Grow 504: Sow poppies, Humulus lupulus, blue spruce

You can grow them but wait until April to start poppies from seed


My neighbor gave me two poppy stems after they dried and I saved them to try and start new plants from the seeds. They are red and orange poppies. I saved the seeds in plastic bags. How do I go about starting them? - R. -

Dear R.,

You can sow those seeds in late April then transplant the seedlings outdoors in late May. Yours may be prime to sow then, as seeds of many poppy (Papaver) species are most likely to sprout if first stored dry for about six months after ripening.

There are a few, less common poppy species that sprout best if planted fresh. If your poppy happens to be one of those, you can't do anything to counteract it. If you have that kind you may see a lower germination rate than if you'd sown them in fall -- perhaps ten to twenty percent of the seed will sprout rather than seventy percent. This isn't usually a great loss since most of us want just a few plants, whereas one poppy seed pod may contain hundreds of seeds.

Since poppy seed is tiny, sow it in a moistened potting mix made especially for starting seeds, such as Ultra Premium Seed Starter.  Such mixes have been milled very fine so there are no big gaps where small seed can fall. Fallen seedlings may exhaust their reserves growing back up to the light, or die before reaching it.

Keep the sown container at 70 degrees. Don't let the surface dry out -- mist it if it begins to dry, or tent the container with clear plastic to maintain the humidity. Light isn't necessary for poppy germination but check daily and move the container into full light as soon as any seeds sprout. Germination usually happens within two weeks.

It's always tempting to start seed early but usually a bad move. Start seeds just four to six weeks before the weather will allow you to move the young plants outside to their permanent locations. Seedlings kept too long under grow lights are apt to become spindly, as only their upper leaves get adequate light.

Poppies present a special reason to delay sowing. They develop a tap root, which resents disturbance more as the plant ages. After the tap root reaches the bottom of the container, bends and pokes out a drain hole, it's a poorer candidate for a move. So you're more likely to succeed in transplanting a younger than an older seedling to an outdoor bed.

Short reports

Do we have hops vines locally?

You say you admired Humulus lupulus in England, G.D.  and wonder if it can be purchased hereabouts. You bet! Southeastern Michigan garden centers have a stellar selection of perennials, vines, shrubs and trees. We don't say this just to be pro-Michigan but because we have compared our garden centers to other areas as we travel and work. There have been times in our work as a professional gardeners when we have purchased plants here and taken them with us to clients in Chicago, Boston and New York, because Michigan's growers offered better variety, quality and sizes.

Thanks to many of you condo owners for the advisory...

...after my last week's advice to G.P. about the practicalities of pruning a blue spruce. You're all right, that landscape plants in condominiums are subject to rules which condo residents must respect. That's beyond the scope of our writing, however. We'll keep explaining the "how to" of horticulture and trust our readers to handle the legalities.

That said, here's our horticultural advice about those condo association rules. Seek multiple opinions on the plant choice recommendations included in your rules. Too often we see that very large, fast growing trees such as Austrian pine are recommended there for planting as close as ten feet from foundations. That's a recipe for trouble!


Green thumbs up

to tree pruning crews who make the effort to communicate effectively with people about their trees. The best can listen to the tree owner's wishes, weigh those against long-term effects of various pruning procedures, come up with a compromise and then explain that in layman's terms. Thumbs up, too, to homeowners who know the talking takes as much skill as the pruning, and appreciate it enough to take extra steps to develop such a parlay.


Green thumbs down

to inattention to roadside plantings. You've probably washed salt scum off your car several times this winter but never noticed that same white film on trees and shrubs near the street. Drag out a hose as soon as there's a thaw. Rinse those plants before budbreak or the salt will kill soft new growth and even small twigs. If you're in a condo, don't trust to maintenance crews to do this for your communal plantings -- move to have it done.


Originally published 2/22/03