Prepare for spring by planting poppies

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Seed catalogs are arriving! Each is worth perusing for exciting new and old annual flower varieties to grace your garden. Though it is still cool, the next month or so is an important time for planting cool-season (frost-tolerant or hardy) annual flowers, including Shirley poppies (Papaver rhoes).

Each type of annual plant is adapted to a particular climate; outside its comfort zone it fails to thrive or dies.

This is the last chance to order seeds and plant hardy annual flowers for optimum growth. Hardy annuals only grow well in the cooler months of the year, and once the warm, dry conditions of late spring and summer get underway, they quickly flower and die.

These flowers must be planted in enough time to allow roots and vegetation to develop during the most beneficial conditions in order to get sufficient spring bloom. Hardy annuals can also be planted in fall.

The increased time in the ground that fall planting gives helps plants develop extensive roots. There are a number of absolutely beautiful and creative selections of Shirley poppies that are difficult to find as plants but are very easy to grow from seed. Many are so exotic they look like they were conjured and decorated by artists or dressmakers of old rather than by nature.

Who doesn’t love a poppy? The morning or evening light shining through the flower petals borders on the divine. Petals in clear shades of orange, yellow, pink, coral, crimson or white catch light and both absorb and refract the light, creating a glow of translucent color. Each flower in bud is like a present about to open; when growing color mixes, you never know what treasure is contained inside.

Shirley poppies are very easy to grow from seed or plants. As with all annual plants, make sure the area is weed free. Annual plants grow best in loose, friable, fertile soil. Work in some compost if the ground is hard or clay. If the soil is more loamy, the poppies will benefit from compost applied as a light mulch on the soil. Lightly seed the plants. Sprinkle more seed than you need so that if slugs or other predators eat the seedlings there will be some left. Bait for slugs with nontoxic Sluggo.

Cover the seeds very lightly with soil and make sure to keep them moist until the plants are well established. Rain should hopefully do most of this for you. You can thin the plants or not. Thickly grown plants will still look fairly good but some flowers will be small due to competition between plants for light.

You can also start seed in seed flats or small pots and plant them out when ready.

Remember to provide full sun to seedlings. If buying seedlings in pots, avoid rootbound or fertility-starved plants. Look for healthy, deep green leaves. Stressed annuals never recover. Always pull roots slightly apart at planting and water in well. Plant at ground level. Area nurseries will have some of the poppy selections described below if growing from seed is not possible for you.

Honeybees love Shirley poppies. Poppies produce pollen, not nectar, and primarily in the morning. If you look into a poppy bloom early in the day you will likely see a number of honeybees circling the dense frilly anthers held at the base of each petal, an activity called wallowing.

Shirley poppies are supposed to make good cut flowers. Cut them at mature bud stage just as they are cracking open and immediately burn the end of the flower stem (recommended by some seed catalogs). You can also just put stems directly into water.

Shirley poppies begin flowering in late April, continue through May and are done by about June when weather turns warm. Plants are about 2 feet high and 18 inches wide. The species, Papaver rhoes, has single flowers about three to four inches across in white, pink or red. Each petal is sumptuous, and it’s the most commonly grown poppy. But there are a number of wonderful color selections besides the species plants that are equally easy to grow.

Shirley poppies come in a semi-double form that is called Shirley Double. They have a double ruffle of crinkly petals rather than being fully double, allowing the exquisite form, color and texture of the petals to be fully admired. It is an exercise in restraint. Some are a clear crimson with handsome black anthers, others are white with pink petal edging, and decorated by the interior circle of highly showy yellow anthers.

If you like double poppies, ‘Pandora’ is another step in sumptuousness. Some have two and sometimes three rows of delicately ruffled petals in antique shades of burgundy to rose decorated with silvery stripes. They look like snippets of great-grandmother’s wedding dress released into the garden. Formal deepest gray/black anthers complete the ensemble.

‘Angel’s Choir’ is another double variety with flowers that look like miniature dancing girl skirts upside-down, flouncing in the breeze. A fairly high proportion of flowers have three rows of petals. This mix has watercolor shades, with a high proportion of flowers with white. Picotee colorations, striations and bicolors all appear in the mix.

Another exquisite selection is called ‘Falling in Love.’ This is another color mix of semi-double blooms in artistic and uplifting radiant bicolors and picotees in heart-warming white, rose, coral and salmon. Each is an object of art.

Another old-fashioned color range is called ‘Mother of Pearl’. These are singles. Each bloom appears as delicate as a pastel painting dipped in water. The colors range from misty crimson to soft orange, lilac, mauve and pink. Many flowers are striated or flecked by white.

It is very easy to save seed from poppies. Wait until the seed pods are dry. You can then choose to just scatter seed over areas you want them to grow. They will not germinate until fall when temperatures cool and rain begins. Or you can collect seeds in a paper bag. Dry them in a paper bag for a few weeks, then transfer seed to a sealed Ziploc bag kept in a cool, dry place until fall. Each seed contains an unknown colorful reward.

Kate Frey’s column appears every other week in Sonoma Home. Contact Kate at:,, Twitter @katebfrey, Instagram @americangardenschool

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