Sunny, strong and simple to grow: No wonder 2021 is the year of the sunflower.
These cheerful plants brighten Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings. They make the best all-around seed for small birds (and humans of all sizes). And they’re pretty enough for people to wait hours to step onto a field.
Here’s a guide to find sunflower fields in the region, how to grow your own plus fun facts about sunflowers.
National Garden Bureau picked sunflowers as a 2021 plant of the year because they’re popular, easy to grow and versatile. Georgia Clay, new plants manager for Monrovia Plants, and Bob Croft, technical support manager of Sakata Ornamentals, shared their sunflower expertise.
- Plant sunflowers in a spot with full sun, preferably a space that gets at least six to eight hours of sun daily.
- Plant the seeds 1/4-inch to 1/2-inch deep after the threat of frost has passed in the spring, and water well until the seeds germinate.
- After germination, sunflowers don’t mind dry conditions. Overwatering at this stage can lead to fungal issues, weak stems and wimpier flowers, Croft says.
- To keep seeds from becoming a snack for birds, sprinkle cracked corn to distract the birds, Croft says. Or protect with a row cover until the plants have a few leaves and are not as tender and tasty for animals like deer.
- In general, plants with a taproot, like sunflowers, prefer to be direct sewn, not transplanted. Seeds can be started indoors. Plant in in a coco-coir pot with the bottom cut out (or a toilet paper roll) so the seedling can be planted with less disruption.
- Fertilizer’s not necessary for sunflowers. Too much fertilizer will produce large, cabbagelike leaves and fewer flowers. Croft suggests feeding half or a third of a fertilizer’s recommended dose, stopping when you see the first flower bud.
- When sunflowers are finished blooming, cut them back. The dried stalks are good kindling for a fall fire, Clay says.
- Watch for seeds that drop. The seeds can inhibit the growth of some plants nearby, especially younger, fast-growing annuals.
As sunflowers grow, the flower heads follow the sun. This is called heliotropism or phototropism. As the plant ages, the stem stiffens and this dance ends. Mature flower heads usually face east.
Beyond the common
The iconic sunflower is the common sunflower: a plant that grows more than 10 feet tall with a single bright yellow flower. There are many more varieties in different colors and sizes.
“You can have a little fun with it and have many different sunflowers fulfilling many different roles in the garden,” Clay says.
The aptly named Mammoth sunflowers are tall enough to screen an area.
Sunbelievable sunflower is short (2 feet tall) and compact with multiple branches producing hundreds of flowers throughout the year. This sunflower can be planted in a container as well as the front of a border.
Pan sunflowers have multiple branches that flower through the growing season up until the first frost
Lemon Queen sunflowers produce a lot of pollen and nectar.
For cut flowers
Pick a pollen-free sunflower for less mess. These varieties still provide nectar for bees, butterflies and hummingbirds and can be mixed with pollinator-friendly sunflowers.
Cut flowers just as the petals start to unfurl for maximum vase life.
ProCut White Nite has white petals and a dark center.
Brown-eyed girl sunflowers have a butter-yellow flower with a brown eye that deepens through the fall.
Moulin Rouge is a pure red with a sunny yellow border.
Seeds for birds and people
Super Snack Mix sunflowers produce a lot of seeds, for birds and people. Save seeds by covering flower heads with a potato sack or a mesh produce bag.