March 24, 2020


When I look at our storeroom in the cellar (cork-lined and full of canned goods that my mother who would have been 100 this year) I am reminded about all of the hard work and purposeful growing that happened around here in the 1940's.  Will we need to do that again? I think not, but a productive vegetable garden this year (and maybe next year) might be a good idea to relieve the food pressures in our country and for our own health. With a cellar still full of potatoes and winter squash, I feel a little more secure.

Our grandparents had their Victory Gardens, our parents may have had their Oil Crisis Gardens in the 70's. and us? Well. Clearly, we do want to limit how often we go to the market, and while any excuse to eat Kraft Macaroni and Cheese or Spam for a while, the time will come when we start craving something fresh and even though that green Romaine lettuce at the weekly market trip may look appealing, I don't know about you, but it's not like Romaine has a good track record for carrying diseases lately! Good news is that now in most northern climates, one can start a garden and grow your own.

Historically preserving food raised at home or picked at local farms wasn't unusual at all. It served a real purpose. I'm pretty sure that this woman wasn't accused of hoarding or even became upset when her local market ran short of strawberries or frozen peas. Her larder is well stocked. 

I live in Zone 5b in central Massachusetts, and while our frost-free date is closer towards the end of May, I know that there are many cold-tolerant crops can be started now like lettuce, mesclun mixes and some root crops (but not broccoli or cabbage, more on that later). Here are some crops I am planting now, and others that are in the wings waiting for the weather to comply. Most of you know your local climates better and can adjust planting schedules to meet your own needs.

Spring is regional, but aside from deep winter, something can be started no matter where you live and garden. In the Southern Hemisphere you could be planting fall crops and in mild-winter climates, winter crops. If you live in an apartment or don't have land, a fire escape or wide, bright window sill can let you grow mesclun, greens or some green onions, a rooftop terrace and you have lots of opportunities. A deck or a balcony too can hold pots - especially nice for miniature vegetables or a few tomato plants and herbs.

For the purpose of this post though, I am focusing on back yard gardens, whether it be a new one that you are digging up and planting in a few weeks or an expansion of an existing one. I think it's safe to assume that most of us are re-evaluating what we are growing over the next year, so I wanted to share some of my thoughts on what you might think about growing, and why.

It seems every generation that faced a challenge had it's version of a victory garden, it's now time for us to define what our generation will do.


1. Choose the most productive crops given your square footage. 
Make every square foot earn its way. This means crops like spinach or peas that you shell may not make the most sense if you have only a few raised beds. Instead plant crops that you can pick quickly, and provide enough food for at least a few meals, and think about space over the long-term. For example, an 8-10 bed of spinach is wasteful when it comes to space use. It will produce as much spinach as that found in a $5.00 box found at a store (if it is harvested as baby spinach).

WWII Victory Gardens were large wth 30 - 60 foot long rows - the intention was to fill the storeroom with food that could save money and feed the family. While every war-time generation had their version of what a Victory garden was, today's world is different and while we may not need to live completely off of our gardens, in times like these we may need it to serve a greater purpose than just providing us with fresh heirloom tomatoes and cut flowers.

However, if it is planted with the old-fashioned larger growing spinach that we rarely see in stores anymore - the 'Bloomsdale' types (those with crinkled leaves and crunchy stems) space will go a bit further, but again, know that one raise bed may only produce two or three meals (one meal, at our house). Think of spinach as a 100 sq foot crop (10' x 10') or a 30-foot long row. Let it mature, be sure to lime the soil well when you sow it, and yes, you can sow it now. Some crops are fun to grow when a weekly trip to the supermarket is the norm, but this year, thing is different and it might make more sense to focus on crops that are worth growing that fill the fridge, the storeroom or ones plate and not just a fun project. As such, artichokes are out for me for 6 buds per bed isn't worth space.

Elevated beds, or even raised beds allow one to plant crops out in a grid. Often called Square Foot Gardening or French Intensive Method, it works well as it allows one to maximize space and harvest. Lettuce like these growing in a cedar raised bed means that 12 heads can fit into a space no larger than a laundry basket.

Using space wisely isn't a bad practice right now. When these cabbage plants mature the swiss chard has been harvested. Rows of cabbage were planted along with all of the lettuce and cabbage as it could be harvested in 28 days.

