Poppies are delicate, open-faced flowers that can bring a range of different colours into the vegetable garden or orchard. These are fairly unobtrusive plants that grow easily from seed and fit in well amongst other plants. Iceland poppies grow to about knee height and are especially good for planting amongst vegetable crops and around the fringes of the garden where they punctuate the lush green growth of herbs, dwarf beans, salads and the like with flat, rounded flowers of orange, yellow, white and pink. Hoverflies love them and this is very useful to our food crops as hoverfly larvae are efficient eaters of aphids.
Taller growing Oriental poppy – Papaver orientale has large flower heads of rich red or pink flowers about as broad as the palm of your hand. The large seed pods look great too. Opium poppy – Papaver somniferum has large flowers that can be a range of colours from white, pink, red to purple and they have double layers of petals that make them all the more showy. Opium poppies produce tiny black seeds that are harvested and used in baking.
Companions Poppies are a companion to many vegetable and fruit plants because they attract pollinating bees into the garden.
Sow or plant in spring countrywide. Poppies can also be sown in autumn and this head start usually means they establish well through winter and are quick to flower in the following season.
Poppies grow well in full sun as well as partial shade.
Poppies grow well in free draining pretty average soil without much added fertilliser or compost.
In autumn or early spring, sow seeds onto the surface of seed raising compost in trays or punnets or sow directly into the garden or proposed container. Ideally seeds should be about a thumb’s width apart but they are so tiny its hard to be too accurate. When they get to about a thumb’s length tall, thin seedlings so that plants end up about two hands’ lengths apart. If sowing directly into the garden you can try mixing your seed with some sand or coffee grounds – this should help get a more even spread of seeds when it is thrown lightly across bare soil.
In cooler areas it pays to grow seedlings though the cooler months before planting them in the spring. In warmer areas plant out any time from autumn as long as seedlings are at least a finger’s length tall.
Plant into the garden or containers at an average spacing of a hands’ length apart – if Icelandic poppies – or two hands’ lengths apart if Oriental or Opium poppies. I usually dot them around the vegetable garden - planting them between plants and at the corner of beds. Protect with a juice bottle cloche to help them quickly get established.
Water young seedlings in dry periods. Pinch out the growing tips when they are about a hand’s length in height to encourage bushy side growth. Once they are established and starting to grow you shouldn’t need to continue with watering unless weather is persistently dry and your soil dries out.
If growing Opium poppies for their edible seeds simply cut the seed pods once all the petals have fallen and they have started to fade from greenish grey to brown. Place the pods into a paper bag or cardboard box in a dry place for a weed or so by which time the seeds should fall freely from the pods when the bag or box is shaken. You can then sieve the seeds to remove debris and store them in a jar.
Keep cutting flowers and removing pods to stimulate more blooms. At the end of summer allow flowers to form seed heads – these will help to feed the birds and plenty should self-seed around the garden. You can also pick the dried heads and save seed for re-sowing or simply scatter them around the garden on bare soil and wait to see what happens.