Helen Chesnut's Garden Notes: Small but mighty violas withstand winter well

Dear Helen: You often write about pansies and violas. Do you prefer one over the other?


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Both belong to the genus Viola, of which there are hundreds of species, but for home gardening purposes, “viola” flowers are smaller versions of pansies and are usually borne on slightly more compact plants. “Pansies” in general have large, more flamboyant flowers. Though smaller, viola flowers often have exquisitely marked “faces” like pieces of miniature artwork.

I fill four bowl-shaped planters with pansies and violas every autumn and again early every spring. Over the years I’ve noticed that most violas remain tidier and more-bloom-filled than the pansies in winter. Generally speaking, they are tougher plants. So for winter, violas may be preferred, though I can never resist planting pansies as well in autumn, because of their beauty.

Pansies and violas are available as transplants in late winter and early spring, and again early in the autumn for flowers through the fall, in mild winter weather, and through the spring. Young plants set into containers in early autumn give an amazingly long season of bloom.

For growing your own transplants, seed indoors in late winter for spring transplanting, and again around mid-July for early autumn transplanting.

Dear Helen: You have mentioned scrubbing out greenhouses in late winter. What do you prefer as a cleaning solution? Vinegar and water? Bleach? A mild soap solution?


I use a mild, biodegradable dish liquid in hot water to brush and wipe walls, benches and trays. For extra sanitation, a follow-up wipe-down using diluted cleaning vinegar could be helpful.

Dear Helen: I’m puzzled by what seems to be a commonly held enthusiasm for kale. I find the big leaves harsh in taste and tough in texture. I’m told they are lovely once they are “massaged.” Really? Is there a way of enjoying kale without having to soften it manually?


Large kale leaves lose their toughness when de-stemmed, cut into fine slices, and tossed with olive oil and lemon juice (or vinegar). Massaging the leaves lightly with oil and lemon or vinegar is another way to tenderize them.

Home-grown kale offers other choices. No garden? Kale can be grown in containers. When I harvest kale, I look for clusters of young growth along the stems, which the plants produce through the fall, winter, and much of the spring, except in the coldest weather.

Just before the recent freezing weather I gathered a big bowlful of the new leaf clusters for a kale-carrot salad. As the weather began warming again, more fresh shoots began to appear. These tufts of new leaves, including their stems, are tender and delicious.

Dear Helen: Have you heard of using fabric softener sheets to keep rats out of garden sheds and greenhouses? A friend told me that putting the sheets in her shed stopped rats from coming in. Since then, I’ve heard this has worked for others.


I’d not heard about using the sheets to deter rats, but I’m aware that people in blackfly territory attach dryer sheets to the backs of their hats to keep from being plagued by the flies. I’m guessing that instinct warns animals and insects away from certain chemicals and fragrances.

Dear Helen: The begonia tubers I bought still have not produced little pink nubs that indicate they are ready to begin growing. What to do?


Nestle them into a lightly dampened, shallow layer of vermiculite or a potting mix for indoor plants, set them in a warm place, and spray-mist the tuber tops occasionally. Pink nubs should soon appear. Then pot the tubers.

Hellebore Sunday. The Horticulture Centre of the Pacific, 505 Quayle Rd. in Saanich, is hosting Hellebore Sunday on March 7, 12 to 3 p.m. A selection of hellebores and their companion plants will be for sale. Access to the gardens is free. Proceeds go into the maintenance and development of the gardens. Standard COVID protocols will be in place.

Peninsula meeting. The Peninsula Garden Club is resuming its Speaker Series using Zoom on the second Monday of most months. The March 8 speaker, Don Hare, will be discussing “Invasive Plants and Weeds” at 7 p.m. New members are welcome. Membership is required to acquire a Zoom link for the speakers’ presentations. Check out the club’s list of speakers and how to acquire membership at peninsulagardenclub.ca.


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