2. Plan like you would shop - Crop Succession is key as in interplanting. No one needs 12 heads of lettuce at one time so conserve how much seed you sow, and save some for later with those crops that mature quickly. SA dozen or sow lettuce seeds of a few varieties also will give you a variety to choose from. Be sure to order seed now of a number of varieties for those quick-maturing crops like lettuce, white and purple-top turnips, cilantro and kohlrabi that you can sow now, and then sow again every few weeks to ensure a constant supply into early summer.

Baby lettuce and cabbage grown together with little stress on this grid matrix planting. The lettuce gets pulled out every day providing salad greens in the kitchen and not interfering with this cabbage which is a fast-growing early type. Late cabbage or storage cabbage goes in later, in late June.

3. Plant smart - This is the time to rely less on myths and more on facts. Make every square inch valuable because you are growing food to live on so skip the marigolds and companion plantings (it's proven not to work anyway) and grow crops that maximize space and harvest. Use the space between cabbage for productive crops that mature before other crops do -- like dill, radishes, or onion sets and cilantro. This past weekend I planted rows of snap peas that are 36 inches apart, but between those, I plant three rows - one with cilantro, another wth Swiss Chard that I will harvest as baby chard, and the other with spinach which I to will harvest early.

White Tokyo turnips are a quick crop for both very early spring, or even better in late summer for harvest in October and November in our garden. 

4. Order seeds now for the whole summer. and autumn. Many seed companies are overloaded right now. I can't order from Baker Creek until 4:00 PM Monday because their website has been down for 4 days. So plan and order now. I am also avoiding many so-called heirloom varieties opting for newer strains or f1 hybrids. Right now, it's all about vigor and disease resistance. This is generalizing, but for crops that are notoriously susceptible to diseases like tomatoes and cabbage, I am taking no chances because I need reliable crops. I love Romana Costata summer squash but it is a space hog and produces just a few squashes at a time. Instead, I am planting a new hybrid probably from Johnny's Seeds. I need to be overloaded.

Obviously, support your local nursery or garden centers, but who knows what our situation will look like a month from now? It's easy (and frankly, better) to start your own brassica seedlings at home, outdoors in full sun but in cells or individual pots. Sow later than you think you should (biggest amateur mistake s to think of these as 'cool weather' crop. They aren't. Cabbage and all relatives germinate best at 85° and grow best if set out after the first spring flight of the Cabbage Root Maggot Fly which for us is around May 1. Full sun outdoors also ensures stocky plants.

5. Start lots of Summer Crops in Pots Outside - Science has proven that the best light for all seedlings is the direct sun, and any seedling that you start under lights indoors will be inferior to those you start out on a deck or porch in direct sun. Even tomatoes sown the first week of June outdoors will outperform those you started in April under lights. This is especially true with brassicas. First, you can get stronger, healthier seedlings of cabbage, broccoli and brussels sprouts if you start them the first week of June in cells set out on your deck or terrace, but also you can avoid the worst effects of the Cabbage Root Maggot Fly, which has it's largest flight (hatch) usually in late April - late May, depending where you live). Just keep an eye out for cabbage butterfly larvae.

Many crops can and should be started in reusable pots on your deck or outside anywhere in late May or June. Germination is quicker than in soil, and you can keep an eye on their progress. Just be sure to sow one or two seeds per pot and to not disturb the root ball when transplanting. Try this with melon, cucumbers and squashes. I great way to get a few weeks jump on lima beans and pole beans too.

Early cabbage is very useful, and perhaps the most flavorful of all cabbage - what's interesting about it is that early cabbage is rarely found at supermarkets and most people haven't even tasted it before. It's one of the best veggies for early crops. COne headed varieties are classic like 'Caraflex' which is quick maturing, super sweet and as crispy as iceberg lettuce. Try it raw or in stirfries. It's also a space saver and is out of the garden by the Fourth of July so you can plant beans or summer squash.

Kale is always better as a late summer and fall crop, but in these troubled times early sowing in pots then set outdoors will give you a smaller yet welcome harvest by June. Buy enough seed for late summer sowing too.

Peas are great but only grow them if you have the room to plant 30-60 foot lon rows of them. Otherwise, they can be a waste of space and effort. Buy seed by the pound like our grandparents did, and remember that you have to shell and process all of those pods! I always forget that!

