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Sunflowers - A Smile in your Garden

Put a Smile in Your Garden

By Lynette L. Walther
photography by Lynette L. Walther
Last summer it took three plantings of sunflowers before I caught on. I’d put out the seeds and wait, but nothing happened. So, I planted again, and again. Nothing. Frustrated, I searched the scene for clues as to why not a single one of the seeds had taken. Then I noticed that there were sunflower seed hulls littering the rows where I had planted. It was finally obvious that something was eating those seeds (yes, I may be a little slow), and the only thing small enough to make it through our web of electric fencing was a chipmunk. As if on cue one of the sassy little rascals had the audacity to scurry through just inches from my hoe. I suppose I should have just scattered the seeds on the surface to save both of us some trouble. But instead I started the next batch in six pack containers, and then transplanted them to the garden when they were about six inches high. Even though it was late in June by that time, by the end of the season there were plenty of sunflowers. There’s always room in my garden for sunflowers. To my way of thinking, the vegetable garden wouldn’t be the same without what I call its “wall ‘o sunshine”. These tall sentinels are more than just pretty faces. They’re working members of the garden, providing support for pole beans, reminiscent of the way native Americans used to grow their “three sisters” combination gardens of corn, climbing beans, and squash. The colorful sunflowers also produce plenty of handsome cut flowers as well as a harvest of big seed heads to feed the birds, (okay, and the chipmunks too). Some might say that’s a lot to ask of any flower, but sunflowers deliver with both style and substance.

There's nothing more fun and impressive than harvesting a huge sunflower head full of fat, tasty seeds, said Renee Shepherd of Renee’s Garden Seeds. Growing these giants—-which can reach 16 feet in height--is an easy and exciting garden project for kids and grownups alike. The large, easy-to-handle seeds of sunflowers, their rapid growth, and their striking flowers make them perfect planting projects for younger gardeners. Renee was talking about Sunzilla, one of a dozen varieties of sunflowers from the online seed supplier ( Sunzilla’s huge yellow blossoms produce heads with an abundance of seeds. Other sunflower varieties, such as "The Joker," with bi-colored petals of rich mahogany red with golden-yellow tips, or "Angel’s Halo," with starburst flowers of chrysanthemum-like sunny petals surrounded by lemony rays, provide colorful contrasts to ornamental beds, as well as vegetable beds. Both are available from Renee’s Garden. Another pair of relative newcomers on the sunflower scene are "Golden Cheer," a shaggy-haired dog of a big sunflower and "Apricot Twist," with its apricot-colored wavy flower petals, both from Territorial Seed Company ( or 800-626-0866). If your sunflower space is limited, the knee-high sunflower "Music Box" is made for containers as well as beds and borders. I like to start several pots of these cheerful plants to give as hostess gifts or to surprise friends and relatives with once the sunny yellow five-inch flowers begin to bloom. Try tucking plastic pots of the plants into small brown grocery sacks that have had the tops rolled down. Cinch them with green sisal twine to complete the packages for attractive presentations or seasonal table decorations. A notable dwarf is "Double Dandy," a two-foot tall, double red sunflower that produces four-inch flowers with dark centers. The multibranching sunflower is from Territorial Seed, which offers a whopping 27 varieties of sunflowers. Although sunflowers will grow in just about any soil, they thrive in a rich, well-drained spot with maximum sun exposure. Best grown at the back of borders or gardens, some of the larger varieties may need support because they grow so tall and often produce a large number of flowers. By June in Maine, the soil has generally warmed up enough to give those sunflowers a glowing start. Growth rates of all sunflowers are positively amazing. No matter what size your garden is, there’s a sunflower that’s just right for it. Plant them according to the seed package directions and stand back! Tips for successful sunflowers: * Start seeds in flats or six-packs, and transplant when plants are about six inches tall * If starting seeds directly in the ground, plant after soil has warmed and according to the seed package directions * Full sun (at least six hours) is best * Grow in rich, well-drained soil * Water as needed, providing a water-soluble fertilizer to maximize growth * For best seed production, allow flowers to mature on the stalks and harvest when they are dry * For cut flowers, choose varieties with multiple stems and branches (note seed packet information) * Dwarf varieties are best for potted culture, but grow well in garden situations too and make wonderful borders

Contributing Garden Editor Lynette L. Walther is the recipient of the National Garden Bureau’s Exemplary Journalism Award and the IABC Silver Quill Award of Excellence. She is a member of the Garden Writers Association. She gardens in Camden.

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