How to Grow Sunflowers
Why purchase a bouquet of flowers when you can pick your own? That is what Holly Vaughan's husband, Bobby, asked himself about 10 years ago, when he decided to plant a field of zinnias on their farm in Shorter, Alabama. "Rather than buy me flowers for Mother's Day, he grew them so I could pick them myself. It became a gift that keeps on giving," says Vaughan, who's a floral designer in Birmingham. The secluded 435-acre property has been the family's weekend retreat since 1987. They built a pine log cabin themselves, a project that took over two years (and countless hours of "sweat equity," as she describes it) to complete.
After one successful zinnia-growing season, Vaughan added sunflowers the next year, putting 4 more acres of the farm's fertile Black Belt soil to use. "Both of these are happy blooms that are simple to grow outdoors in Alabama," she says. Low-maintenance and drought tolerant, sunflowers are easy to start from seed. All the work is done on the front end: getting the soil plowed and the seeds planted. Then Vaughan steps back and lets Mother Nature take over. Throughout the summer, her fields are filled with thousands of golden blooms. No farm? No problem. Steal her tips to grow and cut the season's cheeriest flowers in your backyard.
1. Prep the Soil
Plant seeds in fertile, well-drained soil either in the ground or in raised beds. Pick a spot that receives full sun and where you can water easily. Then "plow, plow, plow," Vaughan says. Even if you're not on a farm, preparation is key for keeping sunflowers happy. Till the soil several times before planting to soften it and prevent weeds from popping up. (If untended, they could grow over sunflowers and block the light.) When growing them in containers, make sure the pots have good drainage, loose soil, and full sun. Protect your plants from squirrels, rabbits, and other wildlife with netting or cages.
2. Pick a Selection
You'll find sunflower selections in many colors and sizes. Blooms aren't all yellow but can be red, chocolate, peach, lemon, or burgundy. You can even buy multicolored selections.
Vaughan buys standard field sunflowers in bulk from her local feed and seed. They grow about 6 feet tall, and each bears one big, yellow head. In gardens with limited space, choose smaller selections (which offer more bloom colors and sizes). Pollen-bearing types will produce seeds. Try 'Indian Blanket,' with red petals and yellow tips (4 to 5 feet tall); 'Moonshadow,' with pale yellow-to-cream flowers (4 feet tall); or 'Teddy Bear,' with pompon-like blooms (1 ½ feet tall). Pollenless selections won't shed on tabletops, and many produce several flowers on each plant. Try the pinkish yellow 'Peach Passion' (4 feet tall) or the deep garnet 'Prado Red' (3 ½ to 4 feet tall).
For wow factor—and big bang for your buck—try giant sunflowers such as the newer 'Sunzilla' (up to 16 feet tall) or the classic big boy 'Mammoth Russian' (10 to 12 feet tall), a favorite among goldfinches and other birds. If you don't have much space, try dwarf types such as 'Big Smile,' 'Junior,' and 'Firecracker' (all around 2 feet tall). These take up so little room that you can even grow them in pots.
3. Watch the Weather
Waiting until after the last frost is crucial for successful planting. Vaughan tries to hit the season's sweet spot: late enough to miss that last cold snap but early enough for spring rains. She suggests planting them right after a good rain (so the soil is moist) and before another shower is expected. Sunflowers have expansive root systems, so they can extract moisture from deep in the soil.
4. Plant Your Seeds
Space them about 8 inches apart and ½ inch deep. The time between sowing and blooming is around 50 to 70 days, depending on the selection. "We stagger the planting of sunflowers starting in mid-March in four two-week intervals so we have blooms and cuttings for a few months," says Vaughan. They're in full glory for about three weeks, so with this method, she can enjoy them all summer. If you sow them through late spring, you'll have flowers into fall.
5. Be Careful Clipping
Use sharp clippers or snips to cut stems early in the morning, before it's too hot. Be sure to cut flowers that are almost fully open. They'll last longer in a vase. Clip (don't pull) to remove any leaves that would be in water once you make your arrangement. Pollenless types such as the Pro Cut selections have a longer vase life (and don't shed).