Monday 23 April 2018

Californian dreamers

In The Garden

California poppies are great self-seeders – just sow them once and they are yours for ever
California poppies are great self-seeders – just sow them once and they are yours for ever

Gerry Daly

Already the first flowers of the California poppy are showing and soon there will be a sweep of bright orange or yellow flowers. The main show of vibrant colour occurs in early summer with some flowers through summer into autumn.

It is not a true poppy like the red poppy of the roadside or cornfields but it is part of the poppy family, and quite similar. As the name indicates, this flower is native to California where it is the state flower. For a native of warm California and other western states, it is remarkably resilient and hardy here.

The plant is small, just 30-40cm tall, with rather soft sprawling stems and ferny, very divided slender leaves. It looks almost like a succulent plant, the soft stems and leaves acting as storage for moisture. The waxy blue-green coating on the leaves is another defence against moisture loss. It can survive well in poor, dry soil, although it grows more luxuriantly in good soil, not too dry, growing taller but more leafy and not flowering as well. Somewhere between the two is ideal and it loves a gravelly or sandy soil.

Being native to California, it is used to plenty of sunshine and needs full sunlight. It is very easy to grow from seeds, either directly into the ground where it is to grow and flower, or in small pots or cell-trays for planting out. This is a better and quicker method because the seedlings germinate and grow faster when raised in a cell-tray indoors in good light or in a greenhouse. The group of seedlings in each cell-tray can be planted out in a bed or border and they thrive really well in a gravel bed that has no weed-preventing membrane.

Apart from the normal orange and yellow varieties, there are pink, red, peach and white forms, some double-flowered forms and some with silky, shiny petals. However, the orange and yellow originals are the more robust of the species. If a packet of mixed colours is sown, after a few generations of back-crosses the orange and yellow forms predominate with the occasional red or pink flowering plant appearing. Such is the poppy's ability to produce copious quantities of seeds and hundreds of self-sown seedlings, there is rarely any need to sow from a packet more than once. It maintains its number for decades.

The plant is perennial but short-lived and gets straggly. After they shed seeds in summer, they can be pulled out to make room for developing young plants and new seedlings. Sow now for late summer flowering, or in August for next year.

When can I cut back my tulips?

Q: I planted tulips for the first time last autumn, and got a really lovely healthy display this spring-time. They are about to finish flowering now. When can I cut back the greenery? Do I leave the bulbs in the ground? Do they need to be fed? M Saunders, Wexford

A: Give a very light shake of general fertiliser on the soil around the plants to boost growth of next year's flower buds in the bulbs. Water well before and after feeding to wash it in. Do not remove any leaf until the tops have withered dry. Leave the bulbs in the ground but watch for slugs and snails in spring when the new shoots are emerging.

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