Sunflowers make beautiful cut flowers, container flowers and are dazzling when added to dried flower arrangements. Unmistakably cheerful, when you know how to grow sunflowers, their prolific blooms attract birds, butterflies and other wildlife to your garden, transforming it from an ordinary garden into a woodland paradise. Sunflower seeds are a sun-buttered treat for both gardeners and garden wildlife.
Sunflowers are heliotropic, which is partially apparent in the name of their genus, Helianthus. Heliotropism is the involuntary response of a plant to the sun. At times, you'll watch your sunflowers as they physically turn to face the sun. At sunset, they'll turn back to their original position as they wait for a new day to begin. All sunflowers like full sun and warm summer temperatures.
Begin growing sunflowers by choosing from the fifty species of sunflowers that are native to North America. Sunflowers range from dwarf varieties of 15 inches tall to giants reaching up to 12 feet in height. In addition to the traditional yellow, sunflowers come in a full range of oranges and russets with some cultivars available in ivory, purple, and even lime green! Some sunflowers are available in bicolor varieties as well.
Sunflowers seeds, even within one package, are different sizes. Black seeded varieties of sunflowers are grown for wildlife food and for oils used in cooking, cosmetics and soaps. To produce seeds for snacking and baking, choose a cultivar that produces the larger striped seeds (confectionary seeds).
Regardless of the type of sunflower seed produced, all varieties of sunflowers produce lovely and abundant blooms for cut flowers. However, sunflower blooms are a wildlife magnet! Squirrels and birds won't wait for your seeds to mature, so don't expect your blooms to remain unblemished for long as they become both coveted perching spots and feeding places for garden wildlife.
Easy growers that will delight you with prolific blooms all summer long, sunflowers are the perfect choice for the beginning gardener. To ensure even growth of the strongest plants, germinate your sunflower seeds before planting. Fold a paper towel into quarters and dampen it by spraying it with water from a spray bottle. Don't saturate it. If the towel is too wet, your sunflower seeds will mold before they germinate! Lay your seeds on the damp towel and then cover them with another paper towel, dampened and folded in the same way as the first towel. Check your paper towels daily and re-dampen them as necessary. Your seeds should germinate in five to fifteen days, depending upon the variety of sunflower seed.
The first seeds to sprout will likely be those that produce the strongest plants. Discard seeds that haven't germinated after two weeks and begin the process again if you want to produce more sunflowers than sprouted from the first batch of seeds. Plant sunflower sprouts as appropriate for the height and spread of the variety. Keep the soil moist, but not wet.
Sunflowers are big eaters so plan on enriching their soil with a dressing of compost at least once during the summer. However, compost is more desirable than fertilizer since over-fertilization weakens sunflower stems. Once established, most sunflowers tolerate drought well and seldom need watering.
Put some animation into your container gardening with the addition of lively and cheerful sunflowers. New dwarf varieties with whimsical names like the multi-colored Music Box mixture and the golden, double-flowered, fuzzy-faced Teddy Bear seem to be made for container gardening with blossoms that stretch only 12 to 24 inches.
When container gardening with sunflowers, dwarf varieties can be planted as close as six inches apart. Plant seeds about an inch deep, water well, and expect germination in a week or two. Remember to water young plants often until they are well established. However, like those planted in your garden, once established, container grown sunflowers are drought tolerant and will be forgiving if you forget to water them from time to time.
To dry sunflowers, hang them upside down in a warm and well-ventilated location.
If you harvest sunflowers for seed, cut them when the heads begin to turn brown, leaving about two inches of stem and hang them to dry. After they are dry, rub heads together to loosen the seeds. Soak the seeds overnight in salted water. In the morning, drain off the water and spread the seeds on baking sheets and roast them for three hours at 200 degrees or until they are dry.
From the first sprout to the last bite, sunflower seeds and their panoramic blooms bring fun, magic, and good taste to your garden.