Now that the fun of Hallowe'en is over the colour of choice has shifted from orange to blood red. Like many thousands of people we've visited the spectacular poppy installation at the Tower of London over the last few weeks to commemorate the fallen. Despite the fact that London was rather grey when my family saw it, bathed in fading evening light, the moat stood out as a beacon in the fog. It's a truly moving experience, seeing the sea of poppies flow out from one of the Tower windows and almost completely fill the moat.
I'm not usually a fan of artificial flowers but these are stunning and it's the one time in the year when I am prepared to tolerate a bit of unseasonality in the world of flowers. The wearing of a cornfield poppy to commemorate those who have given their lives serving and defending our country in wartime is popular and widespread. Many of us understand the reasons for the choice of the red Flanders poppy (papaver rhoes) as a symbol of remembrance and, as this year is the centenary of the start of the Great War, there have been swathes of real poppies across fields, along motorways, in gardens, hedgerows and school playing fields. I’ve even spotted pockets of poppies in pots, planters and window boxes. The streets of Bradford on Avon were awash with them earlier in the year.
We’ve heard a lot recently about the decline of wildflower meadows and the resulting difficulties for bees and other pollinators. You may have visited the Olympic Park meadows or heard about the Coronation meadow project. If these initiatives or the poppy installation have inspired a desire to plant a real poppy meadow, then it is possible to create a patch on a relatively small scale. Many seed companies have started to sell special meadow mixes. Social enterprises like Project Maya, which aims to promote sustainable agriculture, are creating seed balls to encourage quick and easy planting of small areas by individuals, schools and community groups. There have been moves too, seeking to increase the biodiversity of roadside verges countrywide by not mowing until the wildflowers have set seed.
I like the idea of an initiative which enhances the environment in a cost-effective, ‘green’ and sustainable way and increases the biodiversity and beauty of small pockets of the school grounds. I hope the London poppy installation encourages the planting of real poppy meadows in the years to come. As a one-off project in your school it requires few resources, little time and no great knowledge of gardening. Earlier in the year we helped children at Fitzmaurice Primary School in Bradford on Avon sow a small poppy meadow which we hope to see flourish for many years to come. Click on the BBC Wiltshire link on our homepage to hear what we did there.
If you want to turn part of your school grounds red next year,here are our top tips for getting your meadow off to the best start.
Don’t sow poppies too early. Aim to stagger your plantings from April to July next year and you should have poppies blooming well into October.
Poppies will grow in most soils but will not reach their full height unless the soil is raked over or disturbed. If you want your poppies to bloom year after year you’ll need to do this or they will become choked out by competing grasses or struggle with compacted soil. Keep them moist
Poppies hate to be overcrowded. The easiest way to sow a large area is to mix a pinch of seeds with a handful of sand and broadcast sow. For smaller areas a more controlled approach is to sow two seeds every 10- 15 cm or so and rake them in. If you do this in May, you should see shoots within a week. Keep them moist and they should romp away in mid summer, provided that the sun shines.
Tempting though it is to take part in a spot of guerrilla gardening, it’s best not to sow your poppies near agricultural land to reduce the need for farmers to use herbicides to destroy poppies, should they become prevalent in fields of wheat, oil seed rape or barley. Don’t sow on sites of scientific interest or public access areas, without the permission of the landowner. It’s soul-destroying to see your beautiful poppy patch strimmed to the ground, before it’s really got going.
For a thing of beauty for one year only, that’s all there is to it. Personally I like to get my money’s worth out of a packet of seeds. How do you keep your poppies flowering year after year? Here’s how.....
Poppies have a penchant for cornfields for good reason. They grow and set seed. The corn is cut and harvested. The field is ploughed and up they spring again in the disturbed soil. It’s labour intensive. That's why these days you’re more likely to see beautiful poppies growing in the midst of road works than anywhere else.
Cultivating poppies successfully in the garden relies on choosing an area with poor soil and ensuring that it stays that way. If it’s too rich, up come the weeds to squeeze the life out of your flowers. Our most successful patch has emerged as a result of sowing a homemade mix of field poppies, calendula, borage, cornflowers and sunflowers. The first three will self seed quite happily but you’ll need to sow the cornflowers and sunflowers annually. And if you find the weeds and grass taking over, harvest all the seeds and start again next year. On a small patch or in pots, that’s easy.
Let's get real poppies growing again all over the country.