by Adrienne Diaz
I’ve had a very tough month full of loss. I lost a son, a very dear family cat (20 years old), a couple of beloved chickens (to a raccoon), and several plants to an overabundance of catch-up rain. It has been a struggle every day, but fortunately my garden has been a daily source of support, encouragement and hope to me during this time. In particular, one plant that has lifted my spirits and brightened my days is the sunflower!
Everyone loves sunflowers, and for good reason – they are a cheery plant to grow. The giant single-headed yellow sunflower is the most popular, however sunflowers come in a wide assortment of sizes and a variety of colors. From one foot to 15 feet, yellow, orange or multicolored, single-headed or multi-headed – whatever you choose, sunflowers will definitely brighten up your garden. And the good news is, here in Southwest Florida we can grow them almost all year long!
Sunflowers can be planted almost anywhere in your yard as long as they get full sun. Sunflowers aren’t fussy about soil as long as it drains. They do not like pooling water, but they do like to be watered, so if it hasn’t rained in a couple days do give them a drink. To preserve moisture, you can mulch them if you like. Sunflowers are also forgiving; if you forget to water them it’s okay as they are a bit drought tolerant as well.
When deciding on their place in your garden, know that sunflowers always point to the direction that the sun rises, so consider this when planting. They can be planted south of smaller plants to help create some shade, or north of plants that you do not want to shade.
In regards to pests, sunflowers are remarkably trouble-free. However, as your flower matures you may find wild birds and squirrels are as eager as you are to sample the seeds. If you are trying to harvest your seeds, you can cover flowers with mesh bags, cheesecloth, old pantyhose, or perforated plastic bags to protect them.
Bees and other pollinators like butterflies love sunflowers. I plant them close to my fruiting plants and vegetables for this reason. Sunflowers also help your veggie patch by doubling as windbreaks, privacy screens, or living supports for pole beans.
Sunflowers make great cut flowers because they are hardy and long lasting. To enjoy the flowers in a vase, cut the stalk at an angle in the morning before the flower fully opens. Change the water in the vase every other day to keep the flowers looking fresh.
If you are growing sunflowers as edibles, you will know it is time to harvest your sunflower seeds as soon as seeds start to turn brown or the backs of the seed heads turn yellow. The heads usually droop at this time. Cut them along with enough stem to hang upside down in a dry, well-ventilated place, such as a garage or covered part of your patio, until fully dry; store in plastic bags for bird food, or if you would like to use the harvest for yourself, soak overnight in water (add salt to the water, if a salty flavor is desired), drain, spread on a shallow baking sheet, and roast for 3 hours at 200°F or until crisp. Not only do they taste great, but sunflower seeds are a good source of protein too.
Adrienne Diaz is a Certified Square Foot Garden Instructor, a Lee County Master Gardener and the Project Director of the Six Mile Charter Academy School Garden. She grows numerous fruits, vegetables and herbs year round. She offers free workshops & classes monthly, gives garden tours and can speak to your group. Contact her on Facebook at Miss Potters Place, firstname.lastname@example.org, or 239-464-5754.