Sunflowers – A Complete Guide to Selecting and Growing

Congratulations on your interest in growing sunflowers! The sunflower is one of the most widely recognized flowers of all time. It emits a sense of warmth and joy. This large flower blooms in a wide variety of yellows, pinks, and even reds. With a little care you will be rewarded by the most noble of garden beauties. Ask anyone who has grown them and their eyes will light up with excitement. The many varieties have something to offer gardeners of any age regardless of space limitations. So let’s get busy and you will have a garden to be proud of in no time.

Selecting a Growing Location

Your first must decide on where you want to grow your sunflowers. Consider the following:

  • Sun and Wind Exposure
    As the name implies, sunflowers like the sun and do best when in a sunny location. A general guideline is to pick a spot that receives at least 6 hours of sunlight daily. If planted in a shady area, sunflowers may stretch to reach sun and thus will require additional staking support as they will if planted in a windy area. Tall varieties are often planted on a fence line to help with support.
  • Orientation to Other Plants
    Particularly with the taller varieties of sunflowers you will want to consider how they may block sun and wind from your other garden plants. This can be a good thing if you are trying to shelter particular garden plants from too much sun or wind, but you must also consider if your sunflowers are going to negatively impact your other sun loving plants when selecting the best spot for your new friends. Some people feel close to sunflowers because they are at eye level and bend to look you in the face. Sunflowers will face east at maturity so this may also be a factor you want to consider in their placement.
  • Days to Maturity
    Most sunflower varieties have a maturity between 75 and 110 days. The nice thing is that you can grow them from the last freeze until winter sets in again. Consider planting a few each week to insure staggered blooms and enjoyment throughout the growing season. Stop planting 75-100 days before the first winter freeze is expected in your location.
  • Annual or Perennial Varieties
    By far, most people plant annual sunflowers, but if you only plant annuals you are missing out on some beautiful long term friends. Perennials may take one to three seasons to begin producing blooms, but they are well worth the wait and can be great producers of flowers for years to come.
  • Color Coordination for your Garden
    Most people are familiar with the classic giant sunflower with one large yellow flower with a dark center. Fortunately for us sunflower lovers, there are many different colors and varieties to choose from. Vincent Van Gogh loved sunflowers for this reason. Take the time to select and place different size and color varieties as you paint the canvas of your new landscape. Some gardeners like to use larger varieties as the backdrop and progress to mid sized and then small varieties as they get closer to the house or other public sitting areas.
  • Plant size and spacing
    If you want to have the most success with sunflowers and want your plants to be healthy it is generally best to follow the recommended spacing when planting. This will dictate how many plants you can have in a given area. Pay close attention to the spaces you intend to fill with sunflowers when you are selecting which varieties to plant.
  • Containers, Planter Beds or Open Space
    With the increasing popularity and development of dwarf varieties more people are planting sunflowers in containers than ever before. Containers smaller than six inches are generally not recommended. Even if the plants can tolerate them, they dry out too quickly. In small six inch pots you generally will only want to plant one plant of a dwarf variety that has a mature height of three feet or less. Generally in this small pot the dwarf plants will not reach more than two feet. If you are planting in medium or large pots, eight inches and larger, you can slightly bend the rules for suggested spacing for the variety and plant three individual plants in each pot. It is still better to stick with small varieties (less than three feet) for medium pots and small or medium (three to five foot) varieties for large pots. It is absolutely critical that your containers have drainage holes. Sunflowers need well drained soil.
  • Is Pollen a Factor?
    Most people do not have problems with the pollen from sunflower gardens. If you or someone you know is particularly sensitive to pollen you are in luck. Many varieties of sunflower are pollen free.
  • Uses intended for plants
    Consider if you would like to have a steady supply of cut flowers from your plants. Some varieties are particularly good for long lasting cut flowers. With flower preservatives in the water and weekly water changes some varieties can last for several weeks. Are you a bird lover? Birds are particularly fond of the seeds produced by some varieties and butterflies are attracted by others. Do you intend to harvest and roast the seeds? Sunflowers have a myriad of uses. In the garden the stocks of large varieties can be dried and tied together to form rustic trellises for other plants and make good poles to help support plants including future generations of sunflowers.
  • Soil and Weather conditions
    In general you will do best to adequately prepare the soil in transplanting, but some varieties of sunflower are particularly good in poor soil conditions. Some are particularly strong for extra hot conditions and periods of dry soil. If your plants are going in a windy area you may want to consider bushy, branching varieties and/or be prepared to steak your plants.

The following is a list of some of the popular varieties of sunflower and gives characteristics for each plant. Only one Perennial variety is listed and only a few dwarfs, but their certainly are more varieties of each available at seed and plant vendors.

Moulin Rouge Sunflower
“Moulin Rouge” sunflower

  • Mammoth Russian Striped
    Will do well in poor soil. Tolerates heat and dry conditions. Average head size is 10-15 inches, but they have reached 20 inches. Plants should be spaced 12-18″ and grow to 8’+. Days to Maturity – 100-110.

