The secret to growing poppies

If you read much gardening literature, you’ll eventually come across some plant for which the consensus seems to be that anyone can grow it, it’s totally foolproof, and yet you, no matter how hard you try, cannot get the job done.

For me, for the longest time, it was poppies.

Oriental Poppies, by Greenlamplady (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I love poppies (Papaver sp., mostly). Their delicate petals and vibrant colors fill me with longing. Everything I read promised they were easy to grow. I even read about a local woman who bought a sackful of breadseed poppy seeds from the bulk bin at the local market and threw them out into her garden, and next year her side yard looked like Giverny.

Claude Monet [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Poppy Field in Argenteuil, by Claude Monet. {{PD-1923}} – published before 1923 and public domain in the US.

I tried the same technique and discovered that lady must be holding something back. I tried different varieties–Oriental poppies (P. orientale), breadseed (P. somniferum), Welsh poppies (Meconopsis cambrica), California poppies (Eschscholzia californica), corn poppies (Papaver rhoeas), Icelandic poppies (Papaver nudicaule)–everything except the holy grail of poppies, the Himalayan blue, which, let’s face it, I wasn’t ready for. I tried direct seeding in fall, in spring, I tried transplanting–failure after failure. Some sources said they needed rich soil. I provided rich soil; nothing happened. Some sources said they grow in very poor soil. I began to despair.

By Photo by and (c)2008 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man). Co-attribution must be given to the Chanticleer Garden. (Self-photographed) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Himalayan blue poppy, photographed at Chanticleer Garden, Wayne PA, USA. Photo by and (c)2008 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man). Co-attribution must be given to the Chanticleer Garden. (Self-photographed) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.

Last year, a gardening friend, Catherine, shared her secret:

How to grow poppies from seed

  1. Find your sunny spot where you want your poppies to grow, and lay out a bed of compost about 1-2″ thick.
  2. Smooth it over a bit with the back of the rake.
  3. Scatter your poppy seeds in the compost.
  4. Tamp them in gently with the back of the rake.
  5. Walk away.

They don’t need watering, except what Mother Nature will bring.

Well, Catherine did not fail me. Barring a tornado, hurricane, or direct lightning strike to the spot, I am about to witness the bloom of my first poppy ever.

poppy bud

I don’t know what it’s going to be. I’ve scattered in Hungarian blue breadseed poppies, ‘Lauren’s Grape,’ and a locally sourced mix of pinks, purples, and whites.

Timing your seeding seems to be very important as well. These were sown about the first week of November. I sowed some more in December and those are coming along, but are quite small. Perhaps the advent of summer tropical weather will hasten their growth.

I tell you, I’m anticipating this flower like the British press anticipated the first peek at Princess Charlotte. It will probably suffer sunburn from camera flashes once it does appear.

Hurrah!

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The waiting is the hardest part: Hardening off seedlings

I have three weeks to go until our average last frost date.

coldframe full

I did really well this winter, getting seeds sown and potting things on. Now, I’ve got to hang on until the tender things are safe to plant. The cold frame is jammed full.

Hardening off seedlings, though, is too important a process to skip. I skipped it all the time until I built my cold frame–mostly because I didn’t want to spend half the morning bringing trays of plants in and out of the house–and my plants performed correspondingly poorly.

Hardening off is a process of gradually exposing seedlings and tender plants to larger temperature variations and stronger light levels than they experience indoors. The process produces slower, sturdier, more resilient growth, preparing plants for life in the open garden. Without a cold frame, gardeners place plants in a sheltered location outside–maybe in a shaded site, close to the warmth of the house–for a short period of time, lengthening the exposure to outside conditions every few days.

Using a cold frame–basically a tiny greenhouse–makes the process far less tedious. It’s not quite a matter of set-it-and-forget-it, but it frees up lots of the time and space other parts of life demand. My cold frame, which I constructed myself from recycled materials for about $30, faces south and backs up to my house. I start hardening off my seedlings in mid-February, when we begin to see a few 50-degree (10C) days. I start with the hardy perennials, then move in the hardy annuals. Tender plants come last. Space permitting, I sow vegetable seeds in flats directly in the cold frame.

