The National Gardening Bureau picked violas as their flower of the year for 2007. Violas and pansies are such relied upon stalwarts that many gardeners take them for granted and think they know everything there is to know about them. True, violas are easy to care for plants. But in the gardening world, nothing stands still. Newer varieties of violas are being introduced with bolder colors and larger flowers that bloom longer. Even better, they exhibit better heat and cold tolerance than the remarkably hardy varieties we're familiar with.
Viola, Pansy, Johnny-Jump-Up?
Viola is the name of a genus containing about 500 different species. Most of the violas cultivated in gardens are grown as annuals or short-lived perennials. However, many will self-seed and give you years of delight.
- Sweet Violets - Most of today’s violas are derived from Viola odorata, the Sweet Violet. Sweet violets are true perennials. You’ll stumble on them unexpectedly in fields and lawns and recognize them at once by their heady, sweet scent and deep violet color.
- Garden Violas - The violas cultivated for garden use are either:
- Viola tricolor/Johnny-Jump-Up - a self-seeding perennial with nickel-sized flowers marked with purple, yellow and white.
- Viola cornuta/Tufted or Horned Violets - Spreading perennials with a rosette of leaves topped by 1 ½ inch flowers in a variety of colors with rays or lines in a deeper or contrasting shade. V. cornuta may even have a slight scent. The plants can get 6-10 inches tall.
- Viola wittrockiana/Garden Pansy - A short-lived perennial with larger flowers than its cousins above. The plant grows about 8 inches tall and has 2-3 inches flowers that can be single colored or patterned. These are usually grown as annuals.
How to Grow Violas
Violas are primarily cool-season bloomers. They are perfect for starting and ending the season in colder climates and for bridging the seasons in warmer zones, where they can remain in bloom throughout the winter. So when to plant violas will depend on your climate.
Starting Violas from Seed Indoors - Violas are easy to start from seed. In fact, they are quite happy to self-seed all over your garden. But if you would like to start your own indoors, the process is very straightforward.
Start seed about 4 - 6 weeks before transplanting. Violas can withstand some freezing temperatures, so cold climate gardeners can pick a transplant date that is about 4 weeks before your last expected frost date. Warm climate gardeners transplanting in the fall should start their seeds in mid-summer.
- Use a sterile potting mix.
- Moisten the mix and fill your flats or pots to about 1/4 inch below the top edge.
- Sprinkle 2-3 seeds in each cell or pot and cover lightly with the more moistened potting mix. Note: Violas need darkness to germinate, so cover the seeds completely.
- Set in a warm (65-70 degrees F/18-21 degrees C) location and keep moist. On top of the refrigerator is a good spot. Seeds should begin to germinate in 10-14 days.
- Once the seeds sprout, move them to a sunny window or place under plant lights.
- When the first true leaves appear, you must thin the pot or cell to the strongest looking seeding by pinching or cutting the others at the soil line.
- At this point, a temperature of 55-60 degrees F/13-15 degrees C is fine. You can also begin feeding your seedlings with any good balanced, water-soluble fertilizer.
Moving Your Viola Seedling Outdoors - When temperatures and weather permit transplanting outdoors, let the seedlings get adjusted to the change by hardening them off.
- Move the seedling to a shaded or protected location outdoors.
- Leave them outdoors for about 4 hours the first day and increase the time outside by 1-2 hours each day, slowly moving them into brighter light. The seedlings will tell you if they are unhappy by their appearance.
- Make sure the soil stays moist. Outdoor winds can dry pots quickly.
- Seedlings can be transplanted into the garden or containers after about 10 - 14 days of hardening. Just be sure the weather isn’t taking a downturn. Violas can withstand some frost, but not a late season snow storm.
Direct-seeding Violas into the Garden - Weather permitting, you can start viola seed directly in the garden.
- Good well-draining soil with organic matter is recommended.
- Loosen the soil in the planting area and moisten.
- Sprinkle the viola seed.
- Cover with about 1/4 soil and water well.
- Keep the seedbed moist.
- As seedlings develop, you must thin the plants to about 6-8 inches apart. Transplant excess seedlings.
Purchasing Bedding Viola Plants - Violas are often the first seedlings for sale in nurseries in spring in colder climates and at the end of the summer in warm areas.
- Look for healthy plants with lots of buds. Don’t be overly tempted by plants already in flower. They won’t transplant as easily, and you’ll have a longer season of bloom if the plants are only in the bud when purchased.
- Remove the viola plants from their cell packs by pushing up on the bottom of the container. Don’t grab the violas by their delicate stems.
