Thinking big with sunflowers

They’re not as easygoing as they look

Sunflowers are big and bright, and they just stand there, facing the sun. When the sun changes direction, they turn with it. You’d think they, of all flowers, would be all about blooming where they’re planted.

You’ve seen the little kits with a sunflower seed and a peat pot (or a peat pellet in a small ceramic or plastic pot). Just plant the seed, add water and place it on a sunny windowsill. A green shoot emerges – victory! – and once it gets an inch or two tall and has a couple of leaves, you plant it outside and get a big, beautiful sunflower, right? In a perfect world, yes. In a garden that might be even a little short on full sun and long on squirrels – well, thank you for playing.

I’d get a packet of seeds from a reputable seed company. Then I would buy fresh grow light bulbs and make sure the bulbs were never further than an inch from the tops of the sunflower seedlings. These plants are serious light lovers, and a sunny windowsill just won’t cut it. Without adequate light, the sunflower seedlings will be long and leggy and probably not fare well in the garden, if they survive at all.

I would use peat pots to minimize transplant trauma, to which sunflowers are notoriously susceptible. Just stick the plants in the ground, pot and all, and the peat pots will decompose naturally. One seedling per peat pot; two’s a crowd. As with other plants started from seed indoors, I’d harden the seedlings off by setting them out on the porch every day for a week or two to prepare them for life on the outside. Once they’re good and strong and perhaps even fidgeting, they’re ready to go.

To avoid the transplant trauma altogether, you can direct-seed them outdoors after all danger of frost has passed and the soil has warmed to at least 50 degrees.

But here’s the thing. Tall and beautiful as they are, sunflowers cannot just go anywhere they or their human caretakers darn well please. Except when they do. A family member had a sunflower sprout up in the middle of his front yard one summer. He had no intention of putting it there; neither did the squirrel or bird who dropped it. But he loved the fact that he had that sunflower when I couldn’t grow one on purpose. Hmph. Point is – to say sunflowers need full sun is almost an understatement. There are probably varieties that are more shade tolerant than others, but they’re called sunflowers for a reason, folks.

So light requirements – at least six hours of full sun a day – are the main restriction on where you can grow a sunflower. Also consider that a flower that grows several feet tall will probably look best up next to a fence or building, or in the back of a flowerbed.

This annual comes in many varieties, and if you want sunflowers, you are by no means limited to those that will grow taller than a basketball player. “Sunny Smile” will top out at 6 inches tall. “Big Smile” is projected to grow about 10 to 15 inches tall in containers, 12 to 24 inches in the garden beds. (Yes, they come in containers, too.) You can choose from several shades of yellow, orange and red, or a combination of these (such as “Ring of Fire”). There are branching varieties, too.

Unfortunately, what you have with sunflowers is a squirrel temptation like no other. I brought home some dwarf sunflowers in a container and the very next day, the little bandits had nibbled off and absconded with the heads of all but one wilted one. I should have immediately protected the sunflowers with my go-to solution of pet hair tucked in around the edges of the bed/container and a few nice spritzes of hot pepper wax.

Even then, a few squirrels might brave these deterrents and munch brazenly away. Every ‘hood has its hoodlums.

First appeared in the November 2016 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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