7. Green Peas - We all love the flavor of garden-fresh peas, but only grow them if you have the room to plant lots and lots of them. I mean - the peas that you shell, not snap peas or snow peas - those two are worth growing. Three 30 foot rows may only get you three buckets of peas that you will have to then shell, often not worth the effort and space, (if it's supposed to keep you out of the frozen food aisle at the supermarket). Save peas as a luxury item for non-viral years. Instead, plant more productive crops like edible-podded peas (snap peas or snow peas) which sown now, will produce in June and are very productive.

That said, if you have the room (and the labor -i.e.: kids) then do plant long rows of shelling peas!

If you have the room, do plant long rows of peas now - in late March, for there is nothing like the flavor of fresh peas. Just note that the crop is easy to grow but harvesting and shelling can take it's toll if you are growing enough to both feed a family and to freeze. As kids we used to dread pea harvest day for it meant back-breaking work picking for a day and an entire night of shelling peas - only to get one half of a bucket bowl full of shelled peas (or 7 bags from the freezer section).

This is not the time to casually play with growing food. It is a great time to teach children about good planning, agriculture and our food systems. A dozen pea plants are useless if you are planning to live off of your garden. Grow smart. Gardening isn't a craft project, it's science and food. Sow seriously and sow smart. So smart.

Snap or snow peas or any edible-podded pea provides more band for the buck than shell peas. Older varieties can grow very tall though so note the overall height first to make sure you have the room or supports. The foliage on these peas (the entire new shoot) is deliciously stir-fried - so much so that most of the peas we grow in our garden are harvested at 10 inches tall for spring greens.

8. Pea Greens - Peas also are good for pea greens, which may be the first crop you can pick in three or four weeks if you sow now. Snow peas seem to produce the largest leaves. So in thick bands (8" wide) and as long as you want. Cut when greens produce open leaves and are about 6-10" high. Stir-fried in oil with garlic, or a few tablespoons of chicken stock with a 1/4 tsp of corn or tapioca starch, and you could have a quick and delicious fresh green that tastes just like green peas. It's a favorite around here. Just be sure not to order pea varieties touted as good for tendrils. Those are rather useless, in my opinion.

True cold-weather crops like Broad Bean or Fava Beans can be started under lights, or like these that I started in my greenhouse. They too can be sown directly in the ground and are a great project for kids as the seeds are large, and like many kids, being a part of how they grow will make it more likely that they will eat them too.

9. Broad Beans or Fava Beans are surprisingly productive if you have the room. Again, if you have raised beds, perhaps skip them, but if you have a more conventional veg garden, like a 30' by 12-foot plot, broad beans planted out in a few rows will mature by June and each pod produces a handful of large beans that once cooked, rival that of green sweet peas. Last year, four short 8 foot rows gave us enough bean to both eat two or three times fresh, and 8 bags to freeze.

Broad beans or fava beans are less known in America but pod for pod they produce more edible bits that English peas.

Mesclun or baby lettuce can be raised most anywhere, even on a deck or a fire escape in window boxes. These I sowed in rows in an old wooden flat which does sit in the greenhouse but can be moved outdoors on days when temps are above freezing. A quick crop, one can harvest most mesclun mixes in just 30-40 days.

10. Grow Mesclun Everywhere - Order larger packets of all greens to make a jar of your own mesclun mix. This will save money and allow you to sow successive crops every week and a half. I mix myself using larger packets of many lettuces, mustards, cress and arugula that I keep in a jar. The larger packets you purchase of individual seed, the greater the cost savings. Buy seed in bulk.

If you live in an appt order various brassicas (broccoli, red cabbage, cress, kohlrabi and arugula( which you can mix all together in a jar) and then start a square foot or two in a seed tray or even on a plate of et paper towels for microgreens. This mix along with a mesclun mix like above can also be sown in window boxes, or in any recyclable container that you can put out on a ledge. It's still cold out but I am starting mesclun mix in all of my pots out on the deck that I have topped-off with a few inches of fresh potting soil.

11. Early Beans are Purple and more cold tolerant - t's true, purple string beans are more cold tollerant than yellow or green. Plant a tower or three in a few weeks, depending on where you live. Start early in 6 packs or three seeds in a 4 inch pot indoors to get a jump.

Beets are productive both for the roots and for their greens.

