A wintry smile

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Just over 30 years ago, something happened which changed the look of the winter garden – the happy, smiley faces of Universal pansies appeared.

Now there was no reason not to have long-lasting colour throughout the darkest months of the year because these pansies (and violas) laughed off the cold and wet and remained blooming beautifully whatever the weather (OK, heavy snow and incredible frost may wipe those smiles off their faces for a while, but they usually bounce back).

Varieties like Matrix pink Shades F1, loved by professional growers and now in the catalogues of several seed companies, will flower for months. Standing just a few inches tall, they can start to bloom as early as October – and still be going strong the following April.

They are one of many tough, disease-resistant and colourful pansies bred over the last three decades that have helped transform the winter garden.

Grow them in beds, borders, for edging, although most people choose to pack them in pots and containers where they can be appreciated close-up.

Pansy and viola flowers don’t need a lot of light, but they do like to make the most of any winter sunshine, turning their heads as though they’re trying to get a tan from the minimum of rays.

Winter pansies and violas appreciate a decent soil, so it pays to give them the best; they’ll grow stronger and flower better. Regular dead-heading will encourage even more flowers and help keep the compact plants tidy.

These days, most gardeners buy their winter-flowering pansies in the form of plant plugs which are best grown on and acclimatised before being planted outdoors.

In the spring, when the weather warms up, pansies will start to grow more straggly and then it’s a case of pulling the them up and replacing them with summer bedding, or clipping back the plants to a couple of inches from the soil.

Give them a bit of fertiliser and in a month the plants should have taken on a new life and be starting to flower all over again – perhaps not as profusely, but just as colourful. But even if you rip them out, leave a few to run to seed, they’ll produce numerous seedlings which can be left in situ or lifted, potted and grown on to provide some very valuable free colour.