Even Better Late
Despite the flurry of our remodel and protracted move, my new garden is slowly coming together. Though the all-important front entry bed has yet to materialize, the three large watering troughs that march across the front of the house host a very satisfying mixture of edibles and ornamentals; tomatoes and peppers, oreganos and rosemaries, basil and lavender mingle with seedlings and starts of favorite grasses and perennials. Winding through this enticing mix are bands of my favorite annuals. Most were starts, now happily blooming just weeks from planting. Others have been sown randomly as I rediscovered packets of seed (which somehow got jammed in way too many places during our multi-staged moving process).
Thus, I now have showboat Queen Lime Red and upright Yoga Purple zinnias starting to bloom, closely trailed by many other kinds in the leggy adolescent stage; full blown creamy California poppies and tiny breadseed poppy seedlings; trailing nasturtiums in full bloom and infants just emerging; hip-high sunflowers and babies holding their split seeds on their heads like striped sunshades. Late sown Portulaca, nigella, and sweet alyssum are just beginning to sprout in low bowls and in the stony edges of the gravel parking pad. What will happen when summer heat finally hits? Established plants will be fine, and as long as I can keep the later emergers moderately moist, they’ll persist well into autumn. Indeed, unless we get hit with early frosts, some will still be blooming (if fitfully) well into winter to brighten holiday tussy-mussies.
Why Poppies Thrive Or Fail
I’ve been asked by numerous people when to sow poppy seeds, as they aren’t always willing to perform well from seed. Poppy seeds sprout best in cool weather, so late winter or spring sowing is usually more successful than late summer sowing. I’ve had good luck sowing poppies from late fall into early summer in cooler years. Many folks also have trouble when trying to save poppy seed, largely because they pick the pods too soon. The best way to get poppies going in gardens where they haven’t been happy is to pot up 4-inch starts and grow them on in the sunniest spot you can offer. When the flowers fade and the foliage turns silvery brown and crisp, watch the pods closely. At first, they look like little green balloons with ribbed flat tops. As they ripen, the pods turn brownish grey, the flat tops curl up, and little windows open to let the seeds tumble out.
As with all plants, poppy seeds are ripe when you can hear them rattle in the pods. However, I’ve found that you’ll get the best results when you let the seeds remain in the pod on the plant until the pod is quite dry. Spill a few at various stages of dryness and you’ll notice that greener pods yield lighter colored seeds, greenish or brown, while the driest pods hold darker brown or totally black seeds. Those will give you the best germination rate and produce the strongest youngsters. Since soil temperatures are linked to night temperatures, sow poppy seed while nights remain in the 50s and don’t cover them. After a few sizzling days, the Seattle area has stayed cool and cloudy, and soils are still on the chilly side just a few inches down. Indeed, poppy seed sown fresh from early bloomers two weeks ago have already sprouted, thanks to the persistent cloud cover. Papaver somniferum is wildly variable, especialy after a few generations; to get the colors and forms you want, buy starts and let them self sow.
The Cool Factor
Calendula is another annual that sprouts best in cool weather but thrives in hot summers. Sown in late fall, calendulas will be in full bloom by May and will carry on into autumn. Indeed, in mild years, they’ll overwinter and be blooming before you know it. They self sow prolifically and transplant easily when tiny (not so well as older plants). Save the curly little seeds and scatter where you want another crop and you will have a bright bank of blooms by early summer. Be aware, however, that luscious color forms like Pink Surprise, Lemon Pastel and Snow Princess need roguing to stay true. I plant a few gorgeous variations like frilly much-doubled Bronzed Beauty and Solar Flashback because they’re so fun in arrangements but double blossoms aren’t pollinator friendly (they’re are hard for bees and others to navigate).
Our native Clarkia prefers cool weather sowing as well, blooming cheerfully in early summer (that’s why its common name is farewell-to-spring). Sow this charming, easy going annual in late winter or early spring, scattering the seed where you want the plants. Don’t cover them; like many wildflowers, they need light to germinate. Most will flower in shades of rose-to-pink-to-lavender but some seed mixes will include a few that bloom in purple, red, coral and salmon as well.
The Heat Factor
Other annuals like it hot; zinnias and portulaca sprout much faster as soil temperatures rise, and they prefer hot spots in tubs and troughs to the cold clay soil in my beds. Like many dry country plants, they delighted in my bermed beds with a base of sandy loam. AS a child, I was enchanted by the delicate blossoms of Moss Rose (Portulaca), which poured out of funky cement cinder blocks in sifting sand at the beach cottage we stayed at on Cape Cod. Rose and red, orange and copper, fuchsia and coral, the petals looked as delicate as gossamer but stood up to blasting sun all summer. As our summers get hotter, even Pacific Northwestern gardeners can grow Ice Plant (Delosperma sp.) readily. rugged and enduring in sun-soaked spots. These once-humble beauties now come in dazzling forms with fringed and doubled petals and brilliant colors that shade from hot to hotter. In the past, they’ve acted like annuals for me, but these days, I both Fire Spinner, a knockout with copper-to-magenta petals, and Starburst, thickly fringed in hot pink, have made it through our weird and wild winters.
Zinnias definitely prefer warmer conditions and established plants sail into steamy summers with aplomb. I adore zinnias, as do floral designers, who have elevated these former country bumpkins to horthead star status. I seriously swoon when my beloved Queens red and purple,strut their spectacular stuff. Queeny Lime Orange shades from her hot red central boss through chartreuse, coral and salmon to smoldering orange, while Queen Red Lime shifts from her deep burgundy boss through French grey tints of palest green into smoky coral reds. And then there’s Benary Lime, a statuesque beauty with hand-sized blossoms of coolest yet vibrant green. All the Benarys, which include stunning shades of wine and red and purple, make fabulous cut flowers and look majestic at the back of any border. Cutest of all are the adorable, frilly Zinnia Cupcake Mix; frosted in sparkling shades of rose and pink, orange and yellow, cream and red, they look like birthday treats for sophisticated six year olds (my inner child beams with pleasure). Many were planted from 4-inch pots this very week and are already fluffing out and beginning what promises to be a prolonged and bountiful display. Better late than not at all!