Garden Poppies – colourful and extravagant

Individually the delicate, tissue paper like flowers of the Poppy may be quite fleeting in nature but on mass they can provide a beautiful and vibrant show over many weeks. In a meadow style planting they also provide that much needed movement as they gently sway in the summer breeze.

The Poppy family (Papaveraceae) offers the gardener a range of annual, biennial and perennial species in an amazing spectrum of colours that span yellow, pink, scarlet, deep plum, orange, blue and white. Certainly not all poppies are red!

Papaver rhoeas (Common Poppy)

Despite the adoption of modern agricultural practices and the reduction of our native poppies in the countryside we do still see the occasional field full of red poppies as we drive across the Cotswolds in summer.

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Probably more common in the garden setting are Shirley poppies. These were initially bred from field poppies by the Rev. William Wilks, vicar of Shirley in Surrey in the late 1800’s. He selected a range of white edged flowers that have now been developed into a range of tones.

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Papaver rhoeas ‘Falling in Love’

Papaver rhoeas is an annual herbaceous plant usually flowering in late spring and into summer.

Papaver nudicaule (Iceland Poppy)

Another common garden plant is the Iceland Poppy. It originates from sub-arctic regions and can grow to a height of 1-2½ feet. It is the poppy most frequently grown as a cut flower and is also a charming garden plant.

P. nudicaule (nudicaule meaning bare stemmed) is a perennial that is most commonly grown from seed as an annual. Sown at 18-24º C the tiny seeds will germinate in 7-12 days. These seedlings can be pricked out into modules to grow on and then be planted out when conditions are suitable.

Interestingly Iceland Poppies do poorly when the temperature rises above 21º C. The plants flower from mid-spring to mid-summer and usually produce 10-15 stems before being checked by warmer temperatures.

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Papaver somniferum (Opium Poppy)

The Opium Poppy is an attractive, upright annual herbaceous plant that can grow to a height of around 100cm. As a garden plant they have been bred in a number of colours in both single and double forms although we have found the double forms are sometimes too heavy to stand upright on their stems. The foliage has a characteristic blue-green glaucous apprearance and they seed themselves freely around our garden.

The seed heads are particularly attractive and can be used both green and dried in flower arrangements and wedding buttonholes.

Photo credit: Ventnor Botanic Garden

Papaver orientale (Oriental Poppy)

The Oriental Poppy is a very hardy perennial poppy growing to a height of 3 feet with a spread of 2 feet. For us it is a very reliable spring flowering herbaceous plant that produces a large number of large, hand-sized flowers. The large fleshy stems and foliage will often need staking to keep them looking at their best.

They originate from the Caucasus, north eastern Turkey, and northern Iran and in the wild grow on rocky slopes and dry meadows. Originally orange these plants now have cultivars that come in a wide range of colours. We have found the white varieties are particularly prone to damage if we get a lot of rain and can look like a sad, soggy hankerchief at times.

Oriental poppies combine well with other plants in low herbaceous borders. One of my favourite parts of the garden combines these pink oriental poppies with aquilegia, ox-eye daisies, purple flag iris, lime-green alchemilla and dusky pink valerian.

It is worth mentioning that by mid-summer the foliage and flowers of P. orientale will have died down entirely and will need to be cut back. To continue the display into late summer it is important to surround these poppies with other later flowering perennials.

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Eschscholzia (Californian Poppy)

Grown well Californian poppies can produce a spectacular show of delicate, bright orange blooms complemented by equisite blue green foliage. Ever since seeing the wonderful display at East Rustan Old Vicarage in Norfolk I have been trying to grow these in our own garden – but with only limited success. Native to California, these hardy annuals grow in dunes, rocky hills and roadside banks and I can only think that our soil and conditions here in the UK Midlands are a little too damp to allow them to thrive.

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Eschscholzia – East Ruston Old Vicarage Garden, Norfolk – June

Meconopsis betonicifolia (Himalayan Poppy)

We have found the beautiful blue Himalayan Poppy to be somewhat of a challenge to grow successfully. It is something that Carol’s grandfather, Fred Mason, grew successfully in his garden in Bolney in Sussex for years. Although we have tried on a number of occasions we have never managed to keep this perennial poppy going from year to year.

Its delicate, true blue petals are truely enchanting and a definite showpiece when you are successful however.

As the name suggests blue Meconopsis are native to the Himalaya and Western China. They grow in alpine meadows, woodlands and on screes and like cool, damp summers. Although we have cool and damp winters our summers here are increasingly hot and dry and our clay soil holds little moisture in the heat of the summer. The reference books indicate that Meconopsis need plenty of water in summer and as little as possible in winter which does not sit at all well with our conditions. However, there are plenty of other Poppies that we can grow very successfully.