12. Plant Onion sets - Forget about what I said before because we arent growing onion sets for onions, we are growing them for their greens. It's true, sets are  useless for onions, but great for quick green onions. The same goes for those sprouting onions in your onion basket on the counter - I never encourage this in normal years, but if you want greens in a few weeks, plant them.  Mom was rght about these.

13. But....Sow Green Onion Seed NOW  for the best green onions ever. (It will just take time ), but do it. I have found that green onion seed is one of the most economical crops to grow - especially if you are like me and buy green onions every week at the supermarket. They make sense to grow because one sowing in early spring will produce all summer. Plus, the quality is superior to any green onions one will find at a supermarket. Crispier, better varieties and more flavorful. The downside is that it is a slow grower - still, sow it now. Sow green onions in rich soil (it cant have enough nitrogen! I use composted manure but don't be afraid to use the blue, water-soluble fertilizer as right now - we are all desperate and need food of the highest quality.).

Potatoes are a long-season crop that can and should be sown now. They make good use of space, but can also be planted in places perhaps where you don't garden - like along a fence or even in a garbage can (Google it!). Potatoes are one of the most productive crops and aside for having plenty of uses, are good to store,  not to mention that they taste so much better straight from the garden like tomatoes do. You can even sneak a few out early if you are lucky!

14 Don't forget about Long-Season Dependable Crops - Outdoors, in your raised beds try sowing crops that can stay in the ground a bit longer such as onion sets, cabbage, kale, and mustard greens won't need to be sown as often. If you have mesclun mixes sown, try using a trowel to select out a few mustard plants and plant them in a row or grid elsewhere so that they can grow larger. Mixes that are cress and arugula-heavy or sown too thickly will bloom faster, but mustards (both frilly and large red or green-leaved varieties) can be transplanted elsewhere and will grow into large, productive plants in a few more weeks.

Winter storage squashes are one of the most productive crops any of us can grow. If it wasnt for storage squashes, many in the north wouldnt have survived the winter. This Blue Hubbard can produce dozens of dishes, roasted squash, soups and in pies.

Aside from herbs, for those of you who have rhubarb, isn't it amazing how once we don't have (or trust) fresh fruit from the store, how welcome fresh rhubarb suddenly is? I'm not exactly comfortable buying strawberries or blueberries right now, unless I am cooking them (one sneeze!). But rhubarb from my garden in late April is so welcome! I now know how early Americans felt when they would get this first 'fruit' out of the garden.

15. Fruit? If you arent that trustful about fresh strawberries or apples at the market, remind yourself about an old favorite - Rhubarb. In crisps and pies, rhubarb is just going to seem so amazing in a few weeks! I can't wait, and now I can understand why it was so valued by northern gardeners a century or more ago when their storage fruit like mealy apples were running short. In a time before air travel and even trains, rhubarb did indeed bring us the first fruit of the season. I get it now.
Can you taste it?

My own parsley seedlings are at the perfect size for late March. Parsley must be set out at a small size if you dont want it to bolt. It must also never be exposed to cold or near freezing temperatures if it is any larger than this, or it too will bolt - the key reason why so many parsley plants that we find at garden centers that sat out with the pansies eventually bolt by July.

16. Plant Herbs that you buy fresh every week -  Think about herbs that provide health benefits like parsley and add fresh flavors to dishes like dill and cilantro. Remember that parsley seed or very, tiny plants of parsley will be your best choice as larger plants (with more than 4 pairs of leaves) will bolt by early summer. Parsley will bloom too early if plants are exposed to cold weather (above 45 deg) as it will think that it has passed through a winter. This exposure won't hard true seedlings if they are young enough, but most commercial sources of plants sell parsley that was started in autumn or winter. Also, never buy cilantro plants, you can grow a crop quickly in three weeks from seed.

As for cilantro that is growing in a pot at the nursery it just going to bloom and go to seed in a few weeks, and isn't worth the price if you are going to use it in a few weeks. So cilantro now (it prefers cool weather and will go to seed and get too soapy if the weather turns hot). Also, sow it every 2 weeks in 30" bands, or in pots set out on your deck. It's like a mesclun mix - an in-and-out crop that can be ready to harvest within a month.

Basil can wait, as it truly needs warmth (here in Zone 5 I sow seed indoors in Mid April, and plant out in early June. If you are in California or the south, go for it!



