My personal March madness has nothing to do with basketball. For gardeners, March can be a month spent excitedly perching on the brink of a whole new gardening season. And every walk through a nursery is an exercise in self control, lest we succumb to the insanity (yes, admit it, insanity) of buying everything on the rack. Two of the players in the contest for control of our spring gardens are the pansy and the primrose.

Pansies are my "home team"

I'll confess, I've spent many years rooting for pansies. The patterned faces that most varieties display seem to cheer back at me. Pansies(Viola x wittrockiana)are widely sold as spring annuals and the color choice spans the rainbow. Whether you prefer bold and bright colors or soft pastel tones, you can have pansies in white, yellow, pink and red, wine and purple, blue and black. The flowers can be flat or ruffley, old fashioned two inchers or new, giant five inch knockouts. Pansy posies are unique in that most have contrasting blotches or whiskers in the center which gives the bloom a kind of face. Judging from the number of pictures in Dave's Garden's own PlantFiles, pansy faces are especially fun to view and photograph. Click the highlighted Latin name above to see the many PlantFiles entries for these Violas.

dark pansy faces Left, some expressive, dark pansy faces, and on the right a beautiful pastel lavender selection
lavender pansy

Spring pansies will grow nicely in a sunny or only partly shaded spot with even moisture. A fertile bed with good organic content will encourage the best growth and bloom, but they've prospered for me in less than ideal soil. Space the plants about eight inches apart, or install them more closely to encourage an effect of a solid mass. Soon the small mounded greens will be accented with fluttering new blooms almost every day. Gardeners in more Northern areas, or Southerners who know how to find their cooler microclimates, can have pansies in bloom for the entire warm growing season. Theoretically a perennial, sweltering Southern summers spell doom to the heat-sensitive pansy. In hotter areas, you'll probably be pulling spent pansies by the fourth of July.

Primroses; the opposition?

I've bought exactly one primrose in my lifetime. I was looking for a small gift flower last March, and a yellow primrose in foil seemed just right. But pansies have always been my spring bedding flower of choice. Pansies were so charming and easy care, and primroses tidy rosettes looked so...well, prim. I simply preferred the looser look of the pansies. I am maturing though,(at least the calendar thinks I am) and I'm trending toward a tidier look in the garden. I'm ready to give primroses aprimroses; photo by Jill M. Nicolaus fighting chance if I have a place that suits them.

Photo at right is of primroses planted in a four inch space between concrete steps and brick walk. Photo by Jill M. Nicolaus. Please click the photo to view the full size original.

The common primrose sold in spring is the polyanthus primrose (Primula x polyanthus) Their bright flowers come in many saturated hues, and white, often with a yellow 'eye'. Small round polyanthus blooms are held in tight clusters atop a circular, crinkled leaf base. Primroses are said to prefer a shaded spot with moist, rich, organic soil. Hardy from the cooler zones through maybe zone 8*, they should be perennial given these conditions. Primroses bloom from the centers of individual rosettes. They lend themselves to a look of neatly spaced plants more so than pansies penchant for forming loose masses. Where happily perennial, these primroses can be divided in later years and replanted. Add compost or otherwise enrich the soil when dividing primroses.

Now that I seriously consider primroses, I think I have a spot for them. There's an area on the north side of my house that is shaded by the structure's shadow for most of the day. This spot also has the benefit of the yard's natural drainage to help it stay damp. Those factors just might yield the moist, effectively zone 6 bed primroses will favor. If they seem to dry up in midsummer, I'll take a watchful waiting approach, as they may simply have become dormant to withstand the drought.

Demure primroses or blowsy pansies? It's a split decision.

polyanthus primrose by Weezingreens (PlantFiles)white primroses, photo by Weezingreens Pansies and primroses may have some similarities, but their differences could help you decide which to choose. Provide a rich, moist spot to both for best results. Consider your heat zone and microclimates. Opt for the restrained primrose in cooler, shadier spots. Choose breezy pansies for sunny beds and a wider range of colors and patterns.
a bed of mixed pansies in a Maryland gardenpansy bed

Or just do as many Dave's gardeners do- take some of each and hope you can make them all happy!

* References I consulted varied on cold hardiness , listing zone 3 through zone 5, or discussed primroses as an annual.

Dave's Garden Articles for further reading

Growing Pansies: Care-free Cool-weather Color by Melody Rose

Primroses: Diversity is Their Key to Popularity - Part 1: Primrose Culture and Use by Todd Boland

Primroses: Diversity is Their Key to Popularity - Part 2 : Primrose Selections by Todd Boland

Big uses for garden microclimates by Summer Walla

References and credits

Ambler, Wayne, et al. Treasury of Gardening, Lincolnwood, Publications International, Ltd., 1998

Bradley, Fern Marshall and Barbara W. Ellis, eds. Rodale's All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening. Emmaus, Rodale Pres, 1997.

Flew, Janine, editor. Encyclopedia of Annuals and Perennials, San Francisco, Fog City Press, 2002.

All photos were taken by and are property of the author

(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on March 29, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)