Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Corn Poppies: A reminiscence

Eleven or 12 years ago, I bought a packet of corn poppy seeds from Johnny's Selected Seeds and planted them in my community garden plot. They were hard to plant, poppy seeds being so tiny and all, and though I tried to get them in rows (novice gardener that I was), eventually, I couldn't even tell if they were anywhere in the bed where I was planting them. They didn't really come up that year (corn poppies like to germinate in cold weather), but the next year, I found several patches of something I didn't recognize. I let them come up, since they didn't look like weeds, and there were the corn poppies, red and cheerful and somewhat fickle. (Corn poppies are not the same as opium poppies, which are perennials, or little orange California poppies, which are also annuals but don't self seed. At least none that I've planted ever did.)

The good thing about corn poppies--especially given how annoying they are to plant--is that they self-seed at will, giving you many, many more poppies than you could think of planting.

The bad thing about corn poppies is that they self-seed at will, installing themselves in beds meant for lettuce or peas, or in between the beds, where the path is supposed to be, or anywhere else they feel like going.

The other bad thing about corn poppies is that they do not like to be transplanted one little bit. So, if a clump of corn poppies ends up in a bed you need for something else, you either sigh and leave them there, planting the other thing around the corn poppies. Or, you turn them over with a hardened heart. If you attempt to go the middle route, and just move them to a place they're more welcome, they will not appreciate it. In fact, they will die, perhaps just to spite you.

For years and years, I've been letting the corn poppies have their way with my garden, as is evident from any picture I've taken of the garden from mid-June til early July over the last bunch of years. Last year, one of my garden neighbors even told me--to my great pleasure--that they called my garden "the Monet garden" because of the poppies.

The problem is that by mid-July, the poppies are gone, and what's left is the foliage, which isn't very attractive. Last year, the poppies had spread into the second, emptier half of my community garden plot, and I learned the hard way that planting things around the corn poppies really wasn't good gardening strategy. There were large bare patches where the poppies had been, and tons of weeds had crept in around them. And though I did end up with a decent amount of the vegetables I planted in that side of the garden, I spent the second half of the summer fighting a losing battle with the weeds that had moved in and attempted to colonize.

So, this year, with some sadness, I am attempting to harden my heart to the corn poppies. It's been somewhat easier in the original half of my garden, which has 3 distinct beds. I kept reminding myself that those beds were for vegetables, and while I left a few poppies around the edges, I otherwise turned them over without too much regret.

The newer half, though, is a problem. The poppies have been migrating over that way these past few years, and since that side has no perennials in it and no structure, the poppies have been able to spread with dispatch. And now, when I look at it, I see a vast expanse of weeds and poppies, where I want to see space for tomatoes and onions, winter squash and zinnias. In a month, if I don't do anything, those many poppies will all be blooming, and there will be a few weeks of glory. But then I will have a poppy hangover, as I've had these past few summers, and I'll be left with the foliage and the weeds, and it will be too late in the season to put anything else in where the poppies once were.

I'm not good at hardening my heart towards the poppies. I love them. But what I keep reminding myself is that one little packet of seeds has provided me with 11, if not 12, years of lovely red blooms. And even if I (mostly) clear my garden of them this year, I am not making an irreversible decision. I can buy another packet from Johnny's--$2.95 for 500 seeds, $7.60 for 1/4 ounce--and scatter them at the end of the summer. (I won't be foolish enough to try to plant them again.) And the cycle can start all over again, which is, of course, what gardening is all about.


Lisa said...

The Monet garden -- that's lovely! I put in poppies on the little platform overlooking the street in front, because it needs some color. We'll see how well they do.

Anonymous said...

You can get a Pound of Mixed Corn Poppy Seeds (3,200,000 - 3 million seeds) for $20 from wildseedfarms dot com. I have the California ones, but I'm thinking of planting a whole roadside in these, simply because you get more seeds by far than any other wildflower save Crimson Clover for your $20.