One of my first jobs as a garden writer was covering the pansy trials (a sort of global trade show for the bedding business) in Holland. I would traipse from one vast Dutch greenhouse to another, looking at row upon row of pansies and violas (and the occasional panola – a pansy-viola hybrid), scrutinising lines of blues, pinks, bicolour, splashes, splodges and every combination you could imagine. I met buyers and growers from around the world, each chasing their idea of pansy perfection.
There was a trend for pansy flowers the size of your hand, but they would crumple in the first rain and their colours would bleed or bleach in too much sun. Thankfully, since then the viola has triumphed as the true queen of autumn and winter bedding, being more dainty and yet surprisingly hardy.
Violas work well as underplanting for tulips, small-flowered daffodils and in more sheltered spots with Anemone coronaria cultivars, but are equally as good on their own. They are perfect for window boxes, hanging baskets and containers. A doorstep terracotta pot or windowsill edged with their cheery faces is certainly one small way to get through the dark months. You can also use them to edge and soften beds and paths. The flowers of organically grown plants are edible and look good in salads or decorating cakes and biscuits.
There are hundreds of strains, bred for every colour conceivable. My money would go on the Sorbet series . These have been bred for colder months and if you keep on top of deadheading, they will flower into late autumn and return again at the beginning of the following year. The series is highly comprehensive: you can have a bright orange flower, the palest hues of blue, romantic antique apricots and pinks, or something more dramatic at the dark end of the spectrum, such as ‘Sorbet Black Delight’ with its twinkling blue eye. For something a little more delicate, try Viola cornuta hybrids. Sarah Raven sells ‘Red Blotch F1’ and ‘Phantom’ autumn plants, both of which are velvety rich in crimson and midnight blue. The latter is highly scented and has long enough stems that you can pick them for a tiny posy.
To get the most out of your violas, give them full sun and a good root run. A container 30cm deep will give the plants the best start. Use good-quality, peat-free compost in pots, and add grit to heavy soils if growing in the ground. These may be tiny plants, but they are hungry, so keep on top of feeding for a continuous display. Either incorporate a slow-release organic feed or use a general all-purpose feed every two to three weeks while they flower (ease off in December).