Answer: Winter is just a tough time for flower gardeners in cold areas. Unfortunately, the choices are sort of limited, especially if you have snow on the ground.
To be most certain of good germination with the violas, I would suggest planting the seeds under more controlled conditions. In addition, violas and pansies hate hot weather and will grow better in a cooler spot while the weather is hot. Then in the fall, plant them in their permanent postion in a warm sheltered sunny spot to keep them blooming as long as possible into the colder months. They will survive the winter under the snow and may bloom sporadically during warm spells; in any case they will bloom heavily early next spring and as long as the weather stays cool. In some parts of the country such as parts of Texas, pansies are used as winter bedding plants because they do bloom all winter long under their mild weather conditions.
There are very few herbaceous or bulb plants that will bloom outdoors during those months; for bulbs, the little Iris reticulata blooms first in March at my house, followed by the tiny snow crocus and winter aconite. Lenten Rose (Helleborus niger) is the earliest blooming perennial I can think of. Violas and pansies bloom very early, especially if grown in a container and sheltered during the coldest weather. Two shrubs, Fragrant Winterhazel (Corylopsis glabrescens) and Winter Honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) may bloom in March if they are in a warm enough microclimate.
(Carroll Gardens 444 East Main St., Westminster MD 21157, tel. (800) 638-6334 is a possible source for unusual shrubs and perennials such as these.)
Another alternative is to try forcing an ongoing sequence of the non-hardy bulbs such as amaryllis and paperwhites and to grow some of the blooming tropicals as house plants. I wish I had more suggestions for you.
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