Pea greens
Broad Beans
Spring Turnips
Mustard Greens
Swiss Chard
Snap Peas and Snow Peas
Onion Sets

CROPS FOR Late Spring/ Early Summer

Purple String Beans
Early Cabbage
Tuscan Kale
Mustard Greens

Long Season Warm-Weather Crops to Mature later and are highly productive (storage too)

Potatoes (Plant now!) Do not lime soil, as they prefer acidic soil. Plant as many as you can.
Root Crops like Carrots and Parsnips sow now
Late root crops like Rutabaga, sow later in July for late fall storage.
Winter Squashes - any and all, from acorn to Blue Hubbard and perhaps the most economical - the Butternut types. Believe me, you will want to stock up on storage squash next fall and winter if they don't find a cure until next spring. Our great grandparents knew about the value of storage squash and potatoes. It may be time to rediscover their immense value.

Summer Standbys to ORDER SEED FOR NOW (To Freeze, eat fresh, pickle or preserve)

String Beans
Peppers and Chili's
Summer Squash

Productive herbs
Longer-season (plant once)
Rosemary plants or cuttings

Sow bi-weekly

Sow Monthly
Dill for greens
Dill for seedheads (for pickles)

ORDER SEED NOW FOR  AUTUMN CROPS that are Productive (in late July/early-mid August)

Napa Cabbage
All turnips
All Asian radishes like Daikon

March 19, 2020

Learning More About Growing Annual Poppies, and My New Book

Annual poppies are not easy to grow, at least not for most people. Oriental poppies? Much easier, as they are a long lived perenial.  notoriously fussy about root disturbance, and like many wildflowers, they will always grow best if direct seeded exactly where they are to grow, and then thinned to leave a good amount of distance between plants (a foot is best). If you can keep root disturbance to a minimum, that checks off the first box. Beyond that, temperature and light will need to be controlled. Clearly these are not easy plants to grow to perfection, but if you care and want gorgeous poppies in your garden (and who doesn't?) it might be worth it to try a few methods.

In this post I am only addressing cultural techniques for two species of poppies: The Shirley Poppy (Papaver rheas) and the Bread Seed Poppy (P. somniferum).  The genus Papaveraceae includes hundreds of species, many of which require special treatment which may add to the confusion out there, but for these two species which should be more commonly grown in our gardens, the methods often found on-line and in literature seems to be unnecessarily complex and incorrect.

You may be saying to yourself "What's all the fuss about? I just sprinkle seed on the snow in spring and have wonderful poppies every year.". To that specific statement, I respond with "great for you!" The truth is, that method just doesn't work for me many years, and, when it does, it often doesn't produce the best plants.  

Here is what I wanted to know. 

• Where did that 'sowing on snow' advice come from?

• Does poppy seed need light to germinate like everyone says?

• Does poppy seed need a cold period to 'stratify'?

•What is the ideal germination temperature for both Shirley Poppies and Breadseed/Opium Poppies?

• Can one start these poppy seeds indoors instead of direct seeding?

The answers I found were staggering in that it was the polar opposite of what I have found most everywhere on-line, in consumer-facing gardening books and on most blogs and social media posts. I'm not nailing anyone here - even I have gotten this wrong in the past, and even in my new book where I started to share some of my personal methods that are different, I get a few things wrong.

Many of use research on-line today, and hey - you can do it yourself too. Just Google "how to sow annual poppies" and see what you will find. Most sources advise that one first chill the seed for varying lengths of time, sometimes first mixing the seed with peat moss, damp sand or soil then chilling in the fridge, then sow direct (usually sprinkling on a late snow) and then thinning the seedlings.'

If you are in a hurry, here is what I discovered:

• Where did that 'sowing on snow' advice come from? It started in the late 1900's in England but the assumption is that wintered-over poppy seeds could fall on snow and still sow. It's not necessary for germination and doesn't offer any special treatment other than helping seed distribute.

• Does poppy seed need light to germinate like everyone says?

Not necessarily. Some species do, yet most prefer to germinate just under the surface of soil and this includes both P. rhoeas the Shirley Poppy and P. somniferum, which germinates better with a thin layer of soil or medium covering the seed. Many poppy species do require light, however.

• Does poppy seed need a cold period to 'stratify'?

No. Most studies indicate that especially with P. somniferum, both of these species germinate best using seed that was stored dry and germinated at 70° F.

•What is the ideal germination temperature for both Shirley Poppies and Breadseed/Opium Poppies? 70° F.