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Meconopsis cambrica (Welsh Poppy)

To illustrate the point above a related Meconopsis, the yellow Welsh Poppy, grows very successfully here at Waverley. It is the only Meconopsis that is native to western europe. It is a short -lived, delicate perennial that seeds itself freely.

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Cultivation

In general poppies are easy to grow and like sun or semi-shade in moist but well drained soil. I think they look at their best if planted in generous clumps.

The annual species ( such as P. rhoeas ) do not like to be transplanted and so are best sown where they are to flower. It is important not to cover the tiny seed as they need light to germinate. As cornfield plants they are naturally colonisers of disturbed ground and the seeds can survive in a dormant state for many years before being exposed by ploughing. They will then germinate rapidly if conditions are right. This is also the reason why they are associated with battlefields where the ground was distrurbed by the bombs, grenades and troop movements.

Biennials or short lived perenial species (such as P. nudicaule) are more tolerant of being transplanted. We sow these on the surface of trays of multi-purpose compost (again not covering the seed) in an unheated greenhouse. When the plants are big enough to be pricked out we plant them up into larger modules and allow them to grow on. The modules are them transplanted out when conditions are right trying not to disturb the roots if at all possible.

The larger perennial species (such as P. orientale) are best propagated by root cuttings in the winter especially if you wish to retain the characteristics of a particular cultivar. They are unlikely to come true from seed.

Many poppies will self seed freely if the conditions are right. We have not found them to be at all invasive and if they do happen to seed themselves somewhere they are not wanted they are very easy to remove.

Cutting and conditioning

It is possible to use poppies as cut flowers but they do need to be cut at the right stage, prepared and conditioned appropriately to get the best out of them. We do not find them particularly long lasting but they do certainly add a definite country feel to any bouquet.

Poppies for the vase should be cut when the flower buds are beginning to break and the colour is just able to be seen. If they are fully open they will be difficult to condition.

The base of the stems should be seared in boiling water for 20-30 seconds before topping up the vessel with cold water. The stems should then be left to condition in a cool place, out of direct sunlight for at least 2 hours and preferably overnight. The searing process reduces the flow of the milky sap (latex) which would otherwise bleed out and clog up the xylem vessels which transport the water up to the flower.

Winter arangements

It is worth highlighting that many types of poppy produce interesting seed heads that are also excellent for autumn and winter arrangements (along with the seed heads of nigella, teasel, honesty and dried hydrangea flowers).

In our ceramics we have also found that poppy seed heads can be used to make some interesting botantical texture effects that will be picked out by using oxides or suitable glazes.

Further reading

“Specialty Cut Flowers” by Armitage and Laushman (ISBN 0-88192-579-9)

“The Cutting Garden” by Sarah Raven (ISBN 978-0-7112-3465-9)

“The Flower Farmers Year” by Georgie Newberry (ISBN 9780857842336)

“100 flowers and how they got their names” by Diana Wells (ISBN 1-56512-138-4)

“A-Z of perennials” Consulting Editor: Lizzie Boyd (ISBN 0-276-42087-X)

“A-Z of annuals, biennials and bulbs” Consulting Editor: Lizzie Boyd (ISBN 0-276-42089-6)

“Perennial Volume 2: Late Perennials” by Roger Phillips and Martyn Rix (ISBN 0 330 30936 9)

Goldfinch – a colourful winter resident

A decade ago Goldfinches ( Carduelis carduelis ) would have been a very rare visitor to our garden here in Warwickshire. In recent years however these small birds with their almost tropical, bright coloured plumage seem to be regular visitors and seem to stay with us all winter long.

It is reported that in the 19th century Goldfinches were often kept as caged birds with many individuals being taken from the wild. Thankfully the sale of wild birds is now illegal and their numbers have recovered well with an estimated 1.2m breeding pairs across the UK.

We rarely see Goldfinches visit our bird table or feeders but they often sit around in groups in the taller trees. In winter we see them perched together soaking up the last rays of evening sunshine before the sun sets. It is rather nice that the collective noun for a group of Goldfinches is call a Charm.

