Ah yes, summery, sunny, sunflowers—something my garden cannot go without! Sunflowers are excellent for pollinators, drought tolerant, and native to boot! They also make a great introduction to gardening for children, because the seeds are large and easy to handle, quick to germinate, and they can identify the resulting flower.
Native sunflowers have been bred for generations, giving us varieties that produce a single, huge, beautiful head, pollenless varieties for cut flowers, dwarf varieties for containers or the middle of the flower bed, and blooms in many shades of wonderful. Single head sunflowers, (Mammoth Grey Stripe, Mammoth Russian, Snacker, Sunspot) put out one, large to downright giant (14″!) bloom. Because these sunflowers produce only one big bloom, successively sow every 4 weeks for continual color. If you plan to use these as cut flowers, a tighter spacing of 6” rather than 1’ produces longer stems but slightly smaller flowers. Multi-branching types (Autumn Beauty, Drop Dead Red, Elves Blend, Evening Sun, Flash Blend, Florist’s Sunny Bouquet, Goldy Honey Bear, Lemon Queen, Moulin Rouge, Peach Passion, Teddy Bear, Two Queens, Vanilla Ice) display many smaller blooms over a longer period. They also do best with 1 ½’–2’ of space, and have a longer bloom period, which is further extended with deadheading or successive sowing. When harvesting for cut flowers, cutting just as the first petals begin to open will make your cut flower last the longest. I love this stage; the flowers look like they are winking at me! Don’t forget that a clean vase and frequent water changes are key to the life of any cut flower.
Speaking of cut flowers, pollenless varieties (Drop Dead Red, Florist’s Sunny Bouquet, Moulin Rouge, Peach Passion) are perfect for the dining room table, as they have no messy pollen to dirty your tablecloth. They do still provide valuable nectar for bees and butterflies, though. Pollenless sunflowers cannot create seeds on their own, but if you grow them next to pollen-producing types, seeds will still be produced. The flowers I have not cut for bouquets, I leave in the garden for the birds in fall migration.
No matter which sunflower I choose each year, I prefer to wait until a week or two after the average last frost date to direct-sow seeds, since they are sensitive to root disturbance. You can, however, start them indoors in recycled paper pots 2 to 4 weeks before your average last frost, as these pots can be planted directly in the ground, minimizing transplant shock. Starting sunflowers indoors does result in earlier blooms, and avoids having vulnerable, tiny seedlings gobbled up by hungry spring birds. If you direct sow, like I do, protect little sprouts with row cover or another translucent barrier until seedlings are 6” tall, when birds will no longer bother them.
Although it’s commonly believed that all sunflowers turn their heads to follow the sun from east to west each day, actually only the immature and still developing flower heads do that. Once the flowers have fully opened, they stay facing east most likely to protect the seeds from possible sun-scald resulting from the harsh rays of the afternoon sun. Understanding this alone, can help you plan your sunflower bed so your sunny sunflower faces will open toward a space you can really enjoy them, like the kitchen window or a patio.