By Denise Levine, UC Master Gardener of Napa County
What comes to mind when you think of poppies? When I was a child, luminous California poppies in glowing golden yellow were plucked and held under our chins. If our chin reflected gold, it meant we loved butter. Everyone knew that.
To others, poppies are for remembrance and were sown on battlefields. History tells us that Ghengis Khan and his Mongols spread white poppy seeds on the battlegrounds as they left, to blossom the next spring, symbolizing death and rebirth.
After World War I, Flanders red field poppies (Papaver rhoeas) were sown to commemorate the sacrifice of fallen soldiers and veterans. Loved by French Impressionists, fields of red poppies rarely fail to inspire.
Poppies have been used to commemorate heroes, brighten landscapes, attract pollinators, provide medicine and to flavor foods. Whether you plant them to brighten your garden or to adorn your home-baked bread with your own poppy seeds, September is a fine month to prepare a spot for poppies.
Poppies can be sown from seed or grown from seedlings. Mature plants can be divided this time of year. Poppies have a long tap root and do not transplant easily, so growing from seed or picking up young plants at a favorite nursery or garden center is usually better than transplanting. Divided poppy plants may need a season or two to adjust before you will start to see flowers again.
The hardest part might just be choosing which poppies to plant. Choices range from small to tall and from simple to frilly. You also have myriad color choices.
Golden California poppies (Eschscholzia californica)are easy to sow and not fussy about soil. Considered a tender perennial in our mild climate, they need little if any tending. Poppies do not like waterlogged soil so good drainage is essential.
These poppies self-sow readily, thrive in poor to average soil and love our climate. California poppies are the state flower, so it is illegal to pick them on state property. Grow your own poppies and keep their beauty closer to home. You can find seeds and flowers in reds, yellows, purples and other sunny colors as well.
This fall I am planting breadseed poppies for the first time. Breadseed poppies (Papaver somniferum) produce papery blossoms in gorgeous pink, deep plum purple, cherry red, almost black and even white.
The popular Hungarian Blue breadseed poppies grow two to three feet tall, with silvery foliage and open purple petals. Planted in graceful drifts, these self-sow readily so I am looking for a spot they can take over in a season or two. Also called florist's poppies, they leave behind lovely dried seed pods that can be used in fall flower arrangements.
Alternatively, you can open the dried pods and use the light blue, nutty seeds to decorate and flavor bread and other recipes. Note that only the seeds are edible. All other parts of this plant are toxic.
Sow seeds for breadseed poppies just as you do for most other poppies. You can start them indoors in cell packs. They need light to germinate so do not cover the seeds. Keep them moist and at about 65°F for the two to three weeks needed to sprout.
Another way to sow poppy seeds is to locate a spot in your garden where you want to see them blooming in the spring. Weed the area and loosen the top 1 inch of soil. Rake the seeds in and gently walk over the bed to press the seeds into the soil. You do not have to cover the seeds.
The fall and winter rains should induce the seeds to germinate. Remember to mark your bed so you recognize baby seedlings when they start to appear. When the young plants start to get crowded, thin them to 12 inches apart. You can try using these thinnings to fill in other areas of your garden. Although poppies do not transplant readily, you may have luck if you do it before their tap roots have developed too much.
Another breadseed poppy called Hens and Chicks caught my attention with its unique seed heads. This variety has giant 8-inch blossoms in red or pink, followed by a bizarre-looking large seed pod (the hen) surrounded by many clustered smaller seed pods (the chicks). Useful and decorative, these were too strange to pass up.
Delicate Iceland poppies (Papaver nudicaule) can also be sown directly in beds now in anticipation of winter rains. Iceland poppies bloom from May through July, and they encourage pollinators of all kinds to visit your garden. Iceland poppy seeds need light to germinate, so do not cover the seeds with soil when you plant them. Pretty easy, right?
All poppies will bloom longer if you deadhead regularly, so you will have to decide if you are going for fresh blossoms or seed heads. Yes, the hardest part is choosing.
Food Growing Forum: Join Napa County Master Gardeners on Sunday, September 27, from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m., for a free Zoom forum on “Harvesting and Storing Produce.” This forum on food growing will continue monthly on the last Sunday of every month. To receive the Zoom link for the September 27 forum, register at http://ucanr.edu/FoodGrowingForum2020.
