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Several people have asked about the article I wrote for the local press about the Centenary Poppy Campaign. Here it is in full.


pic courtesy of Sara Willman or possibly her mum.

My life revolves around the seasons and always has done. I like it that way. In September you’ll find me in the kitchen chopping apples for chutney with a pot of sunflowers on the window ledge. In October there’s usually some pumpkin soup on the stove whilst paperwhite daffodils are being carefully stowed away in a dark corner ready to pop up and brighten those dark midwinter days. In November I’m baking the Christmas cake whilst wearing a bright red poppy. It’s the one and only time in the year I tolerate unseasonal,artificial 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 rhoeas) as a symbol of remembrance. It seems so right and the sight of a field full of them never fails to kindle thoughts of those who didn’t return to walk in the fields at home. It can move me to tears far more easily than the millions of paper and silk poppies sold at this time of year.
Next year is the centenary of the start of The Great War. Consequently the Royal British Legion is seeking to celebrate the spirit of the fallen by covering the entire country in bright red poppies in August 2014. They want to create swathes of real poppies across fields, along motorways, in gardens, hedgerows and school playing fields and pockets of poppies in pots, planters and window boxes. This is the Centenary Poppy Campaign (formerly the Real Poppy Campaign) for which funding was sought from the Heritage Lottery Fund. (As we go to print this has been rejected.) But the organisers are determined to press ahead. Here’s where members of the public have a part to play. Doubtless many companies will jump on the bandwagon and start selling wildflower seed mixes with ‘commemorative’ poppies for next year but only The Centenary Poppy Campaign guarantees that profits go to benefit Royal British Legion projects.
We’ve heard a lot recently about the decline of wildflower meadows and the resulting difficulties for honey bees and other pollinators. In response to this pockets of wildflowers are beginning to spring up along motorways, on the edges of towns and even in gardens and window boxes. Anyone who visited the Olympic Park during the Summer of 2012 will bear witness to the breathtaking beauty of large swathes of wildflowers. The Olympic Park meadows which were created under the direction of Professor Nigel Dunnett in time for the London 2012 Olympics will continue to develop and delight visitors for many years to come. It’s a legacy of which we can be proud.
Earlier this year sixty ‘Coronation meadows’ were identified across the UK as part of a coronation anniversary campaign to restore threatened wildflower meadows, which have decreased by 97% since the 1930s. The project, led by the HRH the Prince of Wales and three livestock and wildlife organisations, will use seed and green hay from sixty designated ‘outstanding’ wildflower meadows to recreate new local ones, thus preserving the individual characteristics of each meadow.
On a smaller scale we can all create a patch of wildflower heaven and there are a plethora of initiatives, companies, charities and individuals to help. 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 of wildflowers by individuals, schools and community groups. I’ve even spent a couple of days working for the National Trust with children making balls of wildflower seeds to sow to encourage bees and butterflies. There have been moves seeking to increase the biodiversity of roadside verges countrywide by not mowing until the wildflowers have set seed. Now it’s the turn of the Royal British Legion to harness this awareness of the importance of pollinator friendly wild areas and promote their cause at the same time.
I like the joined-up thinking which has lead to this initiative. It’s a creative way of commemorating the fallen of The Great War, whilst at the same time enhancing the environment in a cost-effective, ‘green’ and sustainable way and increasing the biodiversity and beauty of small pockets of the land. As a one-off project it requires few resources, little time and no great knowledge of gardening. Moreover if you want to support the initiative but can’t do more than donate to a packet of seeds, the Royal British Legion Riders branch will cast the poppy seeds on your behalf to ensure national coverage.
There are a number of ways to get involved. Early birds who registered for free seeds will receive a pack and all schools will get an education pack to help them on their way. B & Q have agreed to sell packs of poppies and to donate all profits to the fund. Some communities are giving away packs of campaign seeds as part of a wider awareness campaign demonstrating the impact of The Great War on their locality. Or you can get seeds online from http://www.realpoppy.co.uk, where you will also find out further details. You can choose to buy 1000, 5000 or 10000 seeds at a time and, if correctly cast, a flowering rate of 85% is estimated.
Once you have your seeds, here’s how you go about making it all happen.
• First of all don’t be tempted to sow your poppy seeds too soon. Aim to stagger your plantings from late April to July of 2014 and, provided that the soil is tilled or loosened, you should have poppies blooming well into October and have a good show on August 4th, which is the ‘big day’.
• Poppies will grow in most soils but will not reach their full height unless the soil is disturbed or raked over. This is important to remember for consecutive years when they could easily become choked out by competing grasses or struggle in compacted soil.
• Poppies hate to be overcrowded. The easiest way to sow large areas is to mix a pinch of seeds with a handful of sand and broadcast sow them. (Think of honing your discus throwing technique.) For smaller areas a more controlled approach is to sow a couple of seeds every 5 inches 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 the 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. But I like to get my money’s worth out of a packet of seeds. How do you keep your poppies flowering year after year?
If your vision is for beautiful red poppies bobbing away among golden heads of grass put all thought out of your head of happily tossing a few handfuls of seeds on bare ground, freecycling the mower and putting your feet up. 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. These days you’re more likely to see beautiful poppies growing in the midst of road works than anywhere else.
Cultivating cornfield poppies successfully in a 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 beautiful flowers. Our most successful poppy patch at home has emerged as a result of sowing a homemade mix of field poppies, pot marigold (calendula), borage, cornflowers and sunflowers. The first three will self seed quite happily (and prolifically) but you’ll need to re 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 large pots) this is easy.
I’d like to see Bradford on Avon ‘planting the town red’ in 2014.Elsewhere in Wiltshire a group in Malmesbury has already taken up the baton and given away 1,000 packets of poppy seeds to members of the local community. Members of Malmesbury and Villages Community Area Partnership (MVCAP) have started The Great War Project which will highlight the experiences of local people before, during and after The Great War and build something positive for the future. Their first initiative is to get poppies blooming across the area.

In Bradford we’ve already flexed our community growing muscles with an edible planter in Lamb Yard, a successful community agriculture project and veg box scheme at BOACA on the Bath Road and the transformation of the railway station with creative planting. At Fitzmaurice School, where gardening is now on the curriculum we hope to be sowing a modest poppy meadow in the grounds and also sending each child home with their own poppy pot to nurture. Details of our progress will be published in the local press, on the school gardening website and on here. We are only too happy to share our experiences and offer advice to anyone who would like to join in and sow their own poppy patch. I hope you do.