When I interned in Chicago one summer, I was shocked that people were planting their flower beds with pansies…in May! In my home state of North Carolina, we’d already ripped out our pansies to make way for the likes of petunias and other heat lovers. It was a quick lesson in gardening: Different plants have different uses in different regions.

Pansy and Viola

Pansy flowers (left) are three to four times larger than viola blooms (right), but violas produce more flowers.

Photo Credit: Megan Bame

Wheelbarrow

The pansies in this fun container provide colorful blooms that complement several young perennials, including a purple-leaved Heuchera and Euphorbia.

Photo Credit: Megan Bame

Hanging pansy container

Get a better look at your colorful pansies by hanging them from a shepherd’s hook.

Photo Credit: Megan Bame

In many areas of the country – wherever winters are mild – pansies are revered as a hard-working winter annual. It’s the traditional fall replacement for whatever variety of summer annuals you previously enjoyed. Not only will pansies – and their close cousin, violas – flower throughout the season in mildly cold temperatures, these lovelies will even withstand a blanket of snow!

You’re probably a bit more familiar with pansies than violas, though both flowers are members of the genus Viola. Pansies have flowers that are three to four times larger than violas, so they’ve got a bit bigger impact. But violas have a lot going for them, too – they produce three to four times more flowers than pansies. Whichever you choose – or if you choose a combination of both – you’re sure to get a big bang of color in your fall flower beds.

Some pansies have a “face,” or a dark blotch in the center of the flower, while others are “clear,” or a solid color. To differentiate a bit further, some pansies have “whiskers” – dark lines radiating from the center that aren’t as pronounced as a blotch, but the petals aren’t clear either. Though yellow and purple are traditional favorites, folks looking for a more unique selection can now choose from pastels, true blues, and even an orange and black pansy color combination known as Trick-or-Treat Mix.

Experienced gardeners may recognize the series Majestic Giant. But breeders have continued to develop new series with larger flowers and other desirable traits, including Majestic Giant II, Colossus, Crown, Delta, Dynamite and Matrix®. You can find classic colors like yellow, red, rose, purple and mixed hues in each series, but you can also find specialty colors like ‘Sunset,’ ‘Blueberry Thrill’ and ‘Sea Breeze.’ The color combinations are really quite beautiful, which just makes it hard to choose which ones to buy!

Before you put those pansies or violas in the ground, there are a few quirks you should be aware of: For starters, these annuals like a low soil pH. This doesn’t mean you need to do lots of amending – it just means you shouldn’t add lime before planting, because lime raises soil pH. Also, don’t follow a summer planting of vinca (the bedding plant Catharanthus roseus, not the vining type) with pansies. Both plants are susceptible to black root rot (caused by the pathogen Thielaviopsis basicola). If you continually plant these two beauties back to back, the disease can thrive in the soil – and ultimately kill your plants. But don’t fret! You just have to break the cycle to sufficiently suppress the disease.

And finally, don’t put away your watering hose. If you’ve got fall plantings, it still means you’ve got some work to do in the garden. While chores may be minimal through the winter, your pansies still need attention – especially if there’s not adequate rain. Proper watering encourages good root establishment in fall and keeps the plants growing through early spring.

So don’t despair that first frost. While it doesn’t bode well for your summer beauties, it’s just nature’s way of encouraging you to add some cold-tolerant color to your garden. The good news is you won’t have to look far. The hardest part will actually be choosing which colorful blends you want to add to your garden to usher in the new fall season.