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Originally published Wednesday, January 4, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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This Week in Your Garden

Primroses and pansies: winter pick-me-ups

Time for the ghost of Christmas past already? Holiday celebrations of all kinds quickly devolve into puddles of spilled candle wax and trees...

Time for the ghost of Christmas past already? Holiday celebrations of all kinds quickly devolve into puddles of spilled candle wax and trees dropping needles.

Fear not, your local nursery, garden center and even grocery store will bloom starting now with brilliant primroses and pansies to change the household mood.

Winter pansies suit outdoor sheltered plantings, and will gradually form more buds as the weather warms.

Shorter and tinier flowers, often called violas, have miniature charm and grow as happily as their larger cousins. Soft yellows, deep purples and gentle oranges light the individual flowers. Pansies carry one flower at a time on a stem, and give subdued color effects.

Color-starved residents in the dark side of Washington, where January stays gray, can especially enjoy the golds, yellows, reds and shimmering blues of winter primroses, which shout much more loudly than the pansies. Plants with true primary colors are rare: grouped on a nursery cart, these bright shades buoy the flagging spirits.

Winter primroses (Primula x polyantha hybrids) lend themselves to temporary home displays. Rather squat in shape, they hold flowers just above deep green leaves, resembling a handheld bouquet. They look better tucked together in a basket, topped off with moss, than they do as singletons.

A shallow bowl — as deep as their pot rims — will also house them happily for several weeks of their bloom. If you gather several, you'll also notice their fresh fragrance, a light, noncloying scent.

You can also slide primroses from their plastic pots and plant them — temporarily — in mugs or coffee cups, for cheerful desk displays.

Indoors, keep them in as much bright light as possible, avoiding hot locations. They like spring-cool temperatures. The more light they have, the longer they will last, though part of their charm is their inexpensive and "here today, gone next week" quality.

Keep them moist; ample water suits all plants in the primrose family. If the container you've selected does not have a drain hole, water very carefully, being sure that roots aren't soppy. (But if you will keep the plant only briefly, you can get away with this. Pots without drainage are generally in the gardening no-no department.)

When selecting, look for those with many folded buds tucked down in their leaves, and solid green leaf color. They should be crisp and fresh in both leaves and flowers.

Determined gardeners can also plant them for front-porch or patio displays; they enjoy mild winter temperatures, in the 40s, and should be moved into shelter when deep freezes blow in.

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Acclimate them to outdoor temperatures slowly, leaving them indoors at night for about a week, and outdoors during the day. Remember, they've been nurtured in climate-controlled greenhouses for their bright early blooms to form, and they aren't adapted to immediate outdoor freezes.

If you do plant them in a container, perhaps even on top of a pot full of bulbs for later spring bloom, they will thrive with high humidity and ample water.

Like all primroses, the winter-bloomers are true garden perennials, and can be planted in shady, moist garden spots after their bloom finishes. Their biggest enemy is our state mollusk, the slug. Slugs munch them happily, choosing primroses over many other plants.

You may wish to use slug bait, choosing the least-toxic type with iron phosphate as the active ingredient (Sluggo or Worry Free).

If you become intrigued by primroses (an easy obsession to acquire), be aware that the ordinary winter type are the commonfolk of their tribe. The American Primrose Society (www.americanprimrosesoc.org) can introduce you to the aristocrats and sophisticates of the primrose world.

Doubles, gold-laced, drumstick shapes, tall and short, primroses have been beloved in gardens for hundreds of years. They bloom in early spring.

Whether perennial or just passing through, primroses are the signature plants of January and February here.

Garden expert Mary Robson is a retired area horticulture agent for Washington State University/King County Cooperative Extension.

Her e-mail is marysophia@olympus.net.

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