pansies to flourish.

If the soil is holding too much moisture, the pansies will get root rot. Use finely ground pine bark or some other material to improve the drainage of the soil and to retain heat. Soils that hold moisture should be raised 6 to 8 inches above their existing level to help with drainage. Monitor irrigation and try to keep pansies slightly on the dry side. This will help harden the plants to better withstand cold weather. It is best to water during the day so the plant has time to dry before night.

To sustain healthy, colorful pansies after planting, fertilization is important. Fertilization requirements for pansies differ from other seasonal color plants. Avoid using fertilizers containing high amounts of slow-release ammoniacal nitrogen, which can weaken the plant and make it more susceptible to winter injury. The best fertilizers to use will contain formulations with nitrogen derived from potassium nitrate, calcium nitrate and perhaps magnesium nitrate.

Crown and root rot, black root rot and Botrytis blight cause problems in pansies. Crown and root rot is the most prevalent disease on pansies and is most active in warm, wet weather, occurring in the fall and late spring. The fungus infects the plant at or just above the soil line and causes greenish-brown lesions on the stem. The plant may die when the main stem is infected. Black root rot attacks the fine feeder roots of the plant. An infected plant will be yellow in color and stunted.

Botrytis blight, an airborne fungus, attacks almost any flower or damaged plant tissue. It is most common on plants that have high rates of fertilization, death of lower leaves, low light intensity, frequent watering, early flower production and crowding.

You can control most of these problems by planting during the recommended period and managing pansy beds properly. Remove any dead flowers to keep pansies blooming and to remove seed pods that can steal nutrients from the plant. Dead flowers also can encourage fungal disease growth. The pansy may show some signs of a defense response to temperatures below 25 degrees. Some wilting and discoloration of foliage is normal at these temperatures. To protect the pansies during extreme cold, apply 2 to 4 inches of pine straw over the top of the entire bed. Pine straw helps trap heat in the soil, preventing roots from freezing and reducing exposure to cold wind.

Tripp Williams, Columbia County’s agriculture and natural resource agent, can be reached at (706) 541-4011, or trippj@uga.edu.

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