Sunflowers: Summer's Cheerleader
Grow sunflowers in your garden for snacks and solace
Sunflowers are the life of summer’s garden party. Watermelons and tomatoes can no-show, but if sunflowers fail to attend, the party might as well be cancelled.
Look at her! There’s not a crass cell in her body. Just being in her presence makes me want to be a better person. And she’s so undeniably cheerful, she sometimes makes the cynic in me skeptical. I mean, what’s she hiding under her ever-present gleeful expression and classic good-looks, anyway?
Turns out, she’s not hiding anything. In fact, she’s been prancing around the world for centuries, freely offering to the masses her cure for snack attacks and summer doldrums.
With so much exposure, it’s easy for the sunflower to fall into the realm of cliche’ flowers. I’ll admit, the flower snob in me, on more than one occasion, has dismissed the sunflower as amateur. Nevertheless, she stands proud, summer after summer, unfazed by gardening trends, knowing that I’ll be back. I always come back.
How can I not? I blame it on her big brown eyes. They lure me in with the gravitational pull of a one-day, 75% off plant sale. And once I'm there, I can’t help but get lost in the intricate, spiral arrangement of her hundreds of tiny flowers. If there was ever the perfect example of Fibonacci in nature, the sunflower is it. Plant nerds and math nerds unite!
There are more sunflower varieties to choose from than there are aphids on your tomatoes. There’re yellow ones, red ones, creamy white ones and those that can’t decide. Some stop short at one foot tall, while others skim the sky. There are those grown for their tasty seeds and others to adorn tabletops. And if decisions aren’t your forte, grow a mixture, sowing tall types in the back, shorter ones up front.
If you garden in containers or are looking for sunflowers to brighten the front of your border, dwarf types fit the bill nicely. Choose varieties like, ‘Ballad,’ ‘Music Box,’ 'Teddy Bear,' ‘Sunspot,’ ‘Elf,’ or ‘Pacino.’ These types grow between one and two feet high and some still produce four to five inch flowers. Better yet, it’s not too late in the season to sow these now. Short and sweet!
More than bees, plant breeders cause quite a frenzy around sunflowers. And one of the most recent hybrids they’ve created is the pollen-less type. Their lack of pollen make them less messy when admired indoors and a good choice for allergy sufferers. Yet, they still produce seeds for birds and nectar for bees. Choose hybrids like ‘Sunbeam,’ ‘Parasol,’ ‘Sunrich Orange,’ and ‘Moonshadow.’
Now, if a tall border, sunflower maze, or flowers for seed is what you have in mind, choose medium and gigantic types. Sure, all sunflowers will produce seed; however, big seeds come from big flowers. Therefore, select varieties like, ‘Russian Giant,’ ‘Mammoth Russian,’ ‘Giant Grey Stripe,‘ ‘Kong’ or ‘Paul Bunyan Hybrid.’ As their names suggest, they’re tall. Really tall. And some sport flower heads, twelve inches in diameter or more!
Growing these monster types takes a bit more effort than the others, but if a healthy, thick stand of summer-round blooms is your goal, read this article for loads of tips from a sunflower growing expert. In it, he discusses the importance of placement (six hours of full sun) and direct sowing, optimal water and nutritional requirements, successive seeding advice (to ensure repeat flowering) and tips on how to avoid the domino effect within tight clusters.
Reaping Seeds of Yum
You aren’t the only creatures coveting the sunflower’s nutritious seeds. Your backyard birds and squirrels are waiting anxiously too. But you have tools they don’t: opposable thumbs and cheesecloth.
To protect your seeds from theft, wrap the entire seed head in breathable fabric, like cheesecloth or shade cloth, just as the seeds begin to develop. You’ll need to leave the declining seed head attached for quite some time, so if you’re a tidy gardener, consider growing your crop for seed in an area out of your everyday view. And if you don’t mind sharing your bounty with the wildlife, remove the seedy heads and place them elsewhere. Heavy squirrels will cause significant damage to the whole stand, even when munching on just one flower head.
You’ll know it’s time to harvest when the leafy bracts on the back of the seed head begin to turn yellow, then brown. Remove the seed head from the stalk and whatever seeds haven’t already fallen into the cloth, can be removed by rubbing with your palm, or with a bristle brush.
You see, no matter whether your garden party takes place on square footage, acreage or in containers, the sunflower is the perfect guest. And she brings her own party grub, to boot! Charming and accommodating? It’s no wonder she’s legendary.