We asked Traverse City poppy expert David Williams, whose home and gloriously lush poppy garden we featured in the May 2008 issue of Northern Home & Cottage, for insight.
Here’s the dirt, straight from Williams, and some awesome tips:
Nursery supply companies only ship Oriental poppy plants to garden centers in the springtime. Unfortunately, it would be better for northern gardeners if potted poppies were available in the fall and immediately planted into the garden. This way, plants may possibly blossom by the following spring. Poppies’ roots need to grow to a depth of about 18-inches before they will blossom (the roots look like small parsnips, and yet, they’re extremely brittle, with spaghetti-like root hairs). If you ever find a garden center with potted poppies available in the fall, buy ’em!
Oriental poppies prefer loose, sandy soil, with 1 to 2 feet of room around them in order to spread out in the springtime. They also prefer a gardener who doesn’t mind watching the foliage turn yellow and wither after the plant flowers in June (consider planting daylilies or oriental lilies nearby to help hide shriveling foliage). They aren’t crazy about encroaching grass and weeds, nor do they like mulch. If conditions are ideal, a plant can live for many years.
If you decide to buy poppy plants in pots this spring, they may appear to be small. But a young plant’s strength is in its root system. If planted into the garden in April or early May, the foliage and roots will grow quickly. The cooler the weather, the greater chance it will survive.
Consider planting it 1 inch below the soil level, allowing only the tips of the leaves to peek out of the ground. Apparently this technique helps young plants from being over-exposed to heat. The survival rate is greatly diminished if young poppies are planted in warm weather, and most plants will die if they’re planted when days get hot. This may seem strange, since established plants thrive in warm weather, but flowers will collapse on hot, windy days.
So (sadly) the odds aren’t great that a young plant will blossom this spring, but if the roots mature quickly, it could flower later in the season. An established plant will blossom around June 1, then, in July, the leaves will yellow, shrivel and eventually, the foliage will disappear completely. Its re-awakening will begin in late September, appearing like miniature romaine lettuce leaves. The plant will continue to stay small through the fall and into the winter and grow quickly in spring.