Early summer mornings and the field poppies are blazing. Open and already reverberating with bumblebees as the sun spills over the hill behind us. They are the epitome of these long days and with growth reaching towards the summer equinox, you suddenly find they have elbowed their way in. By afternoon, the flowers that opened that morning will have done their work and shed their petals so that we see past them where they held our attention earlier and prevented us looking anywhere but into them. Next week, as if in response to the light once again tilting in the other direction, the plants will splay, their foliage yellowing as energy goes into making seed in the second half of summer.
The field poppies (Papaver rhoeas) arrived here when we disturbed the ground. Seed that had sat happily dormant, but marked a time when the ground here was cultivated as market gardens and predated these pastures. Their reincarnation at Hillside is something we celebrate in the cultivation of the garden, for with the garden comes the opportunity of change, both the ephemeral and the more permanent. Pastures turned and ground exposed to give them what they need. Pioneer territory, light and, for a couple of years, the upper hand an annual needs in the perennial mix.
This is why they line the paths to the vegetable garden and take the open space between the lavender beds and the paths. What you might think of as impoverished ground, an in-between place, but given the opportunity they would run into open ground in the beds and jump willingly into the fertile vegetable beds. I am strict however, for they look harmless in the spring, but grow at a pace in this rush to solstice. A pace that will see them smother a lavender or something special you are nurturing for a longer-term association whilst your back is turned and busy elsewhere with spring.
Over the years we have sown selections of the wild field poppy; ‘Shirley’ poppies in the Pictorial Meadows mixes and the beautiful greys, mauves and dirty pinks that Cedric Morris selected into a strain he named ‘Mother of Pearl’. These have crossed and recrossed with themselves and the natives and now the variety of poppies is breathtaking: singles, semi-doubles and doubles come with black markings, white markings, black anthers, yellow anthers, picotee edges, and veining in every shade from scarlet and crimson, through cerise, soft orange, bright pink, shell pink, coral, white and almost grey.
I cut down the more mundane reds before they can seed, but I mark the ‘specials’, which are allowed to seed and then pulled and put onto the compost heap before they let the side down and start to make the second half of summer scruffier than it needs to be. Where their seed rests, because we never have the time to keep the heap hot by regularly turning, the poppies then find their way into the borders in the mulch. Some germinate in the autumn to steal a march on spring, as the seedlings are winter hardy, but a second crop can come in the spring if the seed is cast whilst it’s still reliably damp in March and April. Between autumn and spring germinations, we are able to keep their energy going on both sides of the longest day of the year.
I have to watch the main garden where they have luxury living, for they can get a hold between slower growing perennials, but where I know the persicaria can cope with a little company I leave a small number. Never as many as you think you can get away with in early spring when the tiny seedlings look harmless, so I leave just one where you think you could leave ten. Because where you leave one, there will be many more that you haven’t seen that will surprise you. And this is part of their joy. The ephemeral blaze, the cooling flutter of papery petals and the making of a June garden.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 24 June 2023