Pansies are neglected by those city gardeners who need them most, and the trouble is that nobody thinks of these marvelous little flowers until April, when it is too late to get the most out of them.
Young plants should be set out in October. Oct. 1 is a bit early to do this, but Oct. 15 is all right, especially this year, when many of the small plants commonly sold are late in reaching salable size because of August heat.
You get them in boxes or flats and notice they only have about four leaves and you wonder if anything will ever come of them by spring.
And you are right to wonder, because in some years the winters up here are sufficiently terrible that these tiny plants do not pull through. One year I lost two-thirds of mine in a spell of repeated freezing rains and thaws.
On the other hand, the tiny plants are far too small to be heavily mulched against winter terrors.
One solution is to cover each small plant, after Christmas or whenever the winter really rages in, with an inverted small flower pot. The hole allows enough air to enter, and while no sun to speak of gets through, the pots are only there a few weeks.
There is no thought of protecting the little plants from the cold, but merely from the mechanical disaster of beating ice and repeated rains freezing on the already damaged leaves.
Nobody ever liked pansies and violas better than William Robinson, the great late-Victorian gardener, and it is from him that this sensible means of protecting them comes.
It sounds, maybe, like a lot of trouble, but when you get down to it, it does not take very long to rummage through the garage or potting shed or basement to find small clay pots that have been sitting there for years unused. And of course it is a matter of a second to set a pot over the young pansy.
One thing I have noticed: the small plants meet the winter better than the large ones. Another thing, you must have courage to separate the young plants, not planting them in glops of several together. The roots will seem terribly flimsy. That is the way they should be. Plant neither shallower nor deeper than they were growing in the flat. Firm the soil against the roots with your hand; the usual error is to plant them entirely too loosely. You don't want to dance up and down on the earth with both feet, but you do want to use firm pressure with your hands, and after planting them be sure to give each plant a cup or so of water.
Treated thus, the pansies are in full bloom by mid-April. Planted out in the spring, they are only getting going by mid-May. And that month that is lost by late planting is the very month in which color from pansies is most appreciated. It is always worth asking the grower which sorts are highly perfumed. Some are intensely scented (like 'Azure Blue' and 'Pay Dirt') while others have little fragrance.
Nothing is better for cutting than pansies. Early in the season--in late winter--flowers will be few, but all the more welcome, and a saucer of them floating face up (not even the dumbest gardener would display them face down, probably) will brighten a desk.
Later the stems will lengthen. At first they are good for wine glasses, the rim supporting the necks of the blooms, and still later the pansies can be picked with stems six or eight inches long.
This time of year people often get clumps of chrysanthemums in bloom, using them as temporary ornaments at the entrance to a house, etc. The question arises what to do with them when the flowers fade, since it seems a shame to throw them out.
One perfectly feasible way to keep them until spring is simply to take them out of their pots or cans, with all the dirt still on the roots, and set them on top of the ground by a shady garage wall, and strew a few pine or cedar or honeysuckle branches over them. Or a few oak leaves.
In spring a great many shoots spring at the base of the old stems, which have of course all died down during winter. When these tender new shoots are an inch and a half or two inches long, pinch them off and root them in sand, and when they start to grow (new leaves sprouting is an infallible sign) simply set them in the garden where you want them to bloom in October.
Sometimes I have pinched the little shoots off in the very early spring and simply rooted them where I want the mature plant to be, thus saving the operation of an extra shifting about.
At first, no gardener will believe that chrysanthemums grown from these tiny shoots rooted in the spring will amount to anything by fall, but they will. The results will be better than from planting a whole old clump with a couple dozen shoots.
As for wintering the ones you got in a pot in October, it commonly works better to set the ball of dirt on top of the earth for the winter, rather than planting it.
I suppose it is because the capital is so full of Yankees that there is a general resistance to planting things in the fall, with the winter still to come. In general, however, deciduous shrubs go in in November, December, late February or March. The trouble with waiting until March is that there may be far worse weather then than in early December, and the soil may be wet and sticky.
Most broadleaf evergreens should be planted in April AND given considerable attention during their first summer, in the way of watering or mulching. I have planted hollies in early January without trouble, but that is asking for disaster and I really should have planted them in early October or else waited till spring.
Roses are usually planted here in early spring, simply because that is when most nurseries have them for sale, but if they are available in late November or December, that is to my mind the better season.
Clematis also are hard to find until spring, but the six weeks before Christmas is the ideal time to plant them if dormant plants can be had.
The trouble all gardeners have is a shortage of time. Besides that, it does little good on a nice weekend in December to think one should plant such-and-such. It takes thought in advance, to get a catalogue and order the plant for delivery. After a few years, it becomes easier to think ahead, though it never becomes easier to find time.