Cold-tolerant violas for spring

Judith Adam

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Violas (Photo from
Violas (Photo from
Violas (Photo from

If you’ve caught a glimpse of the cover of the spring issue of Garden Making magazine, you’ve seen the gorgeous blue and purple pansies. I’m a huge fan of pansies and lavish them with organic soil, moisture, fertilizer, judicious cutting back and every kind of encouragement. But I share the love with violas, genetic precursors to pansies and every bit as beautiful.

Violas are smaller than pansies, but their colours and patterns are equal to any pansy, and they have similar growth and care requirements. But violas are more cold hardy and more heat resistant. They can be planted earlier in spring and will be more resilient after frosty nights.

Wild perennial violas such as horned violet (Viola cornuta) and Labrador violet (V. labradorica) are some of the possible genetic ancestors to the fancy hybrid violas now available. Hybrid violas have held on to some of this perennial behaviour, and with good care, may live through hot summers and over winter. More frequently, however, their spilled seed survive under snow and germinate the following spring, causing little dancing flowers to appear between stones or in beds where I’ve never planted them. These are wonderful surprises!

Violas (and sometimes a few early pansies) are usually first to come to market, because they can take the early spring frost and late snowfalls. The large hybrid pansies appear two or three weeks later, when weather conditions have improved.

My strategy for planting violas and pansies involves putting them into separate containers and growing them in sunny sites. The violas go into small pots that I can lift and move around, placing them in cool shade when heat comes on. With good care and fertilizer, they bloom until they’re exhausted in late summer.

The pansies go into large concrete containers, to be replaced with summer annuals in early June. The pansies still look good and I suffer huge guilt taking them out, but truthfully, they’ll soon meet their demise when heat sets in.

I don’t know restraint when it comes to buying pansies and violas, because there are just too many gorgeous varieties. Currently, my favourite viola is ‘Antique Shades’ in the Sorbet Series, a suffusion of pink, purple, brown and red petals marked with whiskers. My advice is to buy too many of both, and then you’ll be happy.

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