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Goldfinches in the garden soaking up the late afternoon January sunshine

Described as a “colourful bird of weedy, over grown rough ground” they feed mainly on thistle heads and teasles and other small seeds (I take no offence as to the indication this gives to the state of our garden – we garden with biodiversity in mind!),

They are very lively and sociable birds and we nearly always see them flitting around the garden in groups. Their twittering song is charming and easily recognisable:

Goldfinch song:

Audio credit: Ruud van Beusekom, Xeno-canto

I am not sure where in the garden they nest but we do see them flying in and out of some of the larger evergreen conifers. Goldfinches nest later in the year than many other garden birds so that there is a good supply of food (mainly regurgitated seeds) for their young. This late nesting may well be something worth considering when planning your hedge cutting regime for next year.

Goldfinch Nest (Photo credit: South Notts Ringing Group – real-time link)

Further reading

“The Crossley ID Guide – Britain and Ireland” by Richard Crossleyand Dominic Couzens (ISBN: 978-0-691-15194-6)

Crinum x powelli ‘Album’

Every year we enjoy searching through the catalogues and are nearly always tempted to try something a little different that we have not grown before.  In March 2018 we bought three Crinum x powelli ‘Album’ bulbs to see if we could successfully grow these dramatic plants with their large white trumpet flowers.

Although they are classed as fully hardy we thought we would be cautious and plant them in pots at first.  This would allow us to move them into the polytunnel in winter to give them some additional protection.  Crinum bulbs are simply enormous and so we had to get hold of some suitably large terracotta pots. We planted the bulbs in a mix of ⅔ John Innes No 3 compost and ⅓ perlite. We used perlite (instead of grit) to add extra drainage but also to reduce the overall weight.

Crinum bulb with 2p piece for scale
Huge Crinum bulb with 2p piece for scale

The plants grew well in the first year producing a profusion of large strappy leaves but no flowers.  We were warned that we might need to be patient (something we find a bit difficult!) and allow them to settle in.  Last year however, in early August, we were rewarded with the most wonderful display of large white trumpet flowers.  We had up to eight flowers per stem, opening in succession, on tall study stems.  They looked wonderful amongst the dahlias and blue agapanthus.

Over winter we have been protecting the pots in our cold polytunnel and I came across them yesterday as I was moving a number of small fruit trees.  They look comfortably dormant at the moment but it struck me that it might be timely to read up on how to prepare them for the coming season.

Anna Pavord’s book ‘Bulb’¹ advises that in the wild Crinums grow on the banks of streams or along lake shores. They require full sun but also require moist but well drained, organic rich soil.  Bearing in mind that the books also indicate that they hate root disturbance I think that I will carefully scrap away the top layer of soil and and give them a top dressing of fresh compost ready for the new year.

As the plants grow to 36 inches in height I think I probably need to be better at feeding and watering them next year.  I must admit that once the summer is in full swing we don’t always feed plants as much as we probably should.  However, I think I must try harder if these Crinums are to have all they need to grow their large leaves, flower profusely and maintain the bulb for the following year.

These are such lovely plants and if you have the space I would certainly recommend that you give them a go.

P1030237 Crinum
Picture taken on 3 August

Further information

Family: Amaryllidaceae

Hybrid: Crinum x powellii is a hybrid cross between C. moorei and C. bulbispermum

Further reading

¹ “Bulb” by Anna Pavord (ISBN 978-1-84533-415-4)

 

 

 

 

 

Welcome signs of spring at the beginning of February

It is always very exciting to see the first blooms of the year begin to emerge with all the promise of a full year back out in the garden again.

So far the 2019/2020 winter has not been particularly cold although it has been very wet and our boots gather the mud and chew up the grass as we walk around the garden.  Throughout the garden the snowdrops are in full swing and the small pink flowers of the spring Cyclamen (Cyclamen coum) are emerging in the woodland areas.

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Elsewhere the spring show of hellebores (Helleborus orientalis) is beginning to start.  We have taken the old, over-wintering leaves off the hellebores to allow the flowers to be seen at their best.  They seem to sit so well among the drifts of snowdrops .  Although we have purchased specific varieties over the years they inter-breed freely and self seed in the moist and shady areas.  We now have a delightful range of colours from very pale pink to almost black.

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One of my favourites at this time of year (and a true indication that spring is around the corner) are the small Iris denticulata.  We have tried to grow this directly in the ground in the past but with little success.  This is probably because during the winter the soil here is always very wet due to the high water table.  In recent years we have grown them in terracota bowls of gritty compost and they now seem to be reliably perennial.

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In addition to the newly emerging spring bulbs and perennials there are a also range of shrubs in full flower.     The winter flowering cherry that we planted some twenty-plus years ago in memory of our first German Shepherd ‘Lenka’ has not grown much but does come into flower reliably each year.  A lovely annual reminder of fun times together when it comes into flower.

