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How to Grow: Sunflowers
Learn how to select, plant and grow sunflowers
Listen to Podcast:
How to Grow: Sunflowers
full sun, part sun
Bloom Period and Seasonal Color
Mid summer to fall in colors such as yellow, red, white and burgundy
Mature Height x Spread
1 to 15 feet x 2 feet
attracts beneficials, drought tolerant, native, edible
This native North American flower is a dramatic eye-catcher in any garden. The original species features the classic, large head with yellow petals. The sunflower head does follow the sun through the sky from east to west and you’ll see fields of these plants nodding all in the same direction in summer. Modern breeding has created a wide range of plant sizes and flower colors. You can now grow dwarf varieties that are 1 foot tall to mammoth varieties that grow more than 15 feet tall. New, multi-branching varieties have more flowers per stalk and colors ranging from white to burgundy. Sunflowers attract bees and butterflies, are great cut flowers, and the seeds and immature flower buds are edible for us and for birds.
Where, When and How to Plant
Plant sunflower seed in compost amended soil in full sun directly into the garden in spring after all danger of frost has passed about the time your plant tomatoes. Thin the seedlings to 18 inches apart once 4 leaves have formed. Plant sunflowers in a group to prevent the taller varieties from blowing over in a storm.
Prevent birds from eating seed or young transplants by covering the sunflower patch with netting or a floating row cover. Once growing, remove the covering. Keep plants well watered and fertilize monthly with an organic plant food. Keep young patches well weeded until the sunflowers can outgrow the weeds.
Regional Advice and Care
To harvest seeds, protect flower heads by covering the heads in brown paper bags (to keep birds away) once the petals fade but before your can loosen the seeds by rubbing your heads across the head. Cut and let the head finish maturing indoors. Harvest immature flower buds, steam and eat like a globe artichoke. It’s a surprising treat! Grow plants in an airy location to prevent mildew and other diseases from forming.
Companion Planting and Design
Tall sunflowers look best planted in groups along a fence, wall or building. This also provides some protection from high winds. Plant medium-sized varieties in a cottage garden or along the back of a perennial flower border. Grow a cutting garden of sunflowers of various colored and shaped heads. Grow dwarf varieties in containers or in front of a flower border.
‘Mammoth Russian’ is a tall variety with massive flower heads that are great for collecting seeds for eating or feeding birds. Some nice multi-headed varieties of various colors include ‘Soraya’ (yellow), ‘Italian White (white), ‘Autumn Beauty’ (bronze), and ‘Chianti’ (red). ‘Firecracker’ (yellow) is a pollen-free variety that’s great for flower arranging since it won’t drop pollen on the table. However, it won’t attract bees. ‘Elf’ and ‘Big Smile’ are dwarf varieties that grow well in containers. ‘Teddy Bear’ features a dwarf plant with chrysanthemum-like yellow flowers.
Excerpted from my book, New England Getting Started Garden Guide.
This Native American flower was one of the earliest examples of Russian and American cooperation. It has been grown in the Americas for thousands of years, but became popular in modern times due to breeding in Russia. It’s the sunflower.
The common sunflower was originally grown in the Southwest 5000 years ago. Native Americans used the seed for food, dyes, medicine and oil. Though the Europeans started growing sunflowers in the 1500’s, it was mostly as an ornamental. It wasn’t until Peter the Great of Russia started growing it on the large scale for oil production that sunflowers started booming in popularity as an agricultural crop.
There are many types of sunflowers to grow in our gardens. They’re a diverse group such as the massive 15 foot tall Mammoth Russian with large heads and tons of seeds, or the diminutive 2 foot tall ‘Teddy Bear’ with a fluffy yellow flower that looks more like a chrysanthemum. I like the multi-head varieties such as ‘Soraya’, ‘Autumn Beauty’ and ‘Italian White’. These grow 4 to 6 feet tall and have smaller, more colorful heads. If you’re looking for sunflower seed production, stick with the Russian varieties, but for ornamental purposes, look for these multi-headed varieties. Many also are pollen-less so they don’t make a mess when used as a cut flower indoors. For a real treat, harvest any sunflower head before it opens while it’s still in the bud form. Steam and eat the head like a globe artichoke. It’s delicious!
Most sunflowers are annuals that grow well on well drained fertile soil in full sun. For a perennial version grow the small headed varieties such as Maximillan which tend to bloom in late summer and fall.