How to Grow Sunflowers (Step-by-Step Guide)
Homeowners who spend a lot of time in their outdoor living areas already know just how enjoyable these spaces can be. They expand the living area of our homes, encourage us to spend more time outdoors, and provide a place where we can work, entertain guests, relax or spend time with family. Those of us who live in Southern California are also fortunate enough to be able to use these spaces every month of the year.
One way you can make your outdoor living and entertaining areas even more enjoyable is to add vibrant, inviting colors. You can do this with patio cushions, outdoor rugs, colorful planters, or plants with blooms or foliage in attractive colors. If you happen to be looking for a fun way to add a pop of color to a patio or play area that is a bit too monochromatic, there is nothing quite as cheery and smile-inducing as the large, bright yellow blossoms of a sunflower. And, of course, they make a colorful addition to any outdoor living space – even one that is already quite attractive or colorful.
For example, think of how nicely the bright yellow of sunflower blossoms would complement a lush, green expanse of artificial grass or what they could do as a border along one side of a somewhat boring concrete patio. Sunflowers lend themselves well to almost any type of architecture and landscaping, which makes this a versatile choice for anything from a traditional garden to a sleek, modern outdoor living area. They look just as lively and lovely alongside a rustic cabin’s wood deck as they do beside a paving stone patio attached to an upscale Mediterranean estate. Plus, those who choose to grow sunflowers know that they come with lots of other benefits aside from just bringing color to outdoor living areas.
Sunflowers are incredibly easy to grow, a perfect choice for growing with children and a great way to attract birds to your yard for backyard birdwatching. They also provide tasty sunflower seeds you can use to feed backyard chickens or wildlife or for healthy snacks for your family.
Growing Sunflowers: How to Grow Sunflowers
1. Pick the perfect spot: It is probably not a surprise that sunflowers like the sun, so you will want to pick a spot in your garden that gets at least six hours of sunlight most days. If you are growing a tall variety of sunflower and have other food plants or ornamental plants in your garden, it is best to plant your sunflowers on the north side of other plants so that the sunflowers will not block the sun other plants need to thrive.
If you are growing a tall variety and live in an area that has strong wind or gusts, you may want to plant your sunflowers near a structure, such a fence or wall, that can help support them without blocking the sun.
Even if your plan is to enjoy the sunflowers for their ability to bring bright colors into your outdoor living areas, they do not need to be right along your patio. Because the plants grow so large, they can be several feet away along a fence or at the edge of your natural or artificial grass lawn and still provide plenty of color for you and your guests to enjoy.
2. Prepare the soil: Sunflowers are pretty forgiving when it comes to soil, so you do not really need to add fertilizer or amendments. However, mixing mulch or compost into the soil will provide your plants with additional nutrients and generally leads to healthier plants with larger blossoms.
3. Choose seeds or seedlings: It is possible to start sunflowers indoors a few weeks before you plan to plant your garden. It is also possible to purchase seedlings at garden centers or home improvement stores. However, sunflowers often do not take well to transplanting and may become stressed or even die. This does not mean that you cannot transplant them, since folks do start their seeds indoors or buy seedlings all the time, but it is something of which to be aware.
Sunflowers grow just fine – and quickly – from seeds, so in an area like Southern California, you should not hesitate to start them right in the ground. Even if you live in an area that freezes, you just need to wait until around the time of the last frost, and then you are good to go. They withstand cold pretty well, so you do not have to wait long into spring to plant them.
4. Plant your sunflower seeds or seedlings: If you are starting from seedlings, place each plant about one foot apart in your rows. If you are starting from seeds, push your seeds about one inch into the ground about six inches apart. You may want to plant seeds in two-week intervals to ensure a longer harvesting period for seeds or flowers for floral arrangements.
Pro Tip: Before you plant your seeds, wrap them in a wet paper towel for about two days. To keep the paper towel moist, place them in a plastic bag or food storage container, but do not seal it. Add water to the paper towels as needed to keep them damp. After about two days, some of your seeds will have sprouted, these are the ones you will plant in your garden to see them coming through the soil even faster.
5. Protect your seeds and plants: Insects are usually not much of an issue when growing sunflowers; however, your seeds and your plants are in danger as soon as you put them in the ground. Snails, rats, mice, squirrels and birds all love sunflower seeds, and they will dig them up to eat them as fast you can plant them. So, if you have any of these critters in your yard, you may need to protect your seeds to allow them to germinate and grow. The best way to do this is usually by barrier methods, such as positioning hardware cloth over the area so that animals cannot get to them. You might also try these tricks to keep snails out of your garden.