• Can one start these poppy seeds indoors instead of direct seeding? Yes,  if one can provide the high light intensity and if they use individual pots with one plant in each (thinning to one plant). Transplant with great care not to disturb roots while plant is still small.

Here are the details....
These P. somniferum poppies in my garden last year were transplanted from plants started early in a cool greenhouse.

I referenced my 'go-to' seed starting source, an out of print book titled 'Seed Germination Theory and Practice' one often shared amongst plant geeks as a photocopied document that was first published in the 1990s (and sold often at North American Rock Garden Society auctions and book sales). I think since the book is rather heavy on data points and science, with no photos that it seemed unmarketable to the masses (as in: no one in the public cares about the stratification requirements of an Anemonopsis species). Still - it is a useful book. IF YOU WANT IT, it can often be found on Amazon as in here.) And maybe on Ebay? The author Norman C. Deno tested many challenging genera and species, and what he discovered about Papaver somniferum is nearly exact to what I found in a couple of journal articles outlining studies in germination. 

All conclude that P. somniferum germinates highest at 70°F That's right, 70°.

No snow.
No cold.
No surface sowing.
No 'Light needed to germinate'

What remains the same is that both poppies resent being transplanted and that both prefer poor soil (so no fertilizer).

Yet, they can be transplanted if one is able to slide a root ball out of a pot and set it into the ground without breaking it. I should add that seedlings like these are best raised in a greenhouse, or outdoors like on a deck or on a porch in the brightest of light - so not everyone is going to be able to grow individual plants from seed in pots. A light unit indoors most likely wont produce light bright enough.

Yet, if you have a sunny porch, or want to try starting a few trays of individual pots outdoors in April or May if you live in the North, it's worth a try.

Some flower farmers have discovered this already as they often sow P. somniferum in plug trays along with P. rhoeas and carefully transplant plugs into growing beds with a minimum of root damage. It's kind of a secret few home growers know about. Of course, this does require a greenhouse and some heating mats, but the idea - the idea can be hacked to work on a glassed in porch, or in a garage with some artificial lights. Natural bright sunlight is best as poppies will stretch out, but it does mean that you could grow wonderful poppy plants by sowing individual seeds in =plug trays, keeping them at 70 and then moving them outdoors as soon as possible.

What about sowing outdoors on snow or direct on soil in March or April?

This method works to, in fact, it still may be the ideal method, but it does have a few problems. Sowing on snow works where you want a more natural look, but it won't work if you use mulch and it is challenging to do in areas where you are growing other plants - such as in a perennial border. It works much better if you have a place dedicated to just poppies, which makes it easier to see the tiny seedlings that you will need to thin so that plants are about 8 inches apart from each other, and so you can weed effectively. I still grow poppies this was in a few places, and direct sowing works well when I sow a row or band in the vegetable garden as it's easy to see the seedlings.

As early 20th century seed catalog like this Sutton's one from 1910 often featured Shirley Poppies. Few flowers are as old-fashioned as these poppies are. Methods such as 'sowing on snow' began appearing around 1900 in garden texts, and quickly caught on as an approved method mostly in northern Europe, but also in North America - the truth is, there is little to no scientific data to back-up this method. Does it work? Sure, for some, but sowing a bit later in soil will work just as well.

Do know though that there is no benefit that comes from the cold, or from the snow. Seeds sown direct outdoors still won't germinate until day time temps tip near 70 degrees (although seedlings are cold-tolerant can handle very light frosts) my point here is that the seeds don't need a cold period. The texts all state that in particular P. somniferum, 70° is the ideal germination temperature when using seed that was in dry storage at room temperature. 

The Shirley Poppy is more variable but seed still germinated in much the same way but the length of time is slightly longer. Even in my home greenhouse, the seed germinated - covered or not covered at 15 days without bottom heat with night temps at 45° F but seed on heat mats (70° F) both covered (1/8") or not germinated at 4 days nearly at 90%. Light doesn't affect germination.

 In areas where hot, summer temperatures arrive in late June along with high humidity, direct sowing early is still the best way to grow poppies, it's often not practical to wait until a 70° Day to sow, the seeds sown early are just fine waiting.

Papaver somniferum in my garden that was started from seed in individual pots then set out once the weather became mild in late May.  These were still three feet tall and covered with bees.

