Sunflowers are popular amongst gardeners who enjoy seeing birds in their garden, as birds (and other animals) are drawn to their big seeds.
Other gardeners prefer to keep the seeds for themselves, as a healthy snack. Or one’s primary enjoyment of sunflowers may be aesthetic, as the big happy blossoms make a lovely adornment to any garden.
Some species of sunflowers, like Russian Giants and Kong, are among the biggest varieties of flowers. At fall festival competitions, it’s not unusual to see these behemoths topping twenty feet.
Midsize varieties, such as Autumn Mix, grow six to ten feet high. Some people prefer the midsize for their disproportionately large blossoms; the really big sunflower plants have smaller flowers because so long a stem could not support anything heavier.
Smaller varieties that grow to only two to three feet or less, such as Music Box and Teddy Bear, are popular as well, especially for people who grow theirs in containers.
Sunflowers are one of the heartier, easier to grow flowers for a garden.
They can be grown in a container and then transplanted, but most people find it easier to grow them directly in their garden.
It’s best to plant sunflowers in the spring after the last frost. The hardy plants can thrive in just about any soil, but a well-drained, average to rich soil is better than a sandy soil.
Plant them where their roots have room to grow deep and wide, as the taller varieties will definitely need that support. They should be planted where they will get plenty of direct sun.
When you are factoring in your planting area requirements, you’ll also want to take into account that if you’re not careful, their big flowers – which will lean toward the east into the sun as they develop – can block other plants from getting the sunlight they need.
You can plant sunflowers individually, in rows, or in groups. Plant the seeds one inch deep in the ground, and six inches apart from each other.
Within a week or two they should emerge from the ground, and then develop slowly at first. Thin them out such that the larger varieties are three to four feet apart, the intermediate varieties are two to three feet apart, and the miniature varieties are one foot apart.
If wind is a problem, which is a distinct possibility with the larger varieties, you can stake them. A good trick is to plant sunflowers close to a fence, which can be used for support.
Water them well when you first plant them and keep the ground moist until they sprout.
After they sprout, sunflowers are quite hearty and can tolerate a certain amount of drought although a little watering here and there will still give them their best chance to thrive.
They also don’t need a lot of fertilizer, but a little can help. Phosphorus and potassium can facilitate bigger blooms.
Pests and Diseases
Ants occasionally are drawn to the nectar of the flower, but don’t disturb the seeds. Other than that, insects are rarely a problem for sunflowers. Nor are they prone to plant diseases. And once they get a foot or two high, weeds aren’t an issue.
Some gardeners welcome this and grow sunflowers as a living bird feeder. If you do want to keep them from eating all the seeds, though, you can cover the heads with a piece of cheesecloth or screen.
Don’t use plastic for a covering, as this can hold in moisture and cause mold on the seeds.
Most sunflower varieties mature in 70 to 90 days. Harvest the seeds after most of the flower petals have died and dropped off.
Cut off the seed heads and about two inches of stem.
Hang them to dry in a well-ventilated area. Once they are dry, rub the flower heads together to loosen them, and the seeds should be easy to extract.
One way to prepare the seeds for eating is to soak them in salty water overnight, drain them, and spread them on a baking sheet to roast for three hours at 200 degrees.
Their oil can also be used as cooking oil although the average gardener won’t have an oil press to take advantage of this.
Native Americans ground sunflower seeds and used them in breads and cakes.
They also used sunflowers in folk remedies, including as a treatment for snakebite.
Sunflowers can be a lovely addition to a bouquet. They are also great to use in various craft projects in both fresh and dried versions.
If you have a pet gerbil or other rodent, or a pet bird, they too will enjoy sunflower seeds as a snack.