During the first few days in the frame, I place plants on its south side so they sit in slight shadow from the frame’s front wall. They gradually move towards the back as more plants come in. On unusually warm days, I vent the cold frame by propping open the glass doors, made of discarded windows. This keeps the temperatures inside from getting too hot–such fragile plants can quickly dehydrate and die if the temperatures climb too high. Sometimes I’ll prop open the windows entirely, but cover the opening with a bit of horticultural fabric. This practice lets the light in but keeps hungry foraging birds and squirrels and early insect pests out.

coldframe full 2

The second quadrant of the cold frame.

We’re getting close enough to the last-frost date that I may move out some of the plants with the longest tenancy–particularly the perennials–into permanent locations. They’ve withstood some cold nights already, so a late frost won’t likely bother them.

Believe, gardeners! The digging season is nearly here.

 

 

 

Seed swap!

Yesterday on GardenChat, we talked about growing tomatoes. (To see the recaps of the Monday night chats, review their archives.) Looking at photos and hearing recommendations from gardeners across the US, Canada, and even a few from the UK, I became ravenous, craving not only fresh tomatoes, but their seeds as well.

My personal seed libraryI’ve participated in seed swaps before but have never hosted one. I don’t know how chaotic it’s going to get. But I’m giving it a try.

Here’s what I’ve got that I can share:

Tomatoes:

  • ‘Yellow Pear’
  • ‘Principe Borghese’
  • ‘Mortgage Lifter’
  • ‘Sophie’s Choice’ (good for short seasons)

Peppers:

  • Jalapeno (how do I put the tilde on top?
  • ‘Corno di Toro-Rosso’ (I think)

Miscellaneous vegetables and herbs:

  • Basil (Genovese)
  • Bush bean ‘Contender’
  • Broccoli ‘DiCicco’
  • Broccoli raab
  • Claytonia
  • Cucumber ‘Arkansas Pickling’

Misc. ornamentals:

If you want any of those, reply to this post and let me know what you’d like. If you have a blog of your own, link to a post showing what you have available to swap. I will leave it to individuals to work out mailing addresses and so forth.

 

By the way, I’m in search of almost any variety of sweet pepper, as well as tomatoes ‘Carbon,’ ‘Black Krim’ (can’t believe I’m out of those seeds!), ‘Black Cherry,’ ‘Paul Robeson,’ and ‘Amy’s Sugar Gem.’

Flower and herb seeds are welcome, too. Please try to make sure you’re sharing fresh, viable seed.

Let the swapping begin!

 

 

 

 

 

Zone 7 Gardeners, Start Your Seeds!

If you live in USDA Hardiness Zone 7 or warmer, it’s time to sow seeds (indoors) of

  • Onions
  • Hot peppers
  • Artichokes
  • Celery

If your onion seed is left over from last year, pitch it out. Onion and leek seed seldom remains viable longer than one year.

How to sow vegetable seeds:

  1. Fill a clean, sterile flat with a soilless mix. Ideally, choose one made for seed starting.
  2. Moisten the mix and tamp it down firmly.
  3. Sow the seed according to package directions.
  4. Cover lightly (if indicated) with sand, perlite, or grit to thwart damping off.
  5. Water lightly again.
  6. Cover with clear plastic and place in a warm, well-lit location.
  7. Monitor every day or so to maintain good moisture levels. When seedlings emerge, remove the plastic covering.

If you’re looking for good varieties to try, consult Cornell’s Vegetable Varieties for Gardeners website. This citizen-science database includes reviews of thousands of vegetable varieties by gardeners across the country. You can filter results by your state, frost-free season, or soil texture.

A simple search of recommended tomato varieties for my state.

A simple search of recommended tomato varieties for my state.

You won’t transplant these outside for some time yet, but these crops need an extra-long head start. Aren’t you glad you have some indoor gardening to do when it’s so cold and nasty outside?

Garden log, 1.4.15

Despite 70F (21C) temperatures today, it’s winter and I must govern myself accordingly in the garden. I went through the seed packets and found a handful of treasures to winter sow:

I’ll keep an eye on the anemones and spinach. For now, I’m growing the spinach in the cold frame, though I may transplant some of it into a larger bed as the month progresses. The anemones will need a second cold, moist period, so in late spring they’ll migrate to the refrigerator for a month or two. I hope to be able to transplant them to the garden this fall.

January here can be terribly unpredictable: This week, we’ll swing from a high of 70 to a high of 29F (-1.6C). I’m sure we had winter temperature swings when I was growing up, but I don’t remember anything like this. And we always had at least a few snows; that’s not a guarantee now. The more time I spend in the garden, the more I worry about climate change.

