Add Poppies to Your Garden

With a little help, these wild California beauties can run free in the garden.

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Field of Poppies

This poppy of the western wayside protests all forms of civilization, preferring to bloom wild and free in nature. As gardeners, we are the Establishment, forever trying to fit this square peg into our round holes.

The life of a California poppy, Eschscholzia californica, begins from seed each year, kicked off by scant winter rains in its dry climate. Springing to life in the cool early weeks, there is little visible growth while its tap root is digging invisibly deep into the earth. The tap root is both its key to survival and makes it the bane of gardeners everywhere.

This wildflower prefers to be sown from seed in the same soil where it is to live out its brief life span. Otherwise container culture quickly distorts the root. Once distorted, plants lose ability to sustain themselves at bloom time.

In the wild you will find the golden poppies all over certain California foothills in the spring. They are plentiful where soils are light and well drained on south-facing slopes. This ensures maximum daylight early in the season when the sun is still low in the southern sky. Sometimes the poppies are listed as perennial, and some do come back from the previous year's tap root. However, this is rare and occurs in wild poppy fields where conditions are just right.

For seed-sown poppies to return the second year, the new crop must be produced and shed from the current season's plants. The seed must find suitable ground for lying dormant and later germination. It is rare to find such ideal conditions, and explains second and third year die out.

Seedlings grow at an unusually fast rate to exploit the short rainy season. They must reach considerable size by the end of the rains that often cease in April. Rain may be absent altogether in Southern California until December.

If soils are too rich, poppy seedlings are easily crowded out by more aggressive plants. On flat land they prefer to grow in dry gravel washes and riverbed silt. There a tap root can access deep moisture as evaporation claims it from surface soil layers.

You will also find poppies growing on rocky cliffs where the tap root reaches deep into moisture-rich fissures in the rock. Many of the most verdant wild poppy hillsides allow for rapid surface runoff but underneath the topsoil a hardpan layer traps late moisture from draining away. From these wild models we learn that poppies like rapid surface drainage but enjoy moisture trapped deep underground.

A good way to grow poppies is in an elevated rock garden using boulders and field stone backfilled with a very sandy soil mix. This enhances surface drainage while deep moisture will remain under the rocks, and at the bottom of this fill upon heavier native soil.

Poppy seed of any kind is not viable for long periods in storage. Buy fresh seed each season to sow very early in the year to ensure near 100 percent germination rates.

Packets of seed sold at home improvement stores are too scant to get a great-looking golden poppy garden. At the Wildflower Seed Co. in Napa Valley you can buy online at www.wildflower-seed.com or 800-456-3359. Another source on the East Coast is American Meadows at 802-951-5812 or online at: www.americanmeadows.com.

So if poppies have responded to your prior efforts with a flat "hell no, we won't go," take a new look at their environment. Remember their preferences and re-create them, so that these wild counterculture beauties will be so happy they'll never chant revolution again.

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