For just $10, you can plant a summer festival of blooms that transform your yard into a colorful pollinator heaven. A great annual plant, the sunflower is a North American native wildflower, a food source and a cutting flower. Anyone with a small patch of ground will find growing this plant from seed a most rewarding first garden.
This flower of the open plains and wayside places is well-known to a wide range of native bee species as well as honeybees. After pollination, flowers fade, seeds form and songbirds arrive, perching on the drying stalks to peck seeds out of the dried centers.
The mammoth sunflower was developed from wild plants and spread around the world as a seed oil plant. The original strains used in breeding were those selected over centuries by agricultural tribes growing sunflowers on the river flood plains.
Go through seed house websites or catalogs to discover sunflower varieties that are smaller and more ornamental for your garden than the mammoth. They offer a range of colors popular for cut flowers that are just as easy and cheap to start from seed.
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Sunflowers also vary by growth habit. Single stem dwarf types, for example, look like mini-mammoths and are short lifespan plants, averaging 60 to 80 days for quick harvest.
The branching varieties are similar in growth habit to the wild sunflower progenitors, and thus more recognizable to birds and pollinators. Most are 90- to 110-day plants. Colors range from the standard sunflower to browns, reds and oranges, with a number of double forms that are even more ornamental. All evoke memories of Vincent van Gogh’s sunflower paintings, where we see some of these early varieties in vases.
One of the best selections of reliable sunflower seed varieties is at Johnnyseeds.com. They offer a chart in the print catalog comparing each of the 30-plus varieties’ flower size, plant height, flower color and days to bloom. Packets of 50 seeds run about $3.95 per packet, and less for larger quantity discounts.
Branching varieties produce flowers the size of a dessert plate held on a multitude of stems, but they can become a bit rangy over time. It’s common to cut the top bud when they reach a desired size to force side branching and more flower production. These plants integrate nicely into a wide range of spaces as a decorative flower.
For those with big landscapes, rural homes, farms and little money, consider sowing black sunflower bird seed wherever ground is disturbed. Rake in before an expected spring rain to sow on a large scale and naturalize.
The result is an ideal food source for wildlife at sites that have lost habitat because of grading. This idea re-establishes the original native type wildflowers that will self-sow for generations.
The best time to plant sunflowers is after the last frost date in your area. For best results, choose locations where you can improve the soil with compost and manure, since sunflowers are all heavy feeders. Compost also helps improve drainage and water-holding capacity, depending on your soil type.
Even if you’ve never grown flowers in your life, you can find success with branching sunflowers. For a few dollars, you can turn your yard into a pollinator heaven that also draws birds to extract seeds, providing great entertainment long after the color is gone.