I am looking forward to a less stressful and better staffed 2022. How about you? We are doing lots of soul searching, crop planning, and tweaking of our farm systems over the winter. There is always a lot of work involved in planning a successful season ahead: new techniques to tackle, tools to master, challenges to overcome, and so many adjustments that are needed to keep the farm relevant and in the growth mindset. But as we mature in our business there are some things that just work for us. So I thought I would share just a small snippet of something that works.
Every climate is different. I feel like we are especially unique (challenged?) climate wise in the high desert, but I am guessing everyone feels that way at times. We have both intense heat and cold to contend with, along with very prolonged dry spells. But one way in which our dry climate works in our favor is winter sowing. I know farmers in other regions who prep beds in the fall and then tarp them to keep the winter moisture out as the only method for getting in the field to plant in the very early spring. We don’t have that issue. Even though we can get into the single digits in winter, except for a very rare occasion our ground doesn’t freeze solid and is usually on the dry side, meaning we can still prepare beds in winter on any warm, sunny day. I have a handful of flowers I have found always do better direct seeded for me and have a fairly wide window of when they can be sown. These for me are the winter gems. Though none of them will bloom until spring, I love them for the versatility they offer in planting time. There is something about planting and getting my hands in the soil in the middle of winter that brings me a lot of joy
Much information can be found in Lisa Mason Ziegler’s book Cool Flowers on planting cold hardy annuals in fall and spring; here I am just expanding on that concept. I try to do transplanting of cold hardy varieties in late October early November before it gets too bitter cold here and the plants have the chance to establish themselves. But I find there is a lot more leeway when it comes to direct-seeding cold-hardy varieties. If it’s too cold, the seeds or newly emerging seedlings will just sit there for a bit, but will eventually grow when conditions are right and still be far ahead of the same crop planted in the typical spring window. I am going to focus on just one of them for this article, but I will include a small list below of the other species that work similarly for me.
Papaver somniferum. Breadseed poppies, or opium poppies, if you prefer.
My first few attempts at growing these poppies failed because I tried starting them in trays in the greenhouse. They like to germinate cold and they don’t love to be transplanted. Hence, direct seeding in fall, winter or spring is a great method. Seed is also fairly cheap and it can be easily saved from the pods to keep your own seed stock going, or allowed to self sow. While the seed is quite small, the plants don’t seem to mind growing rather crowded, so I seed on the thick side, and I don’t thin the plants.
My ideal planting times would be once in early November and once again in February. We warm up fast in the spring so I want my last planting to germinate and start growing before the weather warms (in your climate, as always, that may be different.) I have also found I can seed any time from October to the beginning of March with success in Zone 7a. So if your climate is not quite as warm or dry as mine, hopefully you can do it sometime in the appropriate window.
Since poppies do well if you don’t cover the seeds, I like to make three very shallow furrows down the bed, seed thickly into the furrows (approximately 24 seeds per foot) and leave the seeds uncovered. This provides the seeds light which they prefer to germinate, but being in the furrow keeps the seeds from blowing away. Watering them in (with drip tape) also helps nestle the seeds into the soil.
I cover the bed with row cover/Remay if they will be in the ground over winter. They may germinate quite slowly, and grow even slower, but trust me, that’s okay. I think of this crop’s timing a bit like garlic, so if you have any experience with growing garlic you can follow that time frame. One pass of weeding is usually enough, once the plants are about two inches high and have formed nice thick lines down the bed. For the most part I leave them completely untended for the winter, just watering very occasionally if we have had no rain or snow, and making sure the gophers don’t get too happy.
Poppies usually bloom for me in May and the pods can be harvested from June into July. I plant a few different varieties because I love all the colors and forms, and the bees go absolutely nuts for the flowers. We do not, however, use the flowers as cuts, we wait for the seed pods to form. I mainly enjoy taking endless videos of the bees on the flowers. I know some folks use these poppies as cut flowers, generally for events only as they have a pretty short vase life. If you want to try that I would cut at the bud crack stage (where you can barely see the color through only a crack in the pod), then sear the ends with a torch or a flame to seal the milky sap off before putting the stems into water. We sell the seed pods green (fresh) and we also leave them on the plants until they are brown and dry and harvest them en masse for dried sales, our own dried floral work and wreaths. Since we can use them green or dried the harvest window is fairly forgiving. When we harvest the pods brown and dry they are so fully mature and stiff there is no need to hang them afterwards. I bunch them and let them sit upright in crates, just in case there is still a little moisture in them, before I pack them away. Seeds will start to fall out of the poppy pods, so if you plan to collect seed, keep this in mind, and put them in a container that can catch the seeds. Our florists, wholesalers, and retail customers absolutely love poppy pods, both fresh and dried—I feel there is a pretty inexhaustible market for them in our area.
Varieties, Seed Sources, and Saving Your Own
We grow mainly the breadseed poppies (Papaver somniferum) for the giant and medium-sized pods, along with some of the Shirley poppies (Papaver rhoeas) for the daintier flowers and adorable seed pods that work great in mini wreaths. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and Uprising Organic Seeds both have a great selection of both varieties, and Geo Seeds has some of the rhoeas as well. My favorite varieties of the breadseed poppies are ‘Giant Rattlebox’, ‘Frosted Salmon’, and ‘Purple Peony’, along with ‘Amazing Grey’ and ‘Pandora’ in the Shirley poppies.
While I am sure the many varieties I grow can and do cross, since the bees are all over them, I have successfully saved seed from all of them. I have been able to keep the various sized pods consistent, so if I save seeds from the giant-podded varieties, I will get giant-sized pods again from that saved seed. And since the Shirley poppies are a different species, they shouldn’t cross with the breadseed types anyway. Since I am growing them for the pods and the seed is for my own use, I am not concerned with them crossing and the flower colors intermixing. I like the abundance of seed I have from saving my own, which allows me plenty of seed to sow as thickly as I like, and maybe I am a little too heavy handed when it comes to seeding. The seeds are super easy to separate while keeping the pods intact. Some varieties have small vents at the top of the pod, so you can shake out the seed and still use or sell the seed pods. Others, like some of the giant seed pods, you have to crack open. I just choose a select number to sacrifice for seed—sometimes I can cut a hole on the bottom and still use the pod glued onto a wreath while hiding the opening.
There is a very interesting video on the history of the breadseed poppy on the Baker Creek website called “Dangerous Beauty – a history of the opium poppy” if you are a plant geek or just wondering about the legality of growing opium poppies.
For Further Consideration
As I mentioned, I use similar methods and timing for planting many other cold-hardy annuals. If the seed is larger, I tend to run down the furrow with the handle side of a rake after I sow, to just barely cover the seeds but leave the furrow intact. For the smallest seeds, I leave them completely uncovered. My most tried and true varieties for winter sowing are larkspur, nigella, bells of Ireland, bupleurum, safflower, cress, monarda, godetia, calendula, bachelor buttons, flax, agrostemma, orlaya, and wheat.
I hope you try some winter sowing if your climate allows. Get out and get some of Vitamin D this winter!