blue poppies

Potential Plants

Reasons gardeners grow plants from seed:

  • They need a lot of plants at once
  • They can’t afford to buy plants
  • They’re purists
  • They’re snobs
  • They can’t help collecting seeds and finally decide to do something with them
  • All or some of the above.

After 35 years of gardening, I have a lot of seeds — packets bought for ambitious projects years ago, tail-ends of vegetable and herb seeds from before my veggie patch became the ex-veggie patch, and assorted envelopes containing seeds gathered from my garden or from road- and trail-sides. Most of them are neatly filed away in a three boxes, one labelled “Perennials,” another “Annuals and Herbs,” and the third “Vegetables.”

It’s funny — there are plants I take pains to prevent from seeding (Lychnis coronaria), and others I cajole and pray over, hoping they will produce even a few seeds (Meconopsis, of course, but not M. cambrica — that one is in the deadhead a.s.a.p. category). Then there are those with rare or atypical colours — pink, cream-coloured, and tawny California poppies, for example. I can’t resist saving their seeds. Maybe this colour won’t ever appear again, I think; better get ’em while they’re here. So I end up with half a dozen envelopes — California poppies, 2010, 2011, 2013, etc.

Eventually, the obvious becomes inescapable — there’s no point in collecting seeds for their own sake. Each seed is a potential plant, but that potential will not be realized inside the seed packet. Soil, water, warmth, time, and luck are necessary before that tomato, delphinium, or poppy grows and blooms in the garden.

Unlike wine in the cellar, seeds do not improve with age. There’s no point in hoarding them. Yes, there’s that story about 3,000-year-old viable seeds from Egyptian tombs, but they’re the exception. Most seeds retain viability for only a few years — perhaps five years at most. Tomatoes appear to be an exception; I successfully grew plants from seeds almost 20 years old. Seeds of the Himalayan blue poppies (Meconopsis), on the other hand, must be sown the winter following harvest. A year later is too late.

I’ve grown hundreds, if not thousands of plants from seed. Back when I had a lot of bare earth to cover, I set up a plant factory in my basement — fluorescent lights, a heating cable, lots of suitable containers, and bags of sterile seed-starting soil mix. I made “paper pots” using a clever wooden device called a Potmaker to roll and fold newspaper into pot-like shapes two inches in diameter and about four inches tall. Packed together in a wooden or plastic flat, these “pots” lasted long enough to nurture annual seedlings until they were ready for life in the garden, at which point pot and all could be planted. Much cheaper than peat pots, and a “green” option as well.

Growing some plants from seed is dead easy; others are long-term projects often doomed to failure. Some seeds need exposure to freezing temperatures to induce germination. Others (Romneya coulteri, the California tree poppy, for example) germinate best after fires — not easy to do at home. Then there’s double dormancy, which may require two years before a sprout is seen. Many gardeners give up before that happens, or simply forget what’s supposed to happen in that pot and repurpose it. Working with challenging seeds requires dedication, labels, record-keeping, and space, as well as a good supply of patience.

The emergence of sprouts is always a thrill, no matter how long it takes, and especially if it takes a long time. A few years ago, I managed to sprout four seeds of Lilium columbianum, a native yellow lily. As I recall it, the sprouts emerged the second spring after planting. They went dormant for the summer, at which point I thought they had died, but last spring two tiny plants appeared. (I guess the other two decided to stay permanently dormant). One of the two survivors was cut down by slugs (probably a single slug, actually, because the plant was less than an inch tall). The other persisted for a couple more months, then vanished. Dead or dormant? Imagine what a thrill it was to see a lily-like sprout emerge last week, and a second one today! If I manage to foil the slugs, it’s possible I’ll actually have two plants taller than one inch by summertime, and who knows — maybe in a couple of years I’ll see at least one of them bloom. And if it produces seeds, I can do the whole process again — if I’m up to the effort.

As for all the old seeds I have stashed away in envelopes, pill bottles and other containers, the best thing would be to sort through them and get rid of any that are more than five years old. They don’t have a future, except as sad mementos of plants that have vanished, or that never progressed beyond the seed stage.

As a last-ditch effort in some cases, I could do germination tests — spread a sample of seeds between layers of dampened paper towels and see if anything happens. Unlike other unwanted items, disposal of old seeds is easy — mix them up and cast them to the winds. If any of them manage to sprout, I’ll consider it a gift from the garden gods.