  • Moulin Rouge
    An excellent red with dark disc. Single flowers have a dark deep red color that are 5-7″ in diameter. These 6′ plants are very vigorous and make any garden a show place. Plants should be spaced 24″ and grow to 6′. Days to Maturity – 90.
  • Skyscraper
    Heat and drought tolerant. Great for bird feed and roasting heavy yielder! Will do well in poor soil. Will do well in poor soil. Stake to support plants. Large heads attract birds. Makes a great ornamental backdrop. Plants should be spaced 12-18″ and grow to 12′. Days to Maturity – 75.
  • sunflower - velvet queen
    “Velvet Queen” Sunflower
  • Ruby Eclipse
    Showy ruby red or pink flowers display lemon yellow tips. Ruby Eclipse Sunflowers are pollen free; ideal for cutting. Plants should be spaced 24″ and grow to 6′. Days to Maturity – 90.
  • Dove Hybrid Black Oil
    Frequently used in bird seed mixes and called “black oil” sunflower seed. Plants should be spaced 24″ and grow to 6′. Days to Maturity – 90.
  • Sonja
    Flowers and more flowers. Sonja Sunflower blooms so heavily it can be hard to spot foliage. Plants should be spaced 24″ and grow to 3.5′. Days to Maturity – 90.
  • Dwarf Sunspot
    Great plant for the family garden, children love it! Full 10″ heads on short stem. Heads last up to 5 weeks. Plants should be spaced 12″ and grow to 2-3′. Days to Maturity – 80-90.
  • Teddy Bear
    Small bushy sunflower grows to 18-36″, double yellow blooms 3-6″. Good cut flower. Plants should be spaced 12″ and grow to 3′. Days to Maturity – 80-90.
  • Autumn Beauty
    Mixture of fall colors on 5″ flowers. Multiflorous type. Heat and drought tolerant. Plants should be spaced 24″ and grow to 5-6′. Days to Maturity – 90.
  • Velvet Queen
    Will do well in poor soil. Stake to support plants. Multi-blooms on numerous side branches. Small seed is favored by birds. Not a large seeded (roasting) type. Great for cut flowers, borders, backgrounds and temporary screens. Plants should be spaced 18″ and grow to 4-6′. Days to Maturity 100-110.
  • Italian White
    Plants have many branches. Multiple 4″ flowers have brown centers surrounded by a band of buttery-yellow and then white pointed petals. Not a good cut flower. Plants should be spaced 24″ and grow to 5-6′. Days to Maturity – 90.
  • Lemon Queen
    Produces multiple 4″ blooms. The lemon yellow petals are slightly pointed, and surround a dark chocolate brown center. There is also a Perennial Sunflower by this name. Plants should be spaced 24″ and grow to 7-8′. Days to Maturity – 90.
  • Indian Blanket
    Resembles Autumn Beauty with darker colors, multi-heading. 4-5″ blooms. Plants should be spaced 24″ and grow to 5-7′. Days to Maturity – 90.
  • Red Sun
    Multiflora type bears medium size 5-6″ blooms in shades of deep dark orange-red with a hint of yellow around the brown center. Plants should be spaced 24″ and grow to 5-6′. Days to Maturity – 90.
  • Tithonia Torch
    Dahlia like flowers in orange, yellow and brilliant red. Trim faded flowers to promote longer blooming. Plants should be spaced 24″ and grow to 2-5′. Days to Maturity – 90.
  • Maximillian – Perennial
    Makes a bold statement! Strong stems are covered with dozens of sunny yellow, 2-3″ blooms from midsummer to frost. A favorite of birds and butterflies! Long-lived plants thrive in heat, drought and even poor soil. A natural for cutting. . Plants should be spaced 2-3′ and grow to 4-7′.

Selecting Your Sunflowers

The foundation from which your sunflower garden is built starts with the seeds. Starting with seeds from reputable vendors will insure that your seeds are fresh, healthy and have a high germinations rate.

Varieties

Most vendors carry up to a dozen varieties and combined they carry over thirty different varieties for you to enjoy. Remember to plan out your garden and carefully consider the spaces you intend to occupy with sunflowers and the varieties that will do best for those spaces. Don’t limit yourself to only a couple varieties. By selecting and growing a wide variety of sunflowers you will find out which ones you enjoy best and are most successful growing in your area and can improve your garden from one season to the next.

Seeds or Plants

Sunflowers are easy to start from seeds, but some people prefer to start from bare root or potted plants particularly for perennial varieties. If you decide to use this method for starting all or some of your sunflowers you will just need to successfully transplant the small plants to your containers or garden. Plants are available from a few excellent online vendors who guarantee delivery of healthy plants to your door.

Starting From Seed

If you decide to start your sunflowers from seed which is the most common way you will have several methods to consider each of which has advantages and disadvantages.

