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Ask the Master Gardener: Violas, pansies are good cool weather flowers for your garden

Pansies like cool temperatures — high temperatures can cause them to get leggy and pale.

A pot full of pansies.
Pansies are edible as long as they have been grown organically and have a mild flavor.
Contributed / Jennifer Knutson

Dear Master Gardener: What’s the difference between viola and pansy? How cold tolerant are they?

Answer: There are about 500 species of annuals, perennials, and biennials in the Viola genus. All of them come from a complex hybridization of various species. Some different types of Violas include pansy, violet, violetta, and Johnny jump-up. Violas can be faintly scented or unscented. They are cool weather, frost tolerant plants that are ideal for planting with spring flowering bulbs.

Some Violas are perennial and hardy to zones 3 and 4, such as Etain, White Czar, Rebecca, and Northern Lights. They have a clump-forming habit that establishes quickly in the garden producing medium sized, often fragrant, pansy-like flowers in pastel colors with striping and mottling. Plant them in a cool, shady spot in moist, nutrient-rich soil. Perennial Violas are more heat tolerant than most pansies. Shear them back when the foliage and flowers look tired, then let them self-seed in the fall if you want more plants.

A put full of snow-covered pansies.
Pansies are the first annuals that can be planted in the spring, four to six weeks before the last frost date and will even withstand temperatures several degrees below freezing.
Contributed / Jennifer Knutson

Pansies are one of the most popular garden flowers grown today. Victorian gardeners took a great interest in pansies and by the middle of the 19th century their hybridizing efforts had produced over 400 pansy hybrids. The common name “pansy” is derived from the French word pensée, which means thought. In the language of flowers pansy means “think of me.” These plants have rounded flowers, often with patterned “faces” and are popular as bedding and container plants. They are actually perennials with biennial tendencies that are usually treated as annuals. Pansies are the first annuals that can be planted in the spring, four to six weeks before the last frost date and will even withstand temperatures several degrees below freezing. They like cool temperatures — high temperatures can cause them to get leggy and pale. They are edible, as long as they have been grown organically, and have a mild flavor. If you are starting pansies from seed, start them now.

A smaller relative of the pansy is Johnny jump-up. They are sometimes known as wild pansy or heart’s ease. They produce more flowers per plant than the pansy and are more heat tolerant. Johnny jump-ups self-sow readily. The blossoms are edible with a mild wintergreen flavor. They make tasty garnishes and decorations.

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Dear Master Gardener: I thought it might be fun to grow popcorn with my children next summer. How do we do it?

Answer: Homegrown popcorn is a treat and fun challenge for gardeners. It is a type of corn with kernels that burst when heated. Sow popcorn seed directly in your garden in spring when all danger of frost has passed and the soil is warm. Seeds are more likely to get infected by diseases in cooler soil, so most gardeners plant fungicide-treated seed. Even treated seed can fail to germinate under poor growing conditions. If you are using untreated seed, make sure that your garden soil has warmed up to 60 degrees. You can also cover the soil with plastic to speed soil warming. When growing popcorn, you must isolate it from other types of corn. Plant it in full sun and rich, well-drained soil. Sow seeds 1 inch deep in heavier soil and up to 2 inches deep in sandy soil, spaced 8-10 inches apart. Plant at least four rows with 18-24 inches between rows. Keep popcorn in the garden as long as possible to allow the kernels to dry on the stalks. Most varieties take 90-120 days to reach full maturity. At least once a week pop a sample of kernels to determine if your crop is ready to harvest. When most of them pop up crisp and fluffy you are ready to store the popcorn in airtight containers.

Dear Master Gardener: I’m getting antsy to start some vegetables. I know that most vegetables do best when their seeds are planted directly into the garden, but aren’t there some that can be started earlier under lights? What is the process for doing so?

Answer: You are correct that most vegetables should be planted directly into the garden, but some can, and perhaps should, be started earlier because they need longer to mature or do best in cool spring soils. Among those vegetables most amenable to starting indoors are broccoli, cauliflower, early cabbage, peppers and tomatoes. All should be planted in mid-March except tomatoes, which should be planted in early April. To begin, assemble your equipment: planting trays, seeds, sterile potting soil, adjustable shop lights, and a light timer. Moisten but do not saturate enough of your potting soil to fill the cells of the planting trays. With your finger or a pencil end, make a small depression in each cell. Place two-three seeds in each depression and cover with about 1/4 inch of dry soil. When the tray is full, mist the surface and cover the tray with the rigid plastic dome that came with the tray or cover the top surface tightly with plastic wrap. Lower the shop light to about 3 inches above the trays and set the timer to provide 14-16 hours of light each day. Check the trays every day to keep them just barely moist. The seeds will germinate in one to two weeks, at which time the plastic should be removed. Not all seeds will germinate, and those that do may do so at differing rates. As they get taller, snip off the weakest seedlings until each cell contains only one plant. Raise the lights as the seedlings grow, keeping them consistently 3 inches above the tops of the plants. The trickiest part thereafter is watering enough but not too much. Damping off, in which a seedling will keel over, its thin stem collapsed and blackened, results from too much moisture. When seedlings have two or three sets of leaves, it’s time to transplant them into pots with potting mix. Unlike the seed starting mix, potting soil has the necessary nutrients to promote growth. When the last frost date arrives, begin the process called hardening off, the transition from the warm, protected conditions indoors to harsher, more challenging conditions outdoors. Place the tray(s) outside in a spot sheltered from the sun and critters during the day. Over about a week, gradually increase the time in the sun until full days are spent there. Then the seedlings can be transplanted into the ground, and before you know it, you will be eating fresh, tasty vegetables.

You may get your garden questions answered by calling the new Master Gardener Help Line at 218-824-1068 and leaving a message. A Master Gardener will return your call. Or, emailing me at umnmastergardener@gmail.com and I will answer you in the column if space allows.

University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners are trained and certified volunteers for the University of Minnesota Extension. Information given in this column is based on university research.

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