Pansies by the yardful reward a winter's care

Many years ago I lived next door to a woman who filled the front yard with pansies to the exclusion of almost all other plants. Her love of the flower was somewhat excessive, I felt at the time, but I had to admit her garden was a thing of startling beauty when the flowers were in full bloom.

Since that time, the elfin garden beauty has advanced to even greater heights because of attention paid to it by plant breeders. I have to wonder what that neighbor's garden would look like now.

New hybrids, ''super pansies'' to some, not only come in a wider range of colors, but they also continue blooming throughout the summer and on into fall, even if less prolifically than in the conventional spring blooming period.

Most pansy growers buy flats of started plants from garden centers in the early spring and set them out in the garden just as soon as the weather is accommodating. But that approach can be expensive if your needs and tastes stretch to more than a few flats. Moreover, the choice of colors is yours when you elect to grow your own from seed.

But, to grow your own from seed requires a little effort - and even more time if you live in the North.

In those regions of the country where the soil freezes rock hard, pansies need to be sown within the the next few weeks, to be mulched or otherwise protected over the winter, and then to be transplanted into the garden as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring. In the far South, pansies can be sown in early fall for a late-winter, early-spring blooming period.

The cold frame you filled with seedlings in the spring, but which probably lies quite empty now, is the ideal place to start pansies. Or, if you wish, a partially shaded spot out in the garden will do.

Jeannette Lowe, a horticulturist with the W. Atlee Burpee Company, suggests adding peat moss, compost, or both to the seed bed, turning it in well. A little balanced fertilizer will also benefit the plants, she says, particularly if only peat moss is included in the soil mix.

Broadcast the seeds over a wide area and cover lightly (one-eighth inch). Water with a light, misty spray and keep the soil evenly moist, although never saturated, during the germination period. The seedlings will start sprouting in 12 to 21 days. Transplant to about 3 inches apart when the seedlings have at least two pairs of leaves. Shade the bed or cold frame with burlap if it is in full sun; this helps keep the soil evenly moist. Raise the burlap as the plants grow, removing it entirely once the intense heat of summer has passed.

Pansies grow best during the cool months of fall, retain their green leaves in a state of dormancy through the freezing winter, and race into bloom when milder weather returns in the spring. As tolerant of cold as they are, they do need some winter protection in the North.

When freezing weather arrives, scatter a light fine mulch in between the plants to prevent possible frost heaving, and be sure to close the cold frame. Remember to crack the lid on warm, clear days if the blanket of snow covering the cold frame has melted away.

In the open, the treatment is somewhat different. The pansies need a mulch protection of evergreen boughs which will hold the snow cover. A fine mulch covering the pansies will pack down under snow, and the plants might smother. When spring arrives, gently remove the mulch, water well if the soil is dry, and let the plants adjust to the changed conditions for a day or two. Then transplant to the place in your garden where they will show off their beauty to best effect.

Pansies look great in front of spring-flowering bulbs or lining the path to the front door.

When the flowers arrive, be prepared to pick some for indoor bouquets. The more you pick, the more the plants are encouraged to bloom, so don't hang back. In particular, remove the spent flower heads to prevent energy-sapping seed heads from forming.

One final piece of advice from Ms. Lowe: ''Water the plants well during drought and cut back lanky growth in midsummer to stimulate new shoots and buds for later bloom.''

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