Not a vegetable at all but a flower that has brought many a youngster into the vegetable gardening community. Sunflowers are a plant phenomenon as they scale extraordinary heights in no time at all. They also offer a potential harvest of thousands of seeds as their huge heads – formed from miniscule flowers - ripen in late summer. Most exciting of all is their sheer scale and brilliance - a flower that can go from seed to skyscraper in one season is worth a few moments with a pot and some seed mix. The bright open faces of sunflowers can help to draw ladybugs and hoverflies into your garden – the young larvae of both of these helpful predators will scoff aphids on nearby plants. Sunflowers also act as a catch for green shield bugs that can be rounded up in great numbers on the stems and the backs of the flowers. If planted in a group, sunflowers can make a useful climbing frame for the likes of cucumbers and runner beans. Sunflowers are ‘heliotropic’ which means they turn to follow the movement of the sun through the sky – the large open flower heads may look as though they do this but this is not the case. However, check the position of leaves and buds on young sunflowers at dawn and their position at dusk on a sunny day and you are likely to see that they have moved.
Companions Sunflowers provide useful shade in the height of summer for leafy salad plants like lettuces which can be planted at their base. Companion plants are bean, pea, lettuce and cucumber.
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Skyscraper grows to a neck-bending 12 feet tall. Heads get to about the size of a dining chair seat and are crammed with large edible seeds.
Sunspot dwarf variety for pots and small gardens. Large flowers, about the size of a spread hand, on short stems – about knee high.
Evening Sun reddish brown flowers on tall stems – over head height. Eye-catching and striking.
Giant Russian a towering plant that reaches heights around 10feet tall. Large golden heads yield vast numbers of edible seeds that are easy to collect and store.
Tommy Toe - heavy crop of small, red plum sized fruits, said to be blight resistant
In warm areas sow seeds in pots and place on a sunny windowsill in August and September before planting out as seedlings mid to late October. In cooler areas sow indoors about a month before all risk of frost has passed and plant out when soil temperatures are warming up.
Needless to say, sunflowers love sun. They will grow in partial shade but they’ll only be half the plant they can be in full sunshine. Best spot is a north-facing wall or fence where you can support them as they bask and grow with the benefit of protection from strong winds.
To sustain the radical growth-rate of these super-star flowers you’ll need a soil rich in composted goodies with hidden nutrients tucked away in it. The likes of horse manure, sheep pellets and chicken poo are all very useful here. Soil should drain reasonably well – ie. after pouring a watering can on the surface, water should disappear from view within an hour. If water sits there then you need to dig in some coarse sand or fine pumice (which you can get bagged or loose from a landscape supply outlet).
Soak seeds overnight to soften the hard outer casing of the seed and kick start germination. Sow your sunflower seeds into peat pots filled with seed raising compost. I put two seeds per pot and push them about a fingertip beneath the surface. As they grow and develop in the protection of a windowsill indoors, a cold frame or a greenhouse select the stronger of the two seedlings and pinch the other one off at soil level. Grow your seedlings on until they have at least two pairs of leaves and a sturdy wee stem.
When all risk of frost in your area has passed plant each seedling into the garden so that pot soil level meets garden soil level. Seedlings can be planted as close as a forearm apart – any closer and you’ll get spindly stems as plants fight for root space and nutrition. Water well and mulch with straw to suppress weeds and maintain moisture levels.
Sunflowers are heavy feeders and they will quickly drain your soil of moisture and nutrients so keep seedlings well watered if it’s dry and help them along with a liquid feed every two weeks. It helps to get hold of some large bamboo canes so you can gently tie in your soaring stems as they reach for the skies.
The birds will love the huge heads once the flowers have transformed into seeds so maybe leave a few to continue to draw in hungry feathered friends. If you want to harvest for yourselves then hang seed-filled heads upside-down in a dry airy space until seeds start to fall out, then rub them all off and store.