growing annual poppies, with marilyn barlow
I DON’T RECALL where the annual poppies that have been replanting themselves here and there around my garden for decades came from in the first place, but I’m glad they made themselves at home.
I’m always happy to see any poppy, anywhere, in all their flouncy forms like old-fashioned party dresses, in a range of colors from delightfully, shockingly bright orange and reds to the palest Victorian-style pastels, and even white.
I’m thinking of growing more poppies, so I called Marilyn Barlow of Select Seeds, who has tried her hand at more than anyone else I know.
I realize that Marilyn and I are sort of having our silver anniversary of knowing each other–since it was 25 years ago, in 1991, when she first toured me through her Connecticut garden of oldtime flowers, most of them unfamiliar to me—old, maybe, historically speaking, but brand new to my eyes. Then the “nursery” that is now Select Seeds was Marilyn’s yard, and the “office” was her kitchen table.
Select Seeds is all grown up now, and the current catalog has loads of poppies in it along with other goodies. She joined me on my public-radio show and podcast to talk about all manner of annual poppies, and to learn to grow poppies from seed. Read along as you listen to the February 1. 2016 show using the player below, or at this link.
my annual poppy q&a with marilyn barlow
Q. I mentioned that the Select Seeds business is all grown up, Marilyn, and I should have said so is your daughter, Allison, who works in the business with you.
A. A long time ago—I think it was 1995—“Country Living” magazine featured her on the cover. I think she was 5 years old at the time, and in the garden, of course. So now she’s at the desk, on the computer.
Q. And I think we have her to thank for managing the project that brought you a wonderful new website this year.
A. Work in progress; we’re going to add a lot to it, but it’s a big difference.
Q. Before we get to poppies: I was going though the physical catalog, and there are so many cheerful, bright things in there, including a new Cosmos that’s a softer yellow and shorter stature. Tell me about it.
A. That’s from a Dutch breeder, Rob Van der Voort. He’s been doing a lot of very interesting things. With Cosmos, he bred a few new ones because it’s the year of the Cosmos, in Europe especially, so he got some new varieties going.
Do you remember ‘Yellow Garden’? It was super-tall and really late—and it started blooming in September or October here.
Q. So the picture looked beautiful if you happened to get a snapshot, but as a garden plant it was a little too late and too lanky.
A. Yes; very lanky, which I don’t usually mind too much, but it was very late. This new one is more compact and a lot earlier. A lot of gardens are smaller, and more compact seems to be the way some people are going to fit in more plants in their smaller spaces. So it’s shorter…
Q. …like it’s 2 or 2½ feet?
A. It still has a nice fullness to it, and the color is really beautiful with the cream-white and the soft yellow.
Q. I forgot its name; I didn’t jot it down.
Q. Right, for the yellow color.
A. I think he got the Fleuroselect Gold Medal for that one; it’s a real new introduction in the field of Cosmos.
Q. Now poppies: Do you recall what your first poppy was–whether in your garden or the catalog, Marilyn?
A. I have to say it was the ‘Heirloom’ poppy [top photo, and below]. I was sent a collection of seeds by a gardener—and that’s how I get a lot of my seeds, really, or I did. People would trade with me, and say, “You might be interested in this.” So I got some seeds and started growing them and we made it an annual thing.
It’s a mix of a lot of different fringed and tulip shapes. The ‘Imperial Pink’ poppy was a selection from that.
Q. So what genus and species are we in now, because when we say poppy, we mean a ground of related genera in the poppy family, or also a number of species and groups within the Poppy genus.
A. We have 30 different poppies, but that includes California poppies, and the opium type poppies—somniferums—and the somniferums that we designate as the fringed type and peony type poppy, laciniatum and paeoniflorum, respectively.
And then of course the corn and Shirley poppies.
Q. This ‘Heirloom’ one that you then selected one variety out of…
A. That is a somniferum [Papaver somniferum].
Q. It always gets everyone agitated because they are the opium poppy (or breadseed poppy). I think they’re wonderful, and especially love the pods. Even if they didn’t have a beautiful flower, I love the dried pod. It’s so preposterous that nature created that pod. [Laughter.]
A. They have two sepals, and when they first raise their heads—the whole bud points downward at first [above], and then it lifts upward, and the two sepals fall off and release that beautiful flower.
Q. So it releases the flower and we get the bloom and…
A. With the stamens on the inside—there are so many of them, and the bees just cluster around them as soon as the flower opens and even sometimes just before to harvest all that pollen.
The center turns into that capsule, into that fused stigma. They talk about the crown on top of that poppy capsule, because it looks like a little crown. It’s really decorative.
