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The Right Way to Grow Sunflowers

Stand of sunflowers

Here’s a challenge for you: imagine staring into a field of sunflowers in full bloom and not smiling. It’s hard, isn’t it?

There’s a common sentiment that it’s impossible not to love sunflowers, and I’ll have to agree. Sunflowers have a way of brightening our days with positive joy, especially in a bouquet of summer flowers. They will also enhance the beauty of your garden too.

If the image of sunflowers in your mind is yellow, yellow and more yellow, think again.

Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) can take on other hues and shades too, from orange and red to creamy white. To make choosing a variety worth planting in your garden even more complex, sunflowers can have single or double petals and grow from two feet (perfect for cut flowers) to ten feet tall giants. I’ll share some sunflower varieties down below.

But first, let’s go over the basics of sowing seeds, watering and waiting for those sunny blossoms.

How to Plant Sunflowers

Sunflower seedlings

Sunflowers are actually pretty easy to grow. They are tolerant of heat, fast growers and resistant to many pests. For the most part all you have to do, is sow the seeds directly in the ground and wait for them to grow. For this reason alone, it’s a great opportunity to grow sunflowers with children, as the sunflowers will quickly outgrow them in height.

Late spring is planting time for easy-going annual sunflowers.

Naturally, the largest varieties should be sown and grown directly in the soil. If you try to grow them in pots, they’ll often fall over when the plant grows too tall, or the heads grow too heavy.

That being said, smaller sunflower varieties can certainly be grown on your patio as part of your container garden.

No matter what variety you choose, the process of sowing seeds is similar. Wait until the risk of overnight frosts have passed, then poke the seeds in the ground. About 1″ (2.5 cm) deep will be sufficient.

It takes an average of 85-95 days for most sunflower varieties to reach maturity. Take this into consideration when planning your harvestable crop.

As far as spacing goes, standard size sunflowers should be spaced 8″-12″ apart, or planted more densely and thinned to this amount. Giant sunflowers may need as much distance as 20″-24″ apart.

Don’t try to skimp on the distance between stalks.

A large sunflower in bloom

The closer sunflowers are planted together, the smaller the heads will be. Too far apart and the head may be too heavy for the stalk to bear. You’ll have to find the golden middle, but I’ll leave that up to your intuition and Mother Nature.

However, if you are growing sunflowers in your cut flower garden, you may want to take the opposite advice and plant them closer together. This way you’ll end up with more, but smaller sunflowers that are perfect for flower arrangements.

Did I mention that sunflowers need full sun?

What’s obvious to some, isn’t always the same clear to others. Sunflowers absolutely adore the sun. I mean, it is in their name. 6-8 hours of sunlight should make them happy.

The part what may not be obvious to everyone though, is that you need to be careful where you sow your seeds. Because sunflowers grow so tall, they would prefer to be in a sheltered space, out of high winds. Next to your home or close to a fence were the stalks can be tied for instance.

It’s also worth mentioning that the roots of sunflowers grow wide and deep (another reason to only keep smaller varieties in containers). When you sow the seeds, provide plenty of compost in and around the planting area.

If you had a bumper crop last year, it’s entirely possible that some seeds may have fallen to the ground. You may also find them emerging on their own. You may transplant them, if you wish, to another part of the garden, or thin them out where they stand.

Sunflower Care Tips

Sunflower with a bee on it

How much water does a sunflower need? The typical gardening answer is: it depends.

It depends on your climate (hardiness zone), the weather as much as it does on the type(s) of soil in your garden.

In general, sunflowers should be watered regularly until they sprout. Once their roots are well established, it may be enough to rely on the rain, unless you can’t. If you must water, deep, yet infrequent watering is the best.

If you are growing sunflowers in containers…

Potted sunflowers

Be sure that your soil substrate is well draining. Sunflowers don’t like to have wet feet.

Since they are heavy feeders, a monthly application of fertilizer may be in order for both container-planted sunflowers as well as those in the soil. While conventional gardening suggests a balanced 10-10-10 fertilizer, natural solutions are often at hand. If you have nettle anywhere in your yard, you can also use that. Here is Tracey’s stinging nettle fertilizer tea. Yes, it’s stinky, yet it works great.

You can also use this green juice on your potatoes, pumpkins, summer and winter squashes.

Harvesting Sunflower Seeds

Once your beautiful sunflowers have reached their maximum height, they’ll start to droop their heads under the weight of fattening seeds. When the flower petals have fallen to the ground, it’s time to observe them a little closer and check for maturing seeds. If they are white and milky, leave them awhile longer.

