Growing Viola Flowers for a Vibrant Garden

Updated March 8, 2022
Field of Horned Violet, Horned Pansy, Viola Cornuta

Viola flowers are some of the most distinctive flowers, and one of the first to bloom in spring, thanks to how resistant they are to cold weather. Violas are known for their bold colors, cheerful-looking blooms, and for being such a welcome sight in garden centers and nurseries in late winter and early spring. As a bonus: they're easy to grow, and if you live in an area that has cool springs and autumns, you can get two seasons of bloom from your plants.

Viola Flowers at a Glance

When most people think of viola flowers, they think of the vibrant purple, yellow, white, or orange flowers that start showing up in garden centers in early spring. And while they're available in those colors, you can find violas in nearly every color, including black, maroon, and even soft pastel tones. While some have solid-colored petals, many of them have a contrasting spot of color either near the base or at the edges of each petal.

Violas grow to about six inches tall and nine to 12 inches wide, depending on the variety. They're perfect for containers, hanging baskets, window boxes, or for the edges of garden beds. They can even withstand a touch of frost and keep right on blooming, making them a perfect choice for early spring or late fall when the weather can be unpredictable.

Violas are annuals or short-lived perennials, hardy in Zones 3 through 8.

What's the Difference Between Violas and Pansies?

The short version: all pansies are violas since they were derived from violas, but not all violas are pansies.

Viola versus pansy infographic

The pansy is actually bred from the viola and will always have the botanical name Viola x wittrockiana and then a variety name. Of course, there are also physical differences between pansies and violas.

  • Pansies have larger flowers than violas do.
  • Violas produce smaller flowers, but more of them.
  • Viola plants tend to have a low, mounding shape, growing to about three to six inches tall.
  • Pansy plants are larger, growing up to a foot tall and often trailing a bit, making them good for hanging baskets or the edges of containers.
  • Violas handle frost better than pansies do.

In addition, the two plants appreciate slightly different conditions. Violas grow best in partial shade, while pansies thrive in full sun.

How and When to Plant Viola Flowers

There are two common ways to plant violas: via transplants and from seed. Transplants can be found in just about any nursery or garden center, usually right around when it's time to plant them in your area. This is an easy way to get your hands on some viola plants, and there are usually several colors of both pansies and violas available.

However, if you want a less-common variety, or just enjoy starting from seed, violas are easy to start from seed as well.

  1. Sow seed eight to 12 weeks before your last spring frost date for colder regions, and in midsummer for fall planting in warmer areas.
  2. Using cell packs, plant trays, small pots, or soil blocks, sow the seeds 1/8 to 1/4 inch deep and cover lightly with soil. Keep them watered.
  3. Viola seeds germinate in 10 to 14 days.
  4. Violas can be planted outside after your last spring frost date. Just be sure to harden them off first to acclimate them to outdoor conditions.

Plant violas six to eight inches apart in the garden as a general rule, but to be sure, it's best to follow the instructions on your seed packet or the plant label. They do best in rich, moist, well-drained soil in a spot with full sun to partial shade.

How to Grow Violas

Violas are fairly easy to grow. They need an inch of water per week and grow best when they're fertilized monthly with a balanced fertilizer (if planted in the ground), or weekly with a weak fertilizer solution if grown in pots or containers.

Pruning Violas

As the temperatures heat up in summer, your violas might start looking a little worn and leggy. This is a good time to shear them back. You can cut about half of the growth off. This will make the plants more able to withstand the heat, but also will encourage new growth for more blooms in the fall when the weather cools down again.

It's also a good idea to deadhead violas, regularly removing spent blooms to encourage even more flowers.

Pests and Diseases

There are a few pests you'll have to look out for when growing violas. Aphids, slugs, and flea beetles can sometimes be a problem, though they're not likely to kill your plants.

  • Aphids can be removed with a blast of water from the hose.
  • Slugs can be trapped by placing a piece of wood nearby and looking under it during the day, removing any slugs you find.
  • Flea beetles can be trapped with sticky traps.

Leaf spot can also be an issue, especially during cool, damp weather. If you start noticing leaves with brownish-gray spots on them, prune them off and destroy them. Keep an eye on it to make sure the plant fungus isn't spreading.

Types of Viola Plants

There are four general types of viola plants, each with varieties and cultivars of its own. Some are commonly grown in gardens, while others are more often seen in the wild.

Viola Tricolor

viola tricolor

Viola tricolor is your standard viola, also known as a johnny jump-up. They're compact, bushy little plants with flowers that are about an inch across and available in a wide range of colors. This is the best option for gardeners who might deal with late-season frosts in spring since it withstands cold weather better than any other type of viola.

Viola x Wittrockiana

Garden pansy, yellow, violet and red, close up

This type of viola is a hybrid better known as pansies. They're larger than violas, but don't produce as many blooms, and are less hardy in terms of frost. The plants are larger than those of viola tricolor as well. These flowers usually have little lines on the petals, giving them a little added interest.

Viola Cornuta

group of perennial yellow-violet Viola cornuta, known as horned pansy or horned violet

Viola cornuta is commonly known as the horned violet. The blooms are very similar to those of pansies, and it's somewhat hard to tell the two apart, except that in viola cornuta, a small spur or "horn" hangs down at the back of the flower, along the stem. The blooms are larger than those of viola tricolor, and the plants themselves grow to about six to 10 inches tall.

Viola Sororia

Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia)

Viola sororia is better known as the wild violet or wild blue violet. These are the little purple flowers that pop up in lawns and gardens. While many homeowners consider them a weed, they actually make an attractive, low-maintenance groundcover.

What to Plant With Violas

Violas are wonderful grown en masse in a drift in the garden or spilling out of containers or window boxes. However, they also look gorgeous when planted with other spring-blooming plants, such as:

  • Bleeding hearts
  • Columbines
  • Daffodils
  • Hyacinth
  • Tulips

Cheery Violas for Your Garden and Beyond

Violas truly are perfect cool-weather flowers, great for any area of your garden that needs a little pop of color. Plus, the blossoms are edible, wonderful in teas, as garnishes for salads or desserts, or even candied. And, if you're the crafty type, you can press the flowers to use in craft projects so you have a bit of that cheerful color all year long.

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