For The Answer
Week of November 17, 2003
Submitted by Calvin Finch, Ph.D., Conservation Director, San Antonio Water System, and HorticulturistPANSIES, PRIMULA, AND SWEET PEAS
There are three wonderful flowers to grow in San Antonio in the winter. One is very easy to grow, one a little more demanding, and one is very unpredictable. Pansies, primula, and sweet peas are the flowers to consider.
Pansies are the best flower for winter gardens in South Texas. If you have four hours or more sun reaching the flowerbed, they will perform admirably. There are two main types of pansies: clear-faced and monkey-faced. The monkey-faced varieties have a dark blotch in the middle of the face. Pansies are available in blue, yellow, brown, white, maroon, and orange.
A raised bed is the best place to grow pansies, but native soil works if you enrich it with two inches of compost incorporated to six inches deep. Add one cup of slow-release lawn fertilizer spread over 50 square feet of bed. It does not have to be incorporated into the soil. Plant pansies about one foot apart in the garden. They will have to be watered every day for five days and ever other day for a week. After that, water twice per week or whenever the soil dries to one inch deep. Two inches of mulch helps conserve water and improves pansy performance.
Deer love pansies so don’t plant them where the pests can reach them. One day, four or five winters back, I had deer eat pansy transplants in the tray while I ate lunch. Slugs, snails, and pill bugs also eat pansies. To control them, apply slug and snail bait every two weeks. Your pansies will bloom all winter long, and often last until the end of April.
Sweet peas are planted by seed. Some winters in San Antonio we have to plant and replant them several times November through February in order to establish a stand. The problem with sweet peas is that they not only do not like hot weather, they cannot tolerate freezing temperatures. They prosper in cool weather without extremes in either direction. If you wonder why anyone would bother, there are at least two reasons: the beauty and the fragrance of the blooms. Sweet peas produce a color range from the most delicate pastels through the most intense primary colors. Pink, red, yellow, white, and blue are the most common colors. The fragrance is distinctive and sweet. You can enjoy the fragrance by being near the sweet pea bed or if you use the blooms as cut flowers. Sweet peas are long-lived cut flowers.
There are some bush sweet peas but the most impressive varieties are vines. The vines require a trellis. I use tomato cages but if you make a tepee lean-to or upright structures, the bloom display is even more impressive. Plant the seeds right now at the base of your tomato cages. When the weather cools enough that the tomatoes quit producing, the sweet peas will grow over the cages.
It is very important that the sweet peas be mulched, the roots are shallow and do not tolerate drying. Two inches of leaves or coarse compost work well as mulch for sweet peas.
Primula are also called primrose. They are blooming plants for deep shade. Like pansies and sweet peas, primula requires cool weather to prosper. They have a growth habit that resembles pansies. The color of the blooms are more intense than pansies. There is nothing subtle about their color; they make me think of the colors that clowns use to paint their faces at the circus. The leaves are crinkled and lay close to the ground. Slugs and snails like primula even better than pansies so do not plant them unless you are willing to apply snail bait immediately. Beer traps also work to protect the plants.
Use pansies for a low-growing blooming plant in full sun this winter. They are very cold tolerant and easy to grow in San Antonio. Use primula in deep shade for a pansy-like bloom. If you are up for a challenge, seed sweet peas to grow on your tomato cage or other trellis.