Once your plants begin to grow, you can be sure that any deer in your area will be stopping by to visit. Deer love the tender, young leaves on sunflowers, so if deer have access to your garden, you will need to install some DIY deer fencing to protect your sunflowers. Chicken wire usually works fine for this, but you will need to be able to raise it up as your sunflowers get taller, so you may want to attach it to tall stakes as your sunflowers grow.
6. Thin your plants: If your goal is to have towering sunflowers with lots of seeds, you will need to thin you plants to about one foot apart. If you would rather have pretty, smaller flowers to put in a vase, then you can allow them to grow much closer together, even as close as about three inches apart.
7. Water your sunflowers regularly: Sunflowers have pretty large root systems that make them somewhat drought tolerant, which is why we can see them growing so well on relatively dry prairies. You will need to keep them moist until they germinate, which usually only takes about one week. Once they begin to mature, you can start cutting back until you get to one day per week, which should be a deep watering to encourage deep root growth and help them get through the week ahead. During particularly dry or hot times, you will need to give them a bit of extra water.
8. Stake tall sunflowers: If you are growing sunflowers in tall varieties to add color to your outdoor living areas or to create a privacy screen, you may need to help your plants out a bit as they begin to tower overhead with heavy blossoms. This is particularly true if you live in a windy area.
9. Protect your seeds: Squirrels and birds are going to harvest and eat your seeds before you get the chance unless you take measures to prevent this from happening. If you do not want to share with the local wildlife, you will need to employ barriers to keep the critters away from the seeds as they mature. Be careful when using netting, as birds can become trapped underneath, which can lead to injury or death. Covering the blooms with pantyhose is one inexpensive home remedy often used by gardeners. Just be sure that whatever you cover your blooms with allows for proper air circulation so that your seeds do not rot or get moldy.
Growing Sunflowers: How to Harvest and Use Sunflower Seeds
If you are growing your sunflowers as part of a cutting garden and intend to use them solely in floral arrangements, you can harvest stems as needed to make your arrangements.
If you are planning on allowing the wildlife to enjoy your seeds, one option is to simply leave them on the plant, uncovered, and allow the birds to eat them at will. If you go this route, the birds will begin eating the seeds before they are ready, but you also get the joy of watching birds flit in and out of your yard landing on your sunflowers for a little snack.
If your plan is to harvest ripe seeds to either share with the wildlife or keep for yourself, watch for the blooms to begin to droop. There are other signs to let you know when harvest time is approaching, but this is the most obvious and easiest to spot. Other signs to look for include the back of your blossoms changing in color from green to a yellowish-brown, the seeds darkening, and the small petals covering the seeds drying up.
At this time, you have a couple of options. If you will be feeding your seeds to the wildlife, you can cut off the flower heads and simply set them on the ground or a bench facing up so that the birds and squirrels (and rats and mice, if there are any around) can get to the seeds. You can also scatter the seeds around your yard or place them in your bird feeder after removing them from the flower head. If you choose to scatter them in your garden, you may find that you do not need to replant to have a crop the following year; however, you may also attract unwanted visitors to your yard with all of this easy-to-get food laying around.
If you would like to keep some or all of the seeds for yourself or your family, cut the flower heads off with about one foot of the stalk attached, which will allow you to tie it up to hang upside down to dry (much like you would with herbs form you garden). It is important that you hang your sunflowers in a warm, dry area, because moisture (such as humidity) will spoil your seeds and can cause mold growth. It may take up to a few weeks for your flower heads to completely dry. Once they do, it is time to remove the seeds, which you can accomplish by rubbing two flower heads together until all of the seeds fall off or by gently using a brush to knock the seeds loose.
Spread your seeds out on baking sheets or parchment paper to allow them to finish drying.
Once they are completely dry, you can store them in mason jars to add to your bird feeder or squirrel feeder throughout winter, or you can keep them in jars or other airtight containers for human snacks as well. If raw sunflower seeds are not your thing, you can roast them by spreading them out on baking sheets and placing them in an oven heated to 350 degrees for about 10 to 15 minutes until they are slightly brown.
Pro Tip: For a salted flavor closer to something you might buy in the store, soak your sunflower seeds in salted water overnight, drain them, pat them dry, spread them on your baking sheet and roast until slightly brown. If you do not want to wait all night to enjoy your sunflower seeds, you can also simmer them in salted water for one to one-and-a-half hours before roasting them.
Be sure to save some of the seeds to use for next year’s crop so that you can enjoy the vibrant, inviting yellow of sunflowers to add color to your outdoor living areas every year!