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Sowing tips for vigorous poppies

Q: I would like to plant poppy seeds this year, but I’m confused about when to do it. Seed packets say to plant seeds in the garden in early spring, as soon as the soil can be worked. Yet most books I’ve read tell you to avoid working the soil when it’s still wet in early spring. When is the best time to sow the seeds, and when is it safe to work the soil?

David Scott, Fairfield, CT

A: Long-time poppy enthusiast Sally Roth replies: “Working” the soil means digging deeper than surface level with a hoe or a spade. In early spring, the soil is wet and cold, and microorganism activity is sluggish; working your soil then can leave you with a garden full of compacted lumps. However, unless you’re planning to build a new bed, that amount of work is overkill anyway for poppies. These fine seeds do best just sprinkled on top of the soil.

If you’re planting poppies in an existing garden, find a clear patch of ground—poppies need sun to grow well—and lightly scratch the surface with a hand-held, claw-type digger. Shake out your seeds onto the ground, then scatter a few handfuls of finely crumbled soil or sand over the bed.

After watching how annual poppies self-sowed, I learned a trick that helped me grow vigorous plants. Poppies do not take kindly to transplanting. In the natural cycle, poppy seeds drop to the ground after the seedpods mature in summer. Autumn rains work the seeds into the soil, and garden maintenance helps distribute them to unexpected places. Some of the seeds sprout in fall, and they often will make it through even a bitter cold winter virtually unharmed. The rest wait until early spring to show green. When I go out to plant new poppies in spring, I’m always delighted to find a healthy crop already up and growing.

If spring comes late in your area and frost is slow to leave the ground, or if you just want to get a jump on the season, you can follow Mother Nature’s example and sow seed for Shirley poppies, field poppies, lettuce or opium poppies, and other annual poppies in fall instead of spring.

From Fine Gardening 55, pp. 18