Nothing says summer like the cheerful face of a sunflower that’s taller than you are. Planting sunflowers brings the brightness of the summer sun into your landscape even on those days when the actual sun wants to spend the day hiding behind dreary clouds. No wonder Van Gogh used these simple, cheery flowers as the subject for so many of his paintings.
We know from Greek mythology and Native American lore that sunflowers have been around for a long, long time. While today’s wild sunflower varieties may have many multiple branches to a plant, the domesticated sunflower typically bears one large flower on a single hairy stem.
Many Uses for Sunflower Seeds
The head of the sunflower is actually a composite of hundreds, even thousands of tiny individual florets of brown, yellow, or purple, composing a prominent disk. When the inner florets mature, they become the sunflower seeds that are used for snacks, for making oil, for feeding birds, and for growing more sunflowers. The sterile florets around the edge of the disc are the source of the magnificent petals, in vibrant colors of yellow, orange, and red.
Types of Sunflowers
There are dozens of varieties of annual and perennial sunflowers, from giants that grow to be taller than six feet high to dwarfs that prefer to stay closer to the ground, sometimes no more than 10 inches tall.
The flower heads range from those magnificent, round sun-shaped blooms measuring 4 to 8 inches across, to small, shaggy flowers that look like cheerleaders’ pompoms. But those are the standard garden varieties of sunflowers; some gardeners have raised sunflowers for competition as tall as twenty feet high with flower heads measuring 2 feet across!
For these sun-worshipping floral show-stoppers, full sun exposure is fundamental to their health and beauty. A southern wall or fence would be acceptable, but a freestanding location with no shade is even better. Like most flowers, they need fertile, well-drained soil and protection from excessive drought. Heavy mulch will help retain moisture as well as fend off nutrient-draining weeds.
Sunflower seeds of all varieties can be found just about anywhere— even some grocery stores. Once the danger of a late winter frost has passed, the seeds should be planted about one inch deep and spaced about 12 to 18 inches apart. If you want to improve your chances of a sturdy plant, you can plant several seeds in one area, then choose the strongest looking seedlings to continue to maturity. In 5 to 10 days, you should begin to see the seedlings popping their head through the ground; it will take about 90 days for them to become fully mature.
As your sunflowers grow, you may want to feed occasionally with fertilizer if you’re interested in breaking records, but sunflowers are pretty capable of getting the nutrients they need from most garden soils. Just make sure to keep weeds out of the area as they’re getting their start, and water enough to keep them from drying out. Very tall plants or plants in areas that tend to be windy may need staking to keep them from falling over.One of the side benefits of planting sunflowers is the opportunity to harvest the seeds after you have enjoyed their beauty in your garden.
If you’re interested in gathering seeds from your sunflowers (and who wouldn’t be?) leave the seed head on the stalk after the petals have fallen off. If you foresee that birds may be a problem when planting sunflowers, you can cover the flower head with a paper bag or other type of porous protection. Once the sunflower seed shells have hardened, cut the stalks at the base of the flower and allow the seeds to finish drying before you gently rub them so that they easily fall out of the flower head. Each flower head will supply an abundance of seeds so you can snack on some, and save some for next year!
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