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Tomato seedlings

One Perfect Poppy

I have often grumbled about the difficulties of growing blue poppies (Meconopsis species). Over the past 20 years I have grown numbers of plants from seed obtained from two plants I bought — Meconopsis betonicifolia and Meconopsis x sheldonii ‘Lingholm.’ Most of my plants now are seedlings of Lingholm; all traces of M. betonicifolia have vanished from my place.

On two occasions in those 20 years I have had spectacular success (in a relative sense, of course) with my blue poppies. In May 2000 I had seven plants blooming well in a small rectangular bed. I did not take any pictures, expecting a repeat performance. Ha. In 2013, after working hard at producing more seedlings and preparing a bed for them near a large magnolia, I had 7 or 8 plants in bloom, This time I did take pictures, but because the bed was long and skinny — crescent-shaped, in fact — the effect was not as wonderful as when the flowers were massed together in a smaller space.

This year, I have one plant in bloom. Only one, but I have made sure to take pictures of both blooms.

April 19, 2015

This was the first one. As it faded, the second bud began to open.

001Fully open, it proved to be a much better flower than its predecessor.

003That colour! The ethereal texture of the petals! Definitely worth the trouble.

I hope to obtain some seeds from these two flowers, to plant next January or February.

Spring in the Garden

Spring hit really early this year on southern Vancouver Island. I’m still trying to catch up.

Things in the garden are racing ahead. I saw a note in my garden and weather book from April 24, 2013: Apple tree starting to bloom. This year, the apple tree has finished blooming. The flowers have faded and leaves are growing (as yet uneaten by little green worms).

002

A couple of weeks ago, it looked like this. So we are three to four weeks ahead of schedule (assuming nature has a schedule, which is doubtful).

The garden is almost through its blue-and-gold period, now that the daffodils are finished. Blue is still dominant, what with bluebells (Scilla), forget-me-nots and abundant rosemary flowers. But the star of the show for me is the single blue poppy (Meconopsis), a triumph after no blooms at all last year.

April 19, 2015

There is one more bud. The other blue poppy plants don’t seem to have any plans to bloom, but with blue poppies you are grateful for whatever you get.

The so-called “neckless” gentians (Gentiana acaulis) are more dependable. I suspect the buds of my main planting were nibbled by deer, but these young transplants are performing well.

April 19, 2015

And I’m happy to report that the great camas (Camassia leichtlinii) are also in fine form, showing lots of buds. One especially tall plant is already in bloom.

April 19, 2015

And there are roses! Roses in April! (And blackspot starting too, I see. In gardens, perfection is to be sought but rarely attained).

April 24, 2015

 

 

Blue Poppies in Pots? Not!

One of the most common internet searches that leads to hits on my blog is “growing blue poppies  in pots.” Sadly, I think I can now say that it’s not possible to do this well.

I have grown blue poppies (Meconopsis)  in pots and in the ground, and the differences in plant size and vigor are striking.

Three or four years ago I had 12 plants (mostly seedlings of ‘Lingholm’) in gallon-sized pots. A couple of them bloomed in the spring of 2010, but none bloomed well, and all but one perished in subsequent winters. It’s hard to regulate soil drainage in a pot, and I suspect they simply rotted.

Last spring I grew another batch of plants, fifteen of which came through the winter (in 4-inch pots) and sprouted out this spring. I planted eleven of them in a crescent-shaped bed on the north side of a large deciduous magnolia. This spring and summer have been cool and relatively wet, ideal conditions for blue poppies. I watered the plants thoroughly once per week. Now, near the end of July, they look promising, and certainly more robust than any of my pot-grown specimens. The biggest problem has been leaf-stems being snapped as the leaves are whirled around by occasional strong winds. I have planted three plants of Lamium maculatum ‘Pink Pewter’ near some of the blue poppies, hoping that they will act as a kind of windbreak. (I may come to regret this, if the lamium proves too vigorous and swamps the poppies).

Most of them have formed small offsets, and I hope for blooms next spring. Remembering my very first planting of M. betonicifolia in 2000, I am confident that they will winter well, since my sandy soil is well-drained. (It’s too bad I didn’t bother taking pictures of those original blue poppies when they bloomed in 2001. They were doomed, of course, because M. betonicifolia has that monocarpic habit to start with, and these were way too close to a Tree of Heaven. A few sprouted out feebly the following spring, but I could see that they had no future).

If this lot blooms next year, I will definitely take pictures. It remains to be seen how well they tolerate magnolia roots.

Romancing the Blue Poppy

This is the right time of year to think about growing the Himalayan blue poppy, genus Meconopsis, if you want success with it from seed.

