In the Victorian era, pansies were adored for their exquisitely marked faces and their symbolism: The word "pansy" comes from the French word for thought, pensee, so if you received a posy of pansies, you could be sure someone was thinking of you. Also nicknamed heart's ease, tickle-my-fancy, and love-in-idleness, the blooms inspired Victorian gardeners, writers, and, of course, lovers with their sweet scent and beauty.
Like its predecessors, the modern pansy, Viola x wittrockiana, is a popular garden plant and one of Martha's favorites. Its expressive blooms add color, whimsy, and grace to beds and borders -- even during the cool months of fall.
Although many pansies are technically perennial or biennial, they are usually grown as annuals. The seeds can be sown indoors, but Martha prefers using flats of young plants, which are inexpensive, readily available, and offer immediately satisfying profusions of blooms. For the earliest spring flowers, plant pansies in fall in beds with well-drained, rich soil and steady sun. In the garden, they make a lovely complement to spring bulbs, forming a blanket of color underneath tulips or daffodils.
You can also grow pansies in containers such as window boxes or pots: Cover drainage holes with pot shards, fill with a soilless potting mix, and place in a sunny spot. (In Zone 6 and colder, pansies aren't reliably winter hardy in small containers, so plant once in fall and again in spring.) To care for pansies, water them when dry, and feed occasionally with an all-purpose fertilizer, following label directions. Encourage new, healthy blooms by picking flowers and deadheading regularly.
Many of the Victorian varieties have disappeared, but there are still many types of pansies available. Most reach a modest height, under eight inches, with flat, velvety, five-petal blossoms spanning two to three inches in colors like purple, red, yellow, blue, pink, orange, and white. For her garden, Martha selects cultivars including 'Penny Blue,' which has a smaller flower than most other types; 'Imperial Lavender,' a variety that produces large, five-petaled blooms; and 'Sorbet Purple Duet,' a long-bloomer thanks to its tolerance of both cold and heat.