The ”gratuitous” in this title means “free” rather than “unnecessary,” since I consider pansies and violets totally necessary! Actually, yours won’t really be free if you pay for the seed. But they often do self-sow to appear again, gratis, in subsequent springs. And few flowers exhibit as much charm under trying conditions as do these chilly weather beauties which can bloom in either sun or partial shade.
It’s a good idea to sow pansies (Viola x wittrockiana) indoors 10 weeks before your last frost date. They prefer cool weather and can be set out at least a month before that last frost date, provided that you’ve “hardened them off” a bit first. Because they may begin to bloom at 80 days after germination, you'll probably want to transplant them into the garden when they are 2 months old.
If you’ve had difficulty starting pansies in the past, the problem could have been old seeds. This year, use ones that either you or a seed company gathered in 2020, which thus are “packed for 2021.” In other words, they shouldn’t be more than a year old.
I use needle-nosed pliers to space seeds such as these, which are small but not too small to handle. After sowing them about 1/16-inch deep in damp and sterile seed-starting mix, cover their container with aluminum foil, as they like to “be kept in the dark”—for a short while anyway!
Then place the container in a cool location with temperatures in the 60s Fahrenheit. Begin checking for germination about Day 5,and remove the foil if the seeds have begun to sprout. They usually will do so within 5 to 9 days, after which their container should be placed on a sunny windowsill or under a grow light, preferably still in cool conditions.
Violet germination can be considerably more tricky. Although the plants self-sow prodigiously, so much so as to make the wild ones invasive, the seeds of some species don’t tolerate dry storage well. I’ve been reading up on them, because many of our sweet violets (Viola odorata) have died out.
Since they aren’t native here and often listed as hardy to only zone 6, I suspect I originally traded for some and the birds planted seeds from those in the yard. But they did survive and bloom quite happily for several years, perhaps eventually succumbing to overly soggy weather.
Our fragrance-free invasive wild ones, probably Viola sororia from which my speckled violet ‘Freckles’ also derives, remain unfazed by weather extremes and actually are more showy than the sweet violets. But they do lack that extraordinary scent. . .
Norman Deno of Seed Germination Theory and Practice fame discovered that many violet seeds perform best if treated with GA-3 (gibberellic acid). The Viola odorata seeds he started that way germinated in 2 to 5 weeks at 70 degrees Fahrenheit, while the ones which received no acid didn’t sprout at all.
Depending on the species other violets may require the 70-40 method (3 months of 70-degree temperatures followed by 3 months of 40-degree ones) or the winter sowing method which provides naturally fluctuating outdoor temperatures. And then there are some which germinate as easily as pansies do. For more information on which violets need which treatment, check out Deno’s now public domain book.
Even though sweet violets don’t seem to be among the easy ones, I still am determined to get mine back. Wordsworth was right in that the flowers and people we miss the most may well be the most shy and unobtrusive ones—“violets by a mossy stone.”
Photos: The photos included in the article are my own.