How to grow and care for poppies

Poppies, either as an anual or tender perennial, are easy to grow with colorful rewards. Blooming in shades of voilet, pink, white and red, they can be the highlight of the summer garden.

Poppies are easy, colorful, summer flowers that are easy to grow. In the genus Papaver, poppies come in varieties suited to just about every need and preference, annual or perennial. Seeds and plants are widely available at almost every garden center. All varieties need full sun, which means at least eight hours in most areas. In southern climates, poppies will do well with morning sun and afternoon shade, and tolerate the heat well. They will also tolerate dry conditions, but bloom best with ample water.

Many poppies annual plants, which means they complete their life cycle in one season. The goal of the plant is to bloom as much as possible to produce seeds for next year. To keep your plant in bloom longer, deadhead often, or remove spent flower heads. Poppies that are not deadheaded will bloom once and die.

Poppies are also classed as tender annuals, so take care not to sow seeds or set out plants until after the last frost. They also need good drainage, and benefit from a complete fertilizer, usually labeled 12-12-12, when in bloom. Over-fertilizing can cause the plant to die, so read instructions carefully. Perennial poppies require much the same care as the annual variety, but they live over many years and do not bloom as freely.

Seeds may be started indoors about a month before the last frost. Seeds started indoors need a sterilized soil mixture, sunlight, and warm temperatures. The top of the refrigerator is a favorite spot, providing it's near a window. Seeds need even moisture to germinate. It's best to mist the plant with a spray bottle daily, rather than pouring water on top. Too much water can disturb the seeds or lead to damping off, which causes the seedling to die. Poppy seeds are very fine, and many gardeners mix the seeds with soil to aid in even spreading. Seedlings should be thinned at about one inch tall.

If you plan to sow seeds directly outdoors, wait until the ground has warmed and all danger of frost has passed. Dig the bed to a depth of twelve to fourteen inches. Amend the soil with compost or a good potting mix. Make sure the ground is level, and scatter the seeds on top. Cover with a fine layer of soil, free of lumps. Seeds germinate best in soils with a fine texture. Mist daily with a spray bottle until seedlings are thriving.

When setting poppy plants out, prepare the bed as you would for seeds. Dig the hole as deep as the root system, and twice as wide. Set the plant in, and back fill with potting soil. Tamp the soil down firmly around the plant, making sure you leave all foliage above ground. Water deeply. This ensures all air holes in the soil will be filled. After the water drains, add more soil if needed. Water again, and daily until the plant is established. Adding a layer of mulch will help control weeds, conserve water, and regulate the soil temperature.

If your soil is clay, or does not drain well, you can add gravel or compost to improve the texture, or go the easy route: plant in containers. Poppies do well in all sorts of containers. Decorative pots, hanging baskets and window boxes are all popular choices. Containers offer more versatility than ground plantings, and the added benefit of being easily movable.

Poppies grow from two to three feet tall, and make vivid, colorful borders. Poppies are also striking planted in a full mass, lighting up that area of the yard. They bloom in a rainbow of colors, from white and pale violets to brilliant reds. The flowers are single with smooth petals and a dark eye at the center.

Poppies, while they will self-seed, are non-invasive. The perennial varieties are somewhat frost-hardy, though they will die back to the ground in winter. The taller perennial varieties benefit from staking for support, and require good air circulation, so space them evenly apart.

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