Q. And then as it gets ready to develop seeds inside, and then dry, it sort of opens those little windows, just below that cap, and it’s like a shaker. The seeds would disperse themselves from those little holes. It really is an incredible contraption. [Laughter.]
A. And when the seeds are ripe inside they do shake; you can hear them rattle around if you tap the plant.
Q. So the opium or breadseed poppy is one, and I don’t know if they’re technically sub-species or strains—but the ones that are big puffballs and crazy-looking, fluffier things. Like you have ‘Black Swan,’ which I think is in the laciniatum group.
A. Generally we call the very doubled, very fringed ones laciniatum. The paeoniflorums are the ones that you can see in those 16th century and 17th century still lifes. They’re that big classic blowsy flower that is featured in that type of artwork.
Q. You sell them as seeds, and in some cases you sell plants. I’ve always done best when the plants have sown themselves. So let’s talk about sowing annual poppies in general, and then we can double back and talk about some of the other species like the corn poppy, Shirley poppy… With some of the poppies on your website, it says there are like 1,000 seeds in a packet, which means, “Oh my goodness, they’re really small!” [Laughter.]
A. Generally speaking, and if you’re direct-sowing you kind of need [enough seed in the packet] that will give you something to work with. You might not need 1,000 plants—none of us do. But you’ve got to have something to work with that has some weight, and you don’t all of a sudden sneeze and then, “Where’d they go?” [Laughter.]
Q. When you say “something to work with,” do you mean to add something to the seed, like sand?
A. We don’t.
Q. I’ve seen pictures in books and so forth where people add sand to the seed and then shake them around out of a sifter, but I’ve never done that.
A. I haven’t because we generally sow a larger quantity. It just helps so you don’t dump them all in one pile, just to spread the seed out so it doesn’t get too crowded, because they don’t transplant that well.
If you get them too crowded, you’re going to be thinning out too many of the little seedlings.
Q. And having to discard them, once they’re uprooted.
So with the breadseed or opium poppy—the somniferums—you have done this for many years. When do you like to get them started? I know probably some of the older ones in your garden and elsewhere are doing it themselves. What’s your timing and method?
A. We sow them in a garden bed that is specifically just for flowers—it’s not tucked in among other plants, the way it seems like other people might do it. We cover-crop our garden beds, so in that case they’re not really ready to go until the ground has dried enough to turn under the cover crop and rake the beds, which could be the beginning of April or the beginning of May. But generally we try to start them in April.
If you have an area that’s bare, you could sow some as soon as you can kind of scratch the ground with a rake.
Q. You mean like all winter this winter in the Northeast? [Laughter.]
A. It has been a little unusual. But if you already have the bare ground, and you can scratch it, you could put the seeds down and then firm them in, so they have good contact with the soil. That could be March or April, around our area.
Q. So firmed in doesn’t mean poking them down like you would plant an edible pea or a squash seed—it doesn’t mean burying it in a hole. It just means pressing it into the soil surface?
A. Like with the back of a hoe, tapping it so that if we get some rain it won’t wash them away, because they’re in firm contact with the soil.
Q. So if we have the open ground and we can scratch the soil, we’re probably doing this in April (and you and I are in the Northeast)—or as soon as the soil can be worked. And then we keep our eye on that area?
A. It’s pretty easy to tell because a lot of these poppies have a bluish-green leaf, so it’s evident as soon as they germinate and come above-ground and have true leaves. They’re easy to differentiate from a weed.
Q. They don’t transplant well, so we’re leaving them in place, mostly. Now can we also sow them inside, if we have ultimate patience and a steady hand? Again, you sell some as mail-order plants, so how do you do that?
A. Surprisingly we’ll even start them on heat; we haven’t found that they absolutely need cold to germinate. They’ll come up pretty quick even on heat. And we do transplant them, once from a tiny plug cell into its final pot [for shipping to customers]. And then we grow them on, much cooler.
We have luck with that as long as you don’t try to tear them apart if there should be two plants in the pot [when you receive it from us], when you transplant them—as long as you transplant that whole rootball that we sent, they should catch on pretty well. That’s what we do even for the seed crops here, or if I don’t have enough growing and I want to make sure my spacing is right, I might just plant out pots.
Q. When you start them indoors, would it still be in that early April time, or even earlier? I’m interested because I might want to try some both ways. As you point out, the garden is not all open soil—I might want to start some indoors to transplant into spots.
A. I’m thinking about six weeks indoors.
Q. You put them on a heat mat, they pop up fast, and then you grow them cool. [Above, the opium poppy selection ‘Imperial Pink.’]
