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Sunflower: Sow and Grow Guide

Sunflower: Sow and Grow Guide

The botanical name, Helianthus, comes from the Greek words, helios meaning "sun" and anthos meaning "flower". The sunflower is the state flower of Kansas. Sunflower buds (immature flowers) and leaves turn to follow the sun from east to west each day (a response called "heliotropism"), and once the flowers have fully opened, they stay facing east. By facing east, sunflower heads warm up quickly with the morning sun, attracting more pollinators than if they were west-facing, and cooler. Also, remaining east-facing may protect them from possible sun-scald from the strong, afternoon sun. Wild sunflowers, from which all other sunflowers come, grow in prairies, dry, open areas, and along roadsides throughout North America from central Canada to northern Mexico.

Sunflowers bloom 65–85 days from sowing depending on variety; add 1 to 2 weeks if they are transplanted.

General Sowing

When to Sow Outside: RECOMMENDED. 1 to 2 weeks after your average last frost date.

When to Start Inside: 2 to 4 weeks before your average last frost date. Sunflowers are sensitive to root disturbance; sow in biodegradable pots that can be planted directly in the ground.

Indoor Sowing

Use a lightweight seed-starting mix/medium (sterile, and lighter than potting mix), and sow 2–3 seeds per pot, ¼"–½" deep. Sunflowers have a long taproot, which is sensitive to transplanting, which is why direct sowing is our recommendation. However, sowing in 3"–4" biodegradable paper pots that can be planted directly into the ground will minimize root disturbance.

Sunflowers have a long taproot, which is sensitive to transplanting, which is why direct sowing is our recommendation. However, sowing in 3"–4" biodegradable paper pots that can be planted directly into the ground will minimize root disturbance.

Thinning

Thin to one plant once leaves appear (clip extra plants at the soil level using scissors). The strongest plant may not be the tallest; look for thick, strong stems and deep color. By thinning early, you minimize the negative impact of crowding, like stretching for light. Transplanted sunflowers are usually not as vigorous as direct-sown sunflowers. Read about more indoor sowing tips.

Transplanting

Amend the garden soil ahead of time. We suggest submitting a soil test periodically, which gives you detailed information on your soil and how to improve it. Over-fertilization can invite pests, reduce flowers in favor of leaf growth, impact flavor, burn plants, or be a pollutant. Work the soil so it is clump free, allowing it to drain well.

Be sure to harden-off seedlings before transplanting. Hardening off is the 7 to 10 day process of introducing pampered seedlings to the intense outdoor sun and temperature swings. Read our article on hardening-off instructions.

Transplant to an area of full sun (6 or more hours a day), after your average last frost. Transplant on a cloudy day or in the evening to reduce stress. Remove the bottom of the biodegradable pot when transplanting into the planting hole. This allows roots to escape easily while the remainder of the pot breaks down.

Outdoor Sowing

Soil

Amend the soil ahead of time. We suggest submitting a soil test periodically, which gives you detailed information on your soil and how to improve it. Over-fertilization can invite pests, reduce flowers in favor of leaf growth, impact flavor, burn plants, or be a pollutant. Work the soil so it is clump free, allowing it to drain well.

How to Sow

Sow single stem, large- headed sunflowers as 3 seeds every 1'–2' apart and ¼"–½" deep. Sow multi-stem sunflowers 2' apart. Professional cut-flower growers reduce this spacing by half resulting in longer stems and smaller flowers, which are more desirable for bouquets. By sowing single-head sunflowers monthly, you ensure continuous blooms, whereas multi-stem sunflowers bloom until the weather cools.

Fertilization

Fertilizer isn't needed, but a monthly side dressing of compost or fertilizer can result in larger flowers if the soil is lean. Use a nitrogen-rich or balanced fertilizer (encouraging green growth) for 4 to 6 weeks, followed by a phosphorous-rich fertilizer (encourages large blooms) as the time for flowering approaches.

Water

Sunflower stems are hollow like straws and will take a lot of water, although they will not tolerate being water logged. They are also drought tolerant once established but as with lean soil, the size of the plants and flowers can be impacted by drought conditions.

Harvesting

Flowers

Cut flowers as they just begin to unfurl their petals. Harvest flowers in the morning if possible, and place cut stems in water as soon as possible. For more information see our article on Making Cut Flowers Last Longer.

Seeds

Sunflower seeds take about 4 weeks to ripen, once pollinated. To help protect sunflower seed heads from birds and squirrels as the seeds ripen, cover the heads with pantyhose, a small-mesh lingerie bag, cheesecloth, or similar type of fabric that provides ventilation. Wait to cover the flower until you no longer see bees flying around to ensure good pollination. Tie the protective covering securely at the base of the flower with twine or twist tie. You can also cover the seed head with a paper bag but it may disintegrate during rainy weather. Don't use a plastic bag as it may cause seeds to rot due to lack of ventilation.

Seeds are ready to harvest when the back of the head has dried and turned brown. Petals will have wilted and fallen off, and the seeds will be plump, and colored white with gray/black stripes. Seeds ripen around the outside of the flower first; the ones in the center will ripen last.


Sunflower Comparison

Variety Heirloom/ Hybrid Height Flower Size Single Stalk/
Multi-branching
Noteworthy Add to Cart
Autumn Beauty Heirloom 5'–7' 5"–8" Multi
Drop Dead Red Hybrid 4'–6' 4"–5" Multi No pollen shed
Dwarf Elves Blend 16"–24" 4"–6" Multi Container friendly
Dwarf 'Sunspot' 18"–24" 6"–10" Single Container friendly
Dwarf 'Teddy Bear' 24"–36" 4"–6" Multi Container friendly
'Evening Sun' Heirloom 6'–8' 4"–6" Multi
Florist's Sunny Bouquet Hybrid 4'–6' 3"–4" Multi/ Single No pollen shed
Goldy Honey Bear 5'–6' 5"–7" Multi Little pollen shed
Heirloom Beauties Heirloom 5'–8' 4"–8" Multi
'Lemon Queen' Heirloom 5'–7' 5"–7" Multi Bee favorite
Mammoth Heirloom 6'–12' 10"–12" Single Good for seed harvest
'Moulin Rouge' Hybrid 4'–6' 3"–6" Multi No pollen shed
'Peach Passion' Hybrid 4' 3"–4" Multi No pollen shed
'Shock-O-Lat' Hybrid 6' 6" Multi No pollen shed
Snacker Hybrid 6'–8' 10"–14" Single Good for seed harvest
Two Queens Heirloom 5'–8' 4"–8" Multi Bee favorite
'Vanilla Ice' 5' 3"–5" Multi Good for moon garden
'Zohar' Hybrid 4'–5' 4"–6" Single No pollen shed

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