The UC Master Gardeners of Napa County are volunteers who provide University of California research-based information on home gardening. To find out more about home gardening or upcoming programs, visit the Master Gardener website (napamg.ucanr.edu). Our office is temporarily closed but we are answering questions remotely and by email. Send your gardening questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a phone message at 707-253-4143 and a Master Gardener will respond shortly.
My new favorite book is Cool Flowers by Lisa Mason Ziegler (St. Lynn's Press). The subtitle of Ziegler's book is How to Grow and Enjoy Long-Blooming Hardy Annual Flowers Using Cool Weather Techniques. That's a long description, but with autumn upon us and winter around the corner, this little book explains how to get a head start on next spring's flowers with minimal effort.
Cool Flowers focuses on hardy annuals. Their seeds can handle a light frost or freeze and will germinate at the earliest opportune time. In warm areas, some will self-sow at the end of the season and some act like perennials.
Clove-scented sweet William (Dianthus barbatus) in spiraled florets, cat-faced pansies, deep blue and yellow violas, bells of Ireland (Moluccella laevis)with their chartreuse bracts and colorful snapdragons are all considered hardy annuals. Often planted in spring as early as the ground can be worked, hardy annuals can also be sown in the fall. In that case, they will grow through winter and develop root systems ready for fast growth and early bloom in spring.
Ziegler highlights 30 hardy annuals that can all be sown now. What caught my attention about many of these flowers is that I have never been successful growing them from seed before.
Each page highlights a different flower, describing sun needs, height, spacing and even deer resistance. Ziegler also explains how to cut the first flower to keep blossoms coming all season long. This is helpful information for those of us who resist cutting first blossoms. Understanding which flowers benefit from frequent cutting, like snapdragons and yarrow, and which are one- blossom wonders, makes cutting and enjoying abundant flowers easy and almost a duty.
The author also discusses how to prepare beds and keep soil healthy, how to use row covers for temperature and bug control, and how to prepare and preserve cut flowers for maximum vase life.
Cool Flowers was the incentive I needed to finish cleaning out my summer beds. I amended the beds generously with oak leaves and compost to prepare them for successful fall sowing and spring reaping.
After clearing, weeding and amending your spent beds, mark the areas you will be planting. I laughed when I read that one of the author's most important lessons was how essential signage is. Those of us who have struggled to label plants, only to find the names eventually faded or deteriorated beyond usefulness, can relate. More signage is better than less. As certain as you are that you will remember what you planted, it is a rare gardener who actually can.
A professional flower grower, Ziegler also realized that straight rows are easier to identify and maintain when seedlings are tiny and competing with weeds than more artistically arranged plantings. That said, you don't need to observe straight lines if you are seeding an entire bed with a single flower type. When germination starts, get to know your seedlings so weeding is not counterproductive.
Cool Flowers separates hardy annuals into four categories requiring different treatment at seeding time. Flowers sown outdoors and covered with soil and compost include bachelor buttons (Centaurea cyanus); delicate but hardy corn cockle (Agrostemma githago), love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena) and sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus). Others, like false Queen Anne's lace (Daucus carota), ornamental kale (Brassica oleracea), pansies and violas, are better sown indoors and lightly covered with soil.
Sweet William and Canterbury bells (Campanula medium) should be sown indoors, the seed pressed gently into the soil but left uncovered. Transplant seedlings into the garden in a month or two. Bells of Ireland, feverfew, foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), Iceland poppies, strawflowers and yarrow can all be sown directly into prepared beds outdoors. Do not cover the seed. That type sounds easiest to me.
This year I will also be sowing poppies of all kinds, including Iceland poppies, our California native poppies and the whimsical nodding breadseed poppies (Papaver somniferum). Colorful strawflowers for cutting throughout summer, white lace flower (Orlaya grandiflora)and even godetia (Clarkea amoena), also called farewell to spring, can be sown in prepared beds and left uncovered through the cool months, first to bloom with the warmth of spring.
Ziegler reminds us that gardening is an experiment, so keep notes of what flowers and planting dates work for you. Try different flowers in different places and let winter work its magic on your spring flower garden.
Master Gardeners are volunteers who help the University of California reach the gardening public with home gardening information. U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County ( http://ucanr.edu/ucmgnapa/) are available to answer gardening questions in person or by phone, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to Noon, at the U. C. Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa, 707-253-4143, or from outside City of Napa toll-free at 877-279-3065. Or e-mail your garden questions by following the guidelines on our web site. Click on Napa, then on Have Garden Questions? Find us on Facebook under UC Master Gardeners of Napa County.