A. They do come up pretty fast under heat, but I don’t think it’s necessary. Room temperature is fine. And then you will transplant them out [in April in the Northeast]—you don’t want to keep them too long in that pot because they really can’t have any checks to their growth.
Q. If the root finds impediment, you don’t want to disturb it?
A. You don’t want it to end up trying to flower. If you keep it too long in the pot a lot of these things may want to start to flower even though they’re only 6 inches tall or so. You want to keep the light really bright, the fertilizer half-strength on a regular basis, and the temperature cool once they’ve come up, and before you transplant them, so they’re really ready to go once they’re planted in the ground.
Q. If I do it inside, do I try to put a couple of tiny seeds into each cell?
A. [Laughter.] You try.
Q. It’s so hard, Marilyn.
A. Your success is related to your level of patience. I generally tend to oversow even though I try not to. We would put about three seeds into a cell, and then we would ;pick the strongest one.
Q. Would you snip off the other two?
A. Yes, or tweezers—just as soon as they come up you can tell which one is the one that’s getting up and moving along and growing well.
Q. Some of the other annual poppies besides Papaver somniferum—like the species rhoeas. We have the corn poppy and Shirley poppy in there. What’s different about those? They have some bright colors, is one thing.
A. They have those bright reds, and the corn poppy called ‘American Legion’ is scarlet red with white blotches in the center to create a cross [above]. I do like that bright color in spring—it looks good with larkspurs, that contrast of a dark blue and the red poppies.
Q. It’s beautiful.
A. I think growing them in very similar. The leaves aren’t that blue-green; they’re more of a green color.
Q. So if we do direct sow them we would be a little more observant, because they could get confused with weeds. Not that I ever have any weeds in my garden…[laughter]. You don’t have any weeds, do you?
A. No, zero tolerance.
Q. Well, I have no tolerance but it doesn’t mean that the weeds understand my point of view. Actually right about now I’d be happy to go out weeding; in midwinter it sounds like fun to be able to go out and do anything.
In that species of Papaver rhoeas, we also have the Shirley poppies—which are not always bright-colored ones, is that right?
A. Yes, they include the softer pastels, where you get into some of those lavenders and almost gray and pale pink, and combinations of those colors.
Q. A friend of mine used to call those colors—which also appear in antique iris—the colors of Victorian ladies’ lingerie. Some are almost grayish. [Above, P. rhoeas ‘Dawn Chorus.’]
A. They used to call that color heliotrope back then.
Q. Are those similar height and bloom time?
A. I usually think early summer, so June into maybe July around here. And they’re about 2 feet tall. The opium poppies, depending on your soil—which should be fertile and very well-drained—can be around 3 feet or so. These are a little bit shorter.
One of my favorites is the ‘Ladybird’ poppy.
Q. That’s a commutatum—once again, a different species. Is that the one that the Royal Horticulural Society gave a prize?
A. Yes, I think it won an Award of Garden Merit from the RHS. It’s nice because some of the really heavy-headed ones like our carnation poppy [below] and sometimes the peony poppies—just like a regular peony they might need a little support if grown in a rich soil, especially during some rain. If they’re not supported or underpinned, they might fall over. But the smaller ones, and the ‘Ladybird’ poppy in particular: It’s short, compact, and stands up really well, and has those gorgeous, brilliant flowers with a dark blotch. The habit is really nice, and I think it fits into a lot of different types of gardens.
Q. What about the California poppies, which are a shorter stature still. When do you start them? [Below, Eschscholzia californica ‘Bridal Bouquet,’ a California poppy.]
A. Those you start again in early spring, and you need pretty well-drained soil. Almost the best way to have those poppies is to allow them self-sow, because they’ll find the perfect place in the garden that suits them just fine, and they’ll come up from year to year.
Q. So try them in a few places and see where they are happy, and then let it do its own thing?
A. Yes, they especially like well-drained, and we have a rich, organic soil so they’ll sort of go to the edges, near a gravel path. They’ll find just the right spot.
Q. It’s funny how they know just where they want to be. As I said at the beginning, my breadseed poppies know where they want to be and they don’t want me to tell them. [Laughter.]
And you have one perennial poppy that you sell seeds for—the Oriental poppy [below]?
A. Yes, and I really like them, but I don’t have enough to hardly mention them. But I like them because they disappear later, and I love annuals. So I can plunk an annual I’ve started in a pot right in that empty spot, or right near it, and have a continued show through the summer, because hr Oriental poppy sort of bowed out in July.
Q. So poppy-on-poppy, that’s your layering tactic, Marilyn? [Laughter.]
A. Sounds good.
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(Photos courtesy of Select Seeds. Disclosure: Select Seeds is an occasional seasonal advertiser on A Way to Garden, and a longtime friend.)