Some books have it right, and I started with the classics like Christopher Grey-Wilson's book 'Poppies - The Poppy Family in the Wild and in Cultivation' (1993, Timber Press), now out of print, but you can find it at online booksellers. A useful book even though some species may have been reclassified.  Grey-Wilson's book is nearly a monograph with excellent details about the natural history and botany of most plants in Papaveraceae, but shorter bits about specific poppies, particularly only a few pages on P. rhoeas. Readers should factor in that this book was written in the United Kingdom so the cultural bit lean more towards what works in a mild-winter climate (sow in late summer or autumn) a method that won't work where the ground freezes deep and solid such as in a Zone 5 garden, or where spring freezes are variable. 

I cant live without Shirley Poppies, but every year is different. I've found that direct-sowing seed works best with these smaller poppies, but I keep trying new methods of started early under glass, now trying plug trays. 

General advice seems to be similar everywhere  (just Google it, and see for yourself). That 'sprinkle seeds on the snow' advice, or 'sprinkle seeds in late winter or early spring and thin-out seedlings.'. Not bad advice, as it works - but not always (just in case you have tried these methods and have failed). You are not alone.

Sowing in a greenhouse or under bright lights is possible if one sows seed individually into plug trays or single pots.

While there are some unconventional methods that you might want to try - sowing annual poppies in cells under glass, using individual seeds in a 4-inch pot, or setting out pots of thinly sown seed on a porch or deck, or under lights and then setting the entire rootball early out into the garden - these methods also work, but again, only if you are careful with light, watering and with thinning out all but one plant per pot (never transplanting the thinnings as they will fail). All are tricky to master, but if one can master a pre-start method, the results are extraordinary.

The wild version of P. rhoeas is all red with black spots, but selections that first appeared in the 1880's changed how one viewed this common weed of European wheat and cornfields. Selections like this one named 'Mother of Pearl' have mostly pastel shades, and while many are advised to cull-out the red ones to keep the strain pure, how could one not want this?

In a search to find out more, I began trying all methods last year, and some of my results are surprising me. I will add here that I still sow direct, but always sow a few in individual pots and cells just in case one method doesn't work. No method is easy, and I think it's safe to say that one isn't any easier than the other unless you are having luck with direct sowing early (if you live in the north, or in autumn if you live in a mild climate).

Use a precisions seeder like this (it will take some practice to master! But it makes all the difference in the world with truly small seeds that you often cannot sprinkle especially in pots or plug trays.You can. find one here at Gardener's Supply, or Google for other sources.

My Tests

As a test, for two years now I've been sowing seed outdoors. For the past 6 years, I usually sow both on snow and with direct-sowing methods on raked, drained and workable soil outside in March.

To back things up I also so seeds in deep cells under glass (individually sown seeds). These I've tried pre-treating a number of ways, chilling the seed packets, mixing seed with damp sand and then chilling for 2-4 weeks in the fridge, and then sowing dry seed straight from the seed packet in the greenhouse.  To keep this short, all of these methods have proven to be unreliable. Some flats I kept in a cold frame to expose them to freezing temperatures, others I just kept under glass.

These tiny poppy seedlngs (P. somniferum) emerged in just 4 days last week. They were set on a heat mat set to 70° F with a thermostat, and the seed was covered with 1/8" soil. Surface sown seeds in another tray germinated four days later. Do notice that even in a glass greenhouse these seedlings are slightly stretched out compared to seedlings that emerge outdoors. I try to move these outdoors most every day once the weather begins to warm above freezing to keep them from etiolating.

This year, I began using heating mats set to 70° using both chilled seed, and seed straight from the packet as it came in the mail - and to my shock, I'd say 85% germination in about 4 days for the seed that was covered with a 1/8 inch of soil, and 6 days for seed surface sown. This has proven itself over and over with both P. somniferum and P. rhoeas with 8 flats of plug trays and four flats of 4-inch pots.

I thin the seedlings out to single plants just as they are forming their first true leaves, and will relocate them to a cold frame or set pots outdoors if daytime temperatures are over 40° to keep plants stocky and strong as my daytime temperatures in the greenhouse can get too hot with the spring sun - I like to keep air temps below 80° to slow down growth, as plants will need to be set outdoors in early May and plants need to be stocky enough with withstand wind and should still be in their rosette stage (not forming a stem and certainly not a flower bud).

Papaver somniferum 'Lauren's Grape' still in rosette form were individually sown and germinated warm, on heat mats, but grown cool near 55° are ready to be set out into the garden.