  • Direct seed method
    Sunflower seeds can be sowed directly in the garden or containers, and in some instances this may be a viable choice. One problem is that seeds and small plants are much more susceptible to falling victim to pests and predators than even two or three week old transplants. In many areas the birds or rodents will dig up your seeds and have a feast before the seeds even get a chance to sprout.

    It may be more difficult to care for the germination and care of the young plants in your garden because seeds and sprouts must be kept moist and not be allowed to dry out. One other possible disadvantage is that you will always have some seeds that don’t make it to becoming viable sunflower plants. If you are trying to have uniform planting in your garden it may be easier using transplants that have already been selected as strong prospects. For these reasons and others it is generally recommended that you germinate your seeds before transplanting in the garden or containers.

  • Using Professional Seed Starting Trays
    Some people prefer to start many seeds at a time in professional seed starting trays which are a plastic tray with separate compartments for each plant and a drip pan. With this method you can start as many as three dozen seeds in one try and be able to weed out the weak ones and get the sprouts off to a great start before planting them in your garden where they will face harsher elements and predators. With this method you will want to use a potting mix that is specifically designed for starting seeds. These mixes are finer than even premium potting mixes and contain all the nutrition that your sprouts will need to make it through their first two or three weeks.This method is certainly acceptable, but it too has some draw backs. There is a chance even if you are careful when transplanting the plants from the container that you will damage the root system and stress the young transplant. It is for this reason that the following method may just be the best one available.

    Starting with Peat Pots or Pellets
    Peat pots are small pots that are made of pressed peat moss. They can be filled with seed starting mix and planted in the garden when your transplants are ready. There is however, an even easier alternative. Peat pellets are an ingenious innovation that consists of a compressed peat wafer inside a biodegradable mesh case. When the pellet is soaked in water it swells to five times its size and makes the ideal starting medium for your seeds. You simply push a seed or two in the top of each soaked pellet place them near a sunny window and keep them moist. You can even buy these with plastic trays that have clear lids on them and act as mini greenhouses for sprouting your seeds. With these lids you often won’t even need to add additional water to your pellets until after your seeds sprout. Once the seeds sprout you just remove the lid and continue to water your sprouts until they form their second set of real leaves, generally two to three weeks. Then just plant the bags in the garden.

Transplanting to the Garden or Containers

Transplanting is an exciting time. It is when you take the young plants that you have so carefully germinated from seed and place them in your garden where with proper care they will take off like wildfire. There are a few important considerations as you begin this phase of your sunflower adventure.

Spacing Considerations

New gardeners seem to be particularly prone to overcrowding their plants. Whether this is caused by a desire not to sacrifice any weak stragglers, or a desire to get as many plants in a given area as possible it is a serious mistake that will hamper your ability to grow quality plants. It is important to select the strongest young plants to include in your garden. As a general rule the seeds that germinate first tend to grow faster and produce stronger plants, by being picky and only selecting perhaps the top 50% of your starts to transplant into your garden you will be helping to insure a strong crop. Next, it is extremely important to try to follow spacing guidelines that are specified on seed packets for each variety of plant. Failure to do so will result in less healthy, rangy plants that are struggling to compete with one another for food, water, sun, and root and air space.

Preparing Soil

Sunflowers can be grown in a wide variety of soil types and conditions. Regardless of the type or condition of the soil into which you will be transplanting your young plants, it is a good idea to specially prepare the immediate area where each plant will be placed. A good recommendation is to dig a small six inch by six inch hole for each plant. You will then fill this hole with specially prepared soil for your transplant. This soil should consist of premium potting soil with time release fertilizer mixed in. Premium potting soil will either be labeled as such or will be one of the more expensive mixtures. With potting soil you generally get what you pay for. Do not use soil labeled as top soil or garden soil. These blends compact too easily. The premium potting soil will hold moisture and allow your young plants root systems to develop quickly. The time release fertilizer will help to feed your plants for up to four months and add extra insurance to your regular fertilizing schedule. If you prefer to grow your plants organically you can use crab shell meal or fish pellets instead of the time release fertilizer to add to your soil.

Caring for your Growing Sunflowers

Fertilizers – What Kind and How Often

If you have started your plants well they will have a good foundation for growth. You will want to have a regular feeding program for best results. Plants require three main nutrients to be healthy: nitrogen which promotes healthy foliage, phosphorus which promotes flowers and potassium which is for strong roots and overall vigor. All fertilizer products list the ratios of these three components in the order given above. Thus a label that reads 10-15-10 signifies that 10% of the contents is nitrogen, 15% is phosphorus and 10% is potassium. When your plants are in the growth stage, before their flowers start to form you can promote healthy foliage growth by fertilizing every two weeks with an organic fertilizer that has a nutrient sequence of 20-10-10 or one with the same ratio. Once your plants begin to form flowers you will want to switch your biweekly fertilization to a product with a ration of 10-20-10

One last tip! Sunflowers are generally hardy plants, but you can help to keep them pest free by spraying them with a mixture of ½ table spoon of liquid dish detergent to one quart of water each week.

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