Eleanor Perenyi, whose book of garden essays, Green Thoughts, is one of my favourites, confessed to a total failure in her attempts to grow Meconopsis from seed. I can say with considerable pride that I have achieved success, not once, but several times. I think one of the secrets is to use absolutely fresh seed — no older than 6 months after harvest — which means that most commercially available seed is too old by the time it reaches the hopeful gardener’s hands.

I purchased a plant of M. betonicifolia in the late ’90s.  It bloomed and set seed, which I gathered and seeded early in 2000. I ended up with ten or so young plants, which I set out that autumn into a fussily prepared bed under an Ailanthus (“tree of heaven” — ha!). In the summer of 2001 they bloomed gorgeously — a pool of heavenly blue.With typical gardener’s hubris, I expected repeat performances over the years, so didn’t bother to take pictures. The following spring only a few plants emerged from what was by then a root-infested bed. Blue poppies are notoriously sensitive to root competition. The struggling survivors succumbed over the summer, and that was that.

Since then, I have had a measure of success by growing these plants in less rooty situations and in pots, but never again have I had the alluring mass of bloom (if you can consider a 3′ x4′ patch a “mass”) as in 2001. Last summer, in fact, was a bust — only a couple of wretched little blooms on my potted specimens, probably because I hadn’t bothered to add fresh compost to the pots. Blue poppies demand slavish attention from their gardeners. Without it, they die in true prima donna fashion.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, here is my method for growing Meconopsis from seed. First, get fresh seed, either from a plant you have bought or from a fellow gardener. The seeds are ready to gather by late August or early September. Preserve them in cool, dry conditions until the following January or February. To achieve germination, two things are needed — fluctuating temperatures and light. Because you will be subjecting them to outdoor conditions, use durable, shallow (2-3″ deep) vessels with drainage holes.  I use plastic honey containers with lots of little holes punched into the bottoms. Containers that come with translucent lids are especially good. Use a commercial seed-starting mix, dampened and firmed into the containers. Tamp it down and smooth it with some sort of suitable implement, such as a flat-bottomed glass. Scatter the seeds carefully over the surface, trying to space them evenly. The trick is to achieve a balance between too many, which will result in overcrowding, and too few. You have to allow for a certain amount of germination failures and seedling deaths. Don’t cover the seeds with the soil mix; they need light to germinate. Set the seed containers into an inch or so of water until the surface is wet, then allow them to drain and place in a warm spot, such as the top of a hot water tank or refrigerator. It’s probably a good idea to cover the containers with a sheet of plastic at this point. Leave them in the warm spot for a week or 10 days, then move to a sheltered outdoor spot. I put my seed pots next to the foundation on the north side of the house. At this stage, put the lids on your containers, if you have lids. Otherwise, enclose each container in its own plastic bag, making sure that the bag doesn’t sag down onto the soil surface (check for this after rain). The idea is that they will be exposed to temperatures that occasionally dip below freezing over a period of two months or so — January through March here on Vancouver Island. By April you should see seedlings emerging! At this point, damping-off is your worst enemy. Remove the covers from the pots, at least partially. You don’t want them to dry out, but you don’t want fungus-producing conditions to prevail. Air circulation is essential. Once the seedlings are big enough to handle (carefully!) transplant them to individual 4″ pots, using a humus-rich, well-draining soil mix. In early fall, transplant the young plants to their permanent spots, in root-free, well-drained soil amended with lots of compost, and a situation that gets morning sun but is shaded in the hottest parts of the day.

A disclaimer — this method works in the temperate Pacific Northwest, where winter low temperatures rarely exceed -5 degrees C (23 F). In truly frigid climates, something else is called for. The idea is to expose your seed pots to fluctuating temperatures that cross the freezing point several times.

There is a lovely little book about Meconopsis by Bill Terry, who grows a number of species with much more success than anything I have managed on my rooty little patch. The title is Blue Heaven.  Even though it’s a small book, it has many illustrations to whet the reader’s appetite for these fascinating plants. The cover absolutely radiates blueness.

I will be fussing over my plants, potted and otherwise, hoping that they will bloom better this summer than last, and that I will get seeds to plant next winter. With blue poppies, it’s wise always to have a few new plants coming on to replace those that expire all too easily. Nicola Furlong, a fellow Smashwords author and WordPress blogger here on Vancouver Island,  is also an aficionado of the blue poppy. Both she and I will post photographs of success on our blogs.