My snowdrops are blooming and the foliage of daffodils and crocus stands just above the mulch. I’m closer to my goal of having something in bloom all year round.

This year’s bumper crop of acorns has meant that the deer have stayed away up to now, but two days ago I saw seven (seven!) adult deer at once in the neighbor’s backyard. I hope my garden looks more trouble than it might be worth to them. Thinking more and more about the necessity of a fence, especially with Henry‘s addition to the household. Perhaps he’ll frighten off the squirrels and voles, who are making one heck of a mess in the soft, wet ground.

Garden log, 12.28.14

It’s surprisingly mild today. I went out intending to shred leaves before the forecasted rain arrived, but I found more entertaining chores to occupy me instead. The leaves will be there.

I raked out the new sunny bed and fed everything lightly with a slow-release nitrogen fertilizer. The bed contains some evergreens and some winter-blooming plants, and I learned recently that soils high in potassium, as this bed is, hinder uptake of some nutrients and trace minerals, including magnesium. Washington State University Extension recommends balancing out the potassium with nitrogen. So I did. The soybean meal (7-2-1) I applied will break down very slowly in cold weather, so I don’t expect it to stimulate much if any fresh green growth that would be susceptible to freeze damage in winter. I’ll test the soil again in the spring and see where things stand.

I also fed the camellias with soybean meal. The sasanquas are blooming now (particularly ‘Yuletide,’ appropriately), and the japonicas have nice fat buds on them.

I divided a Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis from the rain garden. I took about seven small rooted pieces from the mother plant and you’d never know it had been touched at all. I transplanted these in the front yard, in a few tricky spots that have not been successful with much else. We’ll see how they fare.

I spent about two hours dividing the Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’ near the road. These plants perform very well with utter neglect, but even fescues have their limits. They need to be divided about every other year in order to look their best, as they tend to get dense, congested crowns and will die out in the centers. They prefer to be divided and cut back in winter. I hacked mine apart with a pick-axe (exhilarating!), fed with soybean meal, and mulched with decomposed bark chips. I think about four more days of the same activity will have the rest of the plants tended and looking fresh for spring.

And finally, I cleaned leaves out from within and under my heath plants (Erica x darleyensis). I have been surprised at how well they’ve performed in my hot weather. They sit at the base of an oak tree at the top of a slope in my front yard, so they get dappled light for about 10 hours in spring through fall, and direct but weak winter sunlight. Fed them with soybean meal, mulched with decomposed wood chips.

As I cleared out the leaves, I found some rooted layers. I dug those up and transplanted them into a scree area I am renovating. I also cleaned out some pieces that had not rooted. I am trying to root those, although I’m not expecting great things given the time of the year.

A decent day’s work, I think. The leaves will be there tomorrow. Maybe some other chores will be, too.

 

My seed-grown cyclamen

Last year, I planted cyclamen seeds. Last month, I saw their first stirrings to life.

This month, they’re going nuts. Every time I pass by the pots, I find more leaves pushing up from the gravel.

Cyclamen seedlings

Cyclamen seedlings

Two species are doing very well: Cyclamen coum album, and Cyclamen graecum ssp. anatolicum. I’m surprised that Cyclamen hederifolium isn’t doing as well, as that’s supposed to be the easiest to grow. I have heard that C. graecum is supposed to be quite finicky, although plants from Greece and Turkey tend to perform well here as long as the drainage is good. I can’t wait to see their foliage take on its pattern. Here are two images  from John Lonsdale of the Pacific Bulb Society:

Cyclamen graecum ssp. anatolicum foliage. Photo by John Lonsdale, via Pacific Bulb Society.

Cyclamen graecum ssp. anatolicum foliage. Photo by John Lonsdale, via Pacific Bulb Society.

Cyclamen graecum ssp. anatolicum leaves. Photo by John Lonsdale via Pacific Bulb Society.

Cyclamen graecum ssp. anatolicum leaves. Photo by John Lonsdale via Pacific Bulb Society.

I can transplant them after they have 3-4 sets of true leaves–no idea how long that will take. The Pacific Bulb Society indicates fertilization with an 18-8-18 formula, alternating with a fertilizer based on calcium nitrate. I’ll show in a future post how to mix your own fertilizer blends.

For now, I must sow the rest of the seeds and see if I can get another batch going. The prospect of having such wonderful foliage to get me through a grim winter cheers me up immensely.

What are your favorite winter plants?