- Gently loosen the soil around the roots and plant in the ground at the same level as they were in their cell pack.
Spacing: Mounding violas should be spaced about 6-8 inches apart. Trailing or spreading varieties can be planted 10-12 inches apart.
Days to Bloom: Violas begin blooming about 12-14 weeks after planting seeds. V. tricolor varieties bloom about two weeks earlier than V. cornuta. ‘Penny’ and ‘Sorbet’ will bloom 9-10 weeks from sowing.
Caring for Violas in the Garden
Soil: Violas grow best in rich, moist, well-drained soil with plenty of organic matter. Use a slow-release fertilizer into the soil if planting in a container.
Water: Water regularly, but allow to dry out between waterings.
Sun: Violas like full sun, but not the heat it brings. This isn’t a problem in cool spring temperatures, but when planting in the fall, make sure they get some shade during the hottest part of the afternoon. Mulch and water will help offset the stress of high temperature.
- To promote blooming and extend the flowering period, remove or deadhead faded flowers by pinching off the blooms at the base of the flower stem.
- You can revive leggy or overgrown plants by cutting them back to about 3-4 inches tall.
Insects and Diseases: Violas are easy to grow, with few disease or insect problems.
Suggested Varieties from the National Garden Bureau
- ‘Helen Mount’ is a popular Johnny-jump-up (Viola tricolor). This open-pollinated variety has small, 3/4-inch diameter flowers in purple, lavender, and yellow. It is readily available in seed packets from retail stores and mail order catalogs, as well as bedding plants from nurseries and garden centers. ‘Helen Mount’ easily reseeds, producing plants similar to the parent plants.
- Classic, older varieties of Viola cornuta include:
- ‘Arkwright Ruby’ with dark wine-red flowers and golden centers and edging.
- ‘Chantreyland’ is popular for its large apricot-colored flowers.
- ‘Yellow Perfection,’ ‘White Perfection’ and ‘Blue Perfection’ are named for the clear color of their blooms. These varieties are all open-pollinated.
- Newer open-pollinated varieties of V. cornuta:
- The ‘Princess’ and ‘Velour’ series. These are early blooming with 1-inch blooms. ‘Princess’ opens in shades of blue, purple and yellow and bicolors; and ‘Velour’ is available in 20 colors and 3 mixes.
- Many excellent hybrid violas are available mainly as bedding plants. Hybrid varieties offer exceptional garden performance, good flower production, and uniform growth.
- ‘Sorbet™’ violas come in more than thirty colors including beautiful pastel and two-tone colors on compact plants reaching 6-8 inches tall.
- ‘Penny™’ violas are available in shades of light blue, deep blue, purple, violet, white, yellow, orange and red. Some have whiskers and blotches (faces) others are bicolor. They have a mounding garden habit and flower continuously.
- In 2006, ‘Skippy™ XL Red-Gold,’ a hybrid Viola cornuta, was the first viola to win an All-America Selections award for superior garden performance. The large, 1 1/2-inch flowers are ruby red with violet-red shading below a golden yellow face with the trademark whiskers or markings. The ‘Skippy™’ series has many other colors, including bicolors.
- One of the largest flowered violas is the hybrid ‘Patiola®’ series, combining the flower size of a pansy with the hardiness of violas. Flowers grow to 2 inches in diameter and bloom in yellow, blue, orange and violet. The newest color in the series is brick red with a golden yellow center.
- Trailing violas have a low growing, spreading habit that is perfect for hanging baskets, containers or use as a groundcover. There are several hybrid varieties available.
- ‘Erlyn’ produces tricolor purple and yellow flowers that cover the plant.
- The ‘Splendid’ series has 1-inch flowers in white, yellow, and blue and yellow. Plants spread up to one foot in diameter.
Containers: Viola’s size, compact habit, and long flowering period are perfect for containers. Trailing varieties are exquisite in hanging baskets and tumbling over the edge of containers and window boxes.
Edging: Mounded plants make a lovely edging along a path or to define a garden border.
Natural Settings: Violas are as at home in woodland settings as they are filling crevices in rock walls.
Combinations: Combine with other cool weather lovers like snapdragons, calendula, and Dianthus. Or tuck violas between spring flowering bulbs such as tulips and daffodils to fill the space as the bulbs fade.
Cut Flowers: Violas also look wonderful indoors, in bouquets and arrangements. You’ll notice the scents more when they’re indoors.
Don’t forget that viola flowers are edible and make unexpected garnishes and salad ingredients. Or use them to decorate cakes and jams. They can also be candied, for a frosted effect.