Last year my Greenhouse plug trays were split into two groups, one group that I kept under glass at 40° F and three other flats that I first kept outdoors in a cold frame. The Greenhouse flats germinated after a month, but irregularly, and about 1/3 survived. The flats in the cold frame never germinated, I suspect that the temperature differential was too much (hot days, freezing nights). Direct sown seeds grew well, but a few self-sown seeds from previous years were virtually gigantic. I did have one tray of seedlings that were individually sown into 4 inch pots that I acquired from my favorite source of hard-to-find annuals Bunker Farm Plants in Vermont, and her rosettes were nearly 5 inches across, grown from early sown seed in an unheated hoop house with seeds germinated on a heat mat.

Single, Breadseed poppies are beloved by many bees for their pollen, but not for nectar as they do not produce any.

Sowing in a greenhouse is possible, but a more mindful approach to sowing outdoors works even better. Dry sand will help you dilute your seed, and some chicken wire may help deter curious critters - like dogs (necessary in our garden!).

I had heard of some local flower farms raising poppies the same way, so I purchased a heating mat or a germination chamber mat from Johnny's Seeds and found that even seed sown in March germinated. While there are a few plants that require low, then warm temperatures, most common flowers and vegetables will germinate best at 70°. Some, (even those often listed as being 'cold-weather crops like cabbage, broccoli, and other brassicas) will germinate even better at higher temperatures, but much slower rates at lower temps. Then there are the real freaks like Gomphrenia which scientists have found will germinate best if exposed first to hot temps near 100° for a couple of days although 90° will often get good results.

Mix seed packet of either P rhoeas (Shirley Poppies) or P. somniferum (like 'Lauren's Grape) in a bowl, and mix well. This just helps disperse the seed so that you wont have as much waste. One of the biggest errors one can make is to not thin young plants (I get it - it's hard to pull and toss a precious poppy) but know that if you leave 8 inches between each seedling your results will be much better.

Dig, till or pitchfork your soil to loosen it up and then rake to make it evener. Leaving some furrows will help the seed fall into nooks and crannies, which is OK as some coverage of the seed helps.

Sift the sand/seed mixture over the prepared area. Now, the 'prepared area' could be in the border where there is a bare spot, or in the veg garden - as where I often grow mine, which makes weeding and thinning easier. Never mulch, and remove old mulch as seed will need contact with the soil. Also, poppies enjoy low soil fertility so no fertilizer is needed.

This isnt neccessaryl but since we have 'diggy'Irish terriers, I pin down a protective wire covering over the bed. It also helps remind me where I sowed the seed as a month or so may pass until the weather warms up enough for the seedlings to emerge, and often weeds will germinate first.

Last year it took 2 months for seedlings to emerge, but it was a very cold spring.

Look carefully after a few weeks for poppy seedlings (and keep watered if a dry spell arrives). This seedling will be very tiny so get your glasses on. Each cotyledon is about 1/8 inch long. These are too thickly sown, but I will wait to remove all but one plant every 8 inches to a foot apart later.

Both species will seem to grow slow at first, but will suddenly take off once the weather become warmer. This is a bed that I should have thinned but I didn't. Shirley poppies can grow well closer together, but P. somniferum really does better with lost of room between plants. I'vd read in many old books to pinch plants back at this stage, but I have never done it myself, have you? I've read that some P. somniferum can become very bushy and tall if pinched back - I'll try it this year.

My direct-sown Shirley Poppies always like the walk to my greenhouse where I plant them in some raised bed in the veg garden. They bloom in my Massachusetts garden between mid-June and the Fourth of July or just until the weather turns hot and humid. After that, they are pulled and vegetables are planted.

A double lavender-grey Shirley poppy from my garden a few years ago. 

Coral and White picotee forms are very pretty.

An all white strain called 'The Bride'  seems less pretty in the garden.

These P. somniferum  'Lauren's Grape' were buzzing with bees in my garden last July. All were started early in individual pots and set out in mid-May.

P. somniferum like this white peony form can self-seed if you allow the seed to dry in the capsule. I've found that in my garden if I cut the seed to dry indoors and sprinkle in the garden in late fall or early spring, I get a better germination rate as a naturally dried seed that falls in late July or early August often germinates in late summer, and small poppy plants cannot survive out winters.

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