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One of the great pleasures at the moment is wandering around the garden and enjoying the heavily scented winter flowering shrubs that perform at this time of year.  The Viburnum bodnantense has been producing clusters of fragrant pink flowers for months now.   Originally grown from a cutting this shrub is now over 8ft high and creates a wonderful show.

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You do need to position these fragrant winter flowering shrubs carefully so that they are close to a path that you use regularly.  Our Daphne odora is directly by the back door and can be enjoyed by taking a few deep breadths each time you leave the kitchen.

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The final shrub to mention is Sarcococca confusa.  The flowers on this bushy evergreen shrub are not spectacular to look at but the scent is so strong and so lovely.  Once again we have positioned this close to the house so that it can be enjoyed in these colder days of spring.

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It is so nice to see these first signs of spring but it does also concentrate the mind on all those winter jobs that you promised yourself you would do but have not yet been completed.  Pruning the roses is nearly complete and the greenhouse has been cleaned although we do still have some apple trees in the orchard which need to be pruned before they break into leaf.  Whenever we get dry days from now on I expect you will find us out in the garden!

Relaxed meadow-style planting

One of the best things to do on a cold, wet December day is to think back to those sunny days in the summer and reflect on what worked well in the garden.  Sometimes it is a vista or combination of plants that have matured gracefully and now perform well year after year.  At other times it is just a moment when some of the short lived annuals all come together and you stand and look and admire.  Within a couple of weeks the garden will have moved on.

In one quadrant of the new flower garden this year we allowed a number of self sown annuals to develop whilst some of the new perennials were being planted and growing on.  The annuals included Love-in-the-mist (both the blues of Nigella damascena and the white Nigella hispanica ‘African bride’), Corncockle (Agrostemma githago) and some beautiful mixed colour pink poppies with their thin tissue paper petals (Papaver rhoeas ‘Falling in Love’).  This informal combination grew freely amongst the tall biennial Sweet William (Dianthus barbatus ‘Auricular Eyed’).

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The effect was charming and created a relaxed ‘meadow-style’ bed.   Along with the mass of different colours and the texture of the fresh green foliage the bed also had movement.  The different components swayed and reacted to the breeze adding an additional dimension.

All of these annuals cut well and, if appropriately conditioned, allow you to enjoy these flowers for many days in a vase indoors.

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Nigella damascena (Love-in-the-mist)

The pictures here were all taken in the first week of June.  It was a sweet spot when all the flowers were emerging together and in their prime.  As well as the overall effect I also like to look at the detail of the individual flowers.  The tiny, delicate rows of fine dots in the Corncockle and the blue wash in the centre of the Nigella hispanica are particularly lovely.

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Agrostemma githago (Corncockle)

At its peak this meadow style planting was certainly a triumph.  However, I think it is worth highlighting that it is relatively short lived.  This is certainly a downside in a garden where you want to try and create year-round interest.  Once they have set seed the show is over and you do need to have something planted that will follow on.  If you want a show next year you do of course have to leave the seed heads to mature and set seed.  The Nigella seed heads look particularly striking and are well worth leaving to add interest to the late summer border.

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Nigella hispanica ‘African Bride’

My conclusion therefore is that whilst self sown annuals do indeed provide a spectacular show, in a garden setting you do need to set them amongst other follow-on perennials or small shrubs that can continue the performance into July, August and the autumn.

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Papaver rhoeas (Falling in Love)

Tour around the garden in late June

I have really enjoyed getting to grips with the garden this year.   Having given up our day jobs we now have much more time to work on the projects we have been thinking about for some time.

There is still a great deal to do (a garden is always evolving and changing) but I thought it would be nice to capture the end of June by offering a virtual garden tour.  I have spent many happy hours simply wandering around smelling the roses and admiring the colour combinations that appear.

The tour takes you around the garden at the back of the house, down the old rose garden to the vegetable garden and then into the orchard.  We then walk through the small woodland copse into the top of the new flower garden (now in its second year).  Look out here for the garden visitor that was caught on camera.

After a look around the new flower garden we move back towards the house to admire the magnificant climbing roses, the circular garden near the house and then finally the garden and views to the front.

I warn you now this is not intended to be a glossy video that hides all the ‘sub-optimal’ bits of the garden!  My intention is to capture the essence at a moment in time and love the way that the video picks out all the bird song.  Hope you enjoy the tour.

(You can either watch the video through the embedded video below on this page or click here to view it on YouTube itself.)