Growing Sunflowers for Efficiency and Elegance

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There’s hardly a flower that can hit you in the face with more happy, hi, nice to see ya! than a sunflower. And as far as cuts go, what a sad state the late summer cutting garden would be in without them.

As a garden companion, Helianthus annuus will not play well with others thanks to allellopathy, a biochemical process that sees sunflower roots telling other plants to go away. (You can make this mean streak work for you if you’ve got a patch of grass that needs clearing). Put sunflowers anywhere, I grow mine in nearly bare sand and never water them.

Those of you who make-do already know that sowing basic, black oil birdseed — the kind that comes in a 30kg bag — will grow perfectly cheery yellow sunflowers in the 3 to 7 foot range. Broadcast and rake seeds before a warm rain and thin afterwards. You’d be wise growing these in front of ugly things in your yard and as windbreaks for protecting wimpier plants on exposed sites.

‘Evening Sun’ Helianthus competes with dahlias and amaranth for the title of most luxurious looking bloom.

As a cut flower for yourself and, especially for market, consider growing rare and colorful cultivars. Last season I grew ‘Evening Sun,’ and found its velvety red blooms rivaled the richness of dahlias and Amaranthus, if not completely stealing the show.

Should you have fancier seed, or a harder time with germination, don’t be afraid to sow in trays. They say sunflowers don’t transplant well, this isn’t quite true, just be sure to move them out early enough. I worked on one flower farm that saw thousands of greenhouse-born sunflower seedlings transplanted into the field during mid-morning heat. They fell over from fright, got spanked by a light frost, and still held their golden heads high come August.

You’d be on-trend in the 2017 season growing heirloom stock in ‘Italian White,’ ‘Autumn Beauty,’ and ‘Teddy Bear.’ The ‘Italian White’ is a real stunner, offering butter cream blooms with hints of lemon yellow and vanilla encircling warm brown centers, while ‘Autumn Beauty’ offers a trendy bicolor palette of terracotta, bronze, copper and faded pink. 

Photo Credit: Thompson and Morgan Seeds
‘Italian White’ sunflowers are, dare I say, good enough for a wedding bouquet.

Photo Credit: Seed Savers Exchange
‘Autumn Beauty’ has all the right tones for trending floral designs this season.

New on the heirloom market is ‘Fantazja,’ an unusual Polish heirloom with some antique-looking elements. Fiber artists will appreciate the historical significance and indigo-violet coloring found on ‘Hopi Black Dye’ sunflowers.

As cut flower arrangements lean into more textural territory, sunflower seed heads sold well for me last year at fall markets (sans petals). For arts and crafts and a contemporary look, grow a white-seeded sunflower to play with in autumn, like the very chic ‘Tarahumara’ sunflower, which originated with the Northwest Mexican tribe proper and was then brought to Canada by Russian Mennonites. 

Come winter, save your seed heads whole before the birds get them, and dry them quickly. You can use them in wreaths, paint white seed heads with the kids, or pass some long winter hours like I did, meticulously gluing heirloom corn in their fascinating framework for hanging on the wall. You’d earn some serious crafting points using a white-seeded wreath of sunflowers combined with evergreens for Christmas decor that brings birds right to the door. 

A gigantic ‘Arikara’ seedhead forms a framework for nature-based crafts, this time with ‘Glass Gem’ corn.

Mother Earth Gardener
Mother Earth Gardener
Expert advice on all aspects of growing.