You should also take a look at the back of the head. If it’s still green, it’s far too soon to cut the head off. Wait until it turns yellow-brown before harvesting.

As you wait patiently for the seeds to mature, you may need to protect them from some of the critters listed below. This can be done using a large piece of cheesecloth and a rubber band, so the seeds can still breathe, but not fall out.

When all the seeds are dry, they can be rubbed off by hand. Do this over a clean tarp or a very large bowl. Allow the seeds to dry further, spread out on a sheet for a couple more days. Only put them away once they are fully dry.

It’s best to wait until the sunflower seeds are completely dry before harvesting.

Sunflower with dried seeds

But this doesn’t always happen in good time. If the late summer or early fall weather looks to be on the rainy/damp side, you don’t want your seeds to mold or rot.

In this case, you can cut the stalk about 10″-12″ below the head once the outer seeds are mature. Then hang them upside down in a well-ventilated and warm space. Cover them with a paper bag or mesh cloth so the seeds aren’t stolen by hungry guests.

It may take a few more weeks for the seeds to dry this way, so be patient.

Sunny Sunflower Varieties

What variety of sunflower should you grow?

My advice is to grow more than one, especially if you want to keep those pollinators in your garden in a very happy state of mind. The fact that different varieties bloom at different times will also bring a smile to your face. There are more than 70 varieties to choose from, so what will it be?

Teddy Bear Sunflowers

Teddy Bear sunflower

Now, these are cute. Teddy Bear sunflowers are fluffy, shaggy and cute. More for decoration than anything else, it seems they were made for flower arrangements. Yet, there’s more. The petals can be used for a burst of color in salads, or as a decoration on a cupcake.

Suntastic Yellow Sunflowers

Dwarf sunflower

Another dwarf variety with stalks that grow not more than 2 feet in height. From each stalk you’ll get not one, but several cheerful yellow heads, 5 to 8 to be more exact.

Little Becka Sunflowers

Little Becka Sunflower

Dwarfing in at 1 to 2 feet in height, these sunflowers are absolutely adorable. They are known for the orange halo effect of their delicate petals.

Moulin Rouge Sunflowers

Moulin Rouge sunflower

Moulin Rouge flowers, averaging 4 feet, are most certainly not yellow. They’ll easily become the star of your garden with their stunning burgundy petals.

Mammoth Sunflowers

Sunflowers as tall as a house

Mammoths, though not as tall as giants, have something to be proud of. They can rise up to heights of 9 to 12 feet tall. Pollinators love them, so do squirrels.

American Giant Sunflowers

If you plan on entering a sunflower growing competition, this is the variety to grow. With some luck, a pinch of electroculture and nature on your side, these American Giants can grow to heights of 15 feet or more, with sunny faces about 1 foot wide.

Common Sunflower Growing Problems

Just as you enjoy sunflowers growing in your garden, some creatures will take advantage of your generosity in planting them as well. Deer, rabbits, mice, voles, chipmunks, squirrels, birds and raccoons are among some of the voracious consumers that may choose to dine in your garden, particularly when it comes to sunflowers.

You’ll never be able to prevent them completely in your garden, though you can try fencing or bird netting (when seeds are forming) to hinder their appetites. You might even opt for a scarecrow in fall to add to the countryside scene.

A fun fact about sunflowers before you go…

It’s not only sunflower seeds that are edible. The petals, the unripe flowers, the white immature seeds, even the leaves when done right, are all for eating. But I’m going to leave that up to Alan Bergo, the author of The Forager Chef’s Book, to explain.

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Cheryl Magyar

Well, hello, szia and bună ziua!

My name is Cheryl Magyar and I am a homesteader, organic no-dig gardener and preserver of fruits, vegetables, herbs and life in general. I'm also a forager and a rewilder, rewilding myself and our land in Breb, Romania, along with my husband and our teenage daughter.

Since 2001 I have been living a simple life, going on 15+ years without running water inside our home, heating with firewood cut with a two-wo/man crosscut saw and enjoying the quiet solitude of the countryside where haystacks outnumber the people.

What you wouldn't guess about me, is that I was born and raised in a suburb of Chicago. If I can do this, you can too! It's a life you get to choose, so choose wisely. Because I know you're curious, I've spent 8 years homesteading (raising mangalica pigs, goats and ducks) and gardening on our tanya in Ópusztaszer, Hungary. This lifestyle is going on 8 years in Romania. I wouldn't change it for the world.

To discover more about me, and about us:

you can follow on Instagram
read into our website at Forest Creek Meadows
stop by for a visit and/or a (re)workshop
or shop our growing Etsy store Earth Gratitude Studio

Hope to see you around!