If you never got around to starting flowers indoors this year and the ones at the local nursery were snatched up quickly, don't give up on being able to make your own bouquets this summer. You still can grow showy annual sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) from seeds by sowing them directly into your garden. There’s a size for every taste, as the plants vary from 1-foot dwarfs to giants 16 feet tall.
Some will bloom in 50 days or so, while others may take up to 100. So you’ll want to plant more than one variety to give you bouquets from late summer through early autumn—and to give your feathered friends a seedy treat afterwards.
Baffling the Birds
Actually, those “friends” may seem more like fiends when you endeavor to grow sunflowers, since they sometimes attempt to scratch up the seeds. I’ve occasionally had problems with my little plants getting decapitated as soon as they emerged also, because they still had seedcases adhering to them which the birds tried to peck off.
It’s too bad those flighty featherheads don’t realize that letting the sunflowers grow will multiply the number of seeds they get. Or perhaps they are just realists who hold that a seed in the beak is worth 200 in some possible but not assured future pie in the sky!
To stave off those beaks, I usually sow my seeds 1/4 inch deep in a container indoors. Once they begin to sprout, I immediately move the container outdoors into the sunlight and cover it with an inverted daisy tray. That’s the type of flat that has an openwork trellis-like pattern on its bottom to allow water to drain out. Those holes also will allow sunlight in while the seeds are germinating.
Once the seed cases have dropped off and the seedlings are large enough to handle easily, I transplant them into the garden. But you probably could protect seeds sown directly into the ground with row cover or netting instead. Also, I’ve found that anything which looks like a snake—such as a coiled piece of hose—may convince birds to keep their distance.
Selecting a Site
Gentle and undemanding giants, sunflowers will grow almost anywhere they receive at least 6 hours per day of sunlight and plenty of water. Because the plants and their blooms are so large, I generally plant them at the back of the vegetable garden where they won't shade anything else--and include only perennial sunflowers in my flowerbeds.
Germination can be more complicated for those perennial types, but the annuals are easy to grow, as long as you have fresh seeds. I’ve found that sunflower germination falls off drastically if the seeds are more than one year old. So try to use ones which were packed for this year or those you harvested from your garden last summer.
If you sow them at a temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit or above, they should begin to sprout in 3 or 4 days. Although I tend to crowd mine too closely together sometimes, you’ll probably want to transplant them to stand 1 1/2 to 2 feet apart to give them plenty of elbow room.
My favorites are semi double or double types or those with unusually dark colors. So my must-have mix is ‘Tiger’s Eye,’ while a couple of my favorite single colors are ‘Black Beauty’ and the “Chocolate” in the banner photo. Children should like short “furry” doubles, such as the ‘Teddy Bear’ above.
If you want to keep the seedheads for yourself, you are going to have to plan ahead, because I sometimes get birds trying to peck out the centers of the flowers even before those blooms make seeds. Since I’m not up to competing with ambition that fierce, I usually just harvest a few seeds from my favorites to sow the following year and let the birds have their pies in the sky!
Photos: The photos in the article are my own.