Add Colorful Poppies to Your Garden

Add eye-popping hues to your garden with easy-to-grow poppies.
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Red Poppies

Red Poppies

Poppies provide dazzling color that seems to wake up the springtime garden. Master gardener Paul James and nursery owner Annie Hayes discuss how to grow and care for these charming flowers.

Year after year, spring is heralded with thick orange carpets spread across hillsides and roadways throughout California, so it's no wonder the poppy is the official state flower. As glorious as they are in the wild, these delicate flowers have a similar effect in the garden. Hayes admits that even after 13 years of growing new plants, poppies are still the most spectacular plants in the garden. "They have huge flowers, bright colors, and they are really happy flowers," says Hayes. "They light up a garden."

Except for a few rare species like this legendary blue poppy, most poppies are fairly easy to grow. The seed pods are loaded with hundreds of tiny seeds that reseed without much coaxing.

Even in a much more controlled garden setting, growing and transplanting poppies can be highly successful. Simply take a pinch of about 10 to 20 seeds, and sprinkle them over the top of the soil. These seeds need light to germinate, so don't bury them beneath the soil surface. Use a good quality potting mix and tamp down the soil surface so that the tiny seeds aren't lost when watering.

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Poppies like to germinate in cool weather, about 50 to 60 degrees, one reason why they are considered cool-weather plants. "But even in extreme climates, odds are there's a poppy that will grow easily once germinated," Paul says.

Transplanting poppies is a little different. Choose seedlings that have their first set of true leaves but are still quite small. Gently lift the seedlings apart, being careful not to damage the roots. Then poke a hole about the size of a root ball in the soil. Gently place the seedling in the hole, holding the leaves above the soil surface. Make sure the stem is completely covered up to the first set of leaves, to anchor the seedling and maximize contact with the soil.

"Now, if you've never grown poppies before, don't let the drooping buds alarm you; that's just part of their charm," Paul says. Most poppy stems curl at the top. As the bud begins to open, the stem straightens.

As the flowers fade, poppies develop seed heads that rattle, which means they are ready to harvest. Have a paper bag or bowl to catch the seeds in, especially if it's a windy day. "I know the plant looks pretty ratty looking, but this is the plant in its mature state," says Hayes. "And that's when it's ready to give you its seeds." Once the seeds are harvested or have spread naturally in the wind, pull the plant from the ground.

Keep in mind that some poppy varieties are drought-tolerant, especially the natives, whereas opium poppies like a moist, fertile soil. So pick the poppy variety that best suits your growing conditions. "From tiny to tall, cream to colorful, these horticultural hotties are definitely habit-forming," Paul says. "Plant them once, and you won't be able to resist planting them year after year."

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