Arguably the world’s most recognisable flower, the radiant, statuesque and vibrant sunflower is in a class of its own.
Recognised as a symbol of loyalty, longevity and adoration, sunflowers are the ultimate happy flower. They are also a food source, with sunflower oil a valued and healthy alternative and sunflower seeds enjoyed as a nutritious snack as well as an ingredient for breads, salads, cereals and baking. Wild sunflowers originated in North America and were widely used by the American Indians who ground the seeds into flour to make bread and pulses.
Explorers took seeds to Europe and the breeding and commercialisation of the sunflowers we know today happened in Russia. Hence, you often see Russian names on sunflower cultivars. Colours range from the bright, bold, sunny yellows (and shades thereof), through to tones of orange, red, cream and almost white. Attractive two-toned varieties are becoming more mainstream.
Each season, I plant plenty of sunflowers, probably around 50, and I use most of them as cut flowers in bouquets and posies. They are the perfect partner for sweet peas, dianthus and phlox. A few giants always go in, too. I love the way their flower heads look like they are guarding the vege garden, keeping an eye on what’s going on.
When and where to grow
As the name suggests, at least six to eight hours full sun has to be on the menu for decent sunflowers. Sow seeds as soon as the last frosts have finished. They have long tap roots that need to be able to bury themselves deeply into the soil to keep the stems anchored and upright. Sunflowers are gross feeders and will be at their best grown in a rich, fertile soil. They do grow in poor dry soils, but they just won’t do as well. So, for the biggest and best blooms, enrich the soil with plenty of compost and sheep pellets prior to planting. A sprinkle of fertiliser will help, too.
Sowing the seed
Sunflowers grown from seed are very quick to germinate, with shoots often appearing within a couple of weeks. The most common practice is to sow them where you want them to grow, however, they can be sown in pottles or old seedling punnets if required. Egg cartons work well, as do toilet rolls cut in half.
Press the seeds in about 2cm below the soil surface and water. Allow plenty of room between each seed, 20-30cm for smaller varieties and 50-100cm for the tallest ones. Birds are quite partial to the seeds, so a layer of bird netting may be required to keep them away.
Think about how you are going to support your sunflowers. Planting them near a fence is always a good option, especially for the taller ones. The heavy flower heads do make them top heavy and if they are not staked or tied to something secure, they easily topple over. Use string to tie them to the fence and try planting them in clusters so they can protect each other from strong winds. Dwarf or bushy hybrids don’t required staking, but it does help.
Sunflowers love a good drink. The more water they get, the bigger and better the blooms will be, but they don’t like soggy soils, so ensure you don’t overwater. Ideally a good soak every week or so is enough, avoid watering little and often as this encourages the roots to stay near the surface looking for water, rather than burying themselves deeper into the soil. Worm-wee tea or Seasol drenches are welcome, too.
Friends and foes
It’s not only humans that appreciate these happy flowers, birds and bees and a plethora of other insects do as well. Bees and butterflies feed on the nectar, while birds eat the seeds out of the centre of the flower once the flowers finish. Chickens love the seeds, so cut off the seed heads and fire them into the chicken run, or hold them over to winter when they can be put out as wild bird feeders.
Keep an eye out for pesky slimeballs like slugs and snails when the plants are young, especially when the seeds are just germinating and around finger height. The super-soft stems and shoots are a delicacy for these hungry beasts and overnight young seedlings can be eaten alive. Hence, it’s always a good idea to lay pellets or eggshells, coffee grounds or anything else that will protect the plants for the first few weeks. Alternatively, place a cut-off plastic drink bottle over the top of the seedlings until they get big enough. Once the plants are 15-20cm tall, the stems are not as appetising.
Edible sunflower seeds
‘Golden Toasted’ is a good variety to grow if you want to harvest your own seed. The plants have large, single heads packed tightly with big, nutritious seeds. Sow seeds 30cm apart, with 1m between rows. Harvest the seeds when the flower head turns brown on the back. Cut the head off the plant and remove the mature seeds with your fingers or a fork. If the seeds don’t come out that easily, leave to hang indoors away from birds and mice. Before storing, the seeds need to be soaked, ideally overnight. Following this, lay them out on trays, pat dry and roast in the oven. Once cool, store in airtight jars.
Sunflowers are marvellous cut flowers. The trick is to pick them in the morning and plunge them into fresh water. Handle the flowers gently, and arrange them in tall vases or containers that will provide support to the heavy flower heads. If the water is kept fresh they will last over a week indoors.
Giant sunflower competitions
These are a fun way to get the community or families together. Dish out a few seeds some time before Christmas and make a date to judge the best one. Allow three months for the giant ones to fully develop. If planted in the Christmas holidays, Easter is a good time to assess the winning plants. They can be judged on height, flowerhead size, and number of flowers per stem. Make it fun with a few comical categories, such as the sunflower with the most potential, e.g. the smallest.
The sky is the limit
The novelty value of giant sunflowers never seems to dwindle, and they are like magnets to children, young and old. Make sure these plants are either supported by a stake and/or fence in a spot away from blustery winds. ‘Russian Giant’ is up there, too, reaching around 3m; this one has slightly smaller heads, and can produce a few flowers on small side branches.
Please be aware sunflower varieties will vary by store. Please speak to our Garden expert’s in-store for more information.