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How to grow poppies

Closeup of red poppy that has recently flowered

Always a cheerful addition to the garden, poppies are versatile, hardy, and thrive in a wide range of soils. Start from scratch by planting poppy seeds or get ahead of the game with potted plants – these low-maintenance flowers brighten up borders, containers and vases alike. 

From bright red Flanders poppies to sunny-coloured Californian poppies and sumptuous Oriental varieties, this flower has so much to offer. Think lovely blooms, architectural presence and beautiful seed heads which continue to provide interest once the foliage has died back in autumn. Here we take a look at how to grow poppies. 

The history of poppies

Collection of poppy flower field
The classic red Field Poppy is instantly recognisable
Image: Poppy Seeds ‘Field Poppy’ (rhoeas) from Suttons

The poppy is a plant with a backstory quite unlike any other. From the 19th century Opium Wars to the fields of Flanders, pain relief to heroin addiction, this flower has had an impact on countless lives. 

For gardeners, poppies are mainly hardy flowers that come in many guises. They’re annuals, biennials, and perennials from the Papaveraceae family of plants native to many parts of the world. Largely tough herbaceous plants, they’re a great option to grow, not just for their lovely delicate blooms, but also their reliability and variety.

Where to grow poppies

Purple-grey poppies with black centres
Poppies come in a wide variety of colours and shapes, such as the frilly ‘Amazing Grey’
Image: Poppy Seeds ‘Amazing Grey’ from Suttons

Poppies will grow pretty much anywhere, but most prefer a sunny, sheltered spot in well-drained, moist soil. While some varieties of poppies grow well in containers, this is a flower generally best suited to sowing or planting into open ground. Himalayan blue poppies prefer cooler climes and a shadier spot, and can’t tolerate strong sun. 

Grow poppies in the middle to front of your borders. Perennial Oriental poppies flower in May and June, after which you should cut them back to encourage them to come again. To avoid gaps in your borders, make sure you plant your poppies alongside longer-lasting perennials like Shasta daisies and black-eyed Susans, or annuals like petunias and cosmos.

Which poppies to grow

Yellow Californian poppy flowers
Californian poppies provide sunny bursts of colour in pots and borders
Image: Californian Poppy Seeds ‘Lady Marmalade’ from Suttons
  • Field poppy. Also called corn poppies, these wild-growing annual varieties include the pretty, red Flanders poppy which so captured the imagination of John McCrae, Canadian WWI poet and author of ‘In Flanders Fields’. Poppy seeds can remain dormant in the soil for many decades until, as in The Great War, the ground is disturbed, bringing them to the surface where they germinate and grow in profusion. 
  • Opium poppy. A beautiful poppy with large petals surrounding the seed capsule, opium poppies are traditionally white in colour but are now available in a wide range of hues. The seed heads enlarge after flowering to provide an architectural feature which is also useful for incorporating into cut flower and dried flower arrangements.
  • Oriental poppy. Gardeners grow these hardy perennial poppies for their height (around 90cm), large and flamboyant flower heads, and attractive hairy stems. Grow Oriental poppies from bare roots for a spectacular display during the late spring and early summer. 
  • Himalayan poppy. A member of the poppy family but not true poppies, these delicate blue flowers are best suited to northern areas of the UK. Himalayan blue poppies prefer dappled shade, and won’t tolerate much harsh sunlight at all. 
  • California poppy. A magnet for bees and hoverflies, the cheerful orange blooms of California poppies also make lovely cut flowers. A great option for beds and borders, these poppies are excellent companion plants for attracting pollinators to your veg patch.

How to sow poppy seeds

Closeup of feathery lilac flowers of Poppy 'Lilac Pompom'
The feathery, pale mauve flowers of ‘Lilac Pompom’ are longer-blooming than most poppies
Image: Poppy Seeds ‘Lilac Pompom’ from Suttons

Give your planting area a thorough weeding before raking the soil to a fine tilth. Pre-moisten the soil with a light spray of water, then scatter the seeds onto the surface of the ground. Sow poppy seeds from March until May for summertime blooms, or in the autumn for flowers the following year – but do mark where you’ve sown seed so you don’t forget. When the seeds germinate, wait until they’re big enough to handle and thin as required.

If you don’t have time to raise seedlings, you can buy poppy plants in 1L pots or order bare roots to plant out during the autumn or spring. To grow poppies from bare root plants, first dig a hole big enough to spread out the roots. Place the plant into the hole so that the growth point is an inch below the soil surface, backfill and tamp down to eliminate air pockets. Water well and apply a mulch to protect the roots from cold temperatures.

How to care for poppies

Coral coloured poppy flowers with dark centre
The ‘Coral Reef’ poppy is a long-lived perennial, producing many flowers over an extended flowering period
Image: Poppy ‘Coral Reef’ from Suttons

Poppies are low-maintenance plants but can occasionally suffer from growth-slowing mildew or aphid attack. Taller Oriental poppies may require staking and should be cut back after flowering to encourage a second flush. For annual varieties, pull up plants that have finished flowering and compost them. Shake seed heads to distribute seed for next season.

Poppies are a delightful addition to any garden, working as a stunning tall bloom, a cottage garden stalwart, and a must for wildflower displays. For more information on growing all your favourite flowers, head over to our flower growing guides where you’ll find a wealth of helpful information and advice.

Lead image: Poppy Plants ‘King Kong’ from Suttons

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