Growing Sunflower plants is one of the really fun parts of summer time gardening. These cheery sun-facing flowers are a delight to gardeners who wish to attract birds.
- What are sunflower plants?
- Tips for Growing Sunflower Plants
- Pin these tips for growing sunflower plants for later
- Four Great Reasons to Grow Sunflower this Year
- How to Grow Sunflowers
- 1. Prep the Soil
- 2. Pick a Selection
- 3. Watch the Weather
- 4. Plant Your Seeds
- The Ultimate Guide to Growing Sunflowers
- How to Plant Sunflower Seeds
- Growing & Caring for Sunflowers
- Harvesting Sunflower Seeds
- Types of Sunflowers
- Common Questions About Growing Sunflowers
What are sunflower plants?
Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) are a member of the Aster family. These big annuals are very easy to grow, which makes them a very popular plant to get children interested in gardening.
The sunflower is the state flower of Kansas. It is native to Central North America and has been cultivated for centuries.
The common name “sunflower” refers to the annual variety of the plant. There are also perennial sunflower plants, but they are not often grown, because they spread easily and are quite invasive.
Tips for Growing Sunflower Plants
Sunflower plants do best in bright sunlight with well draining soil. Since they grow easily from seed, they are often seen in gardens and along the road side of state highways.
These tips for growing sunflower plants will help you to have success with this popular annual.
How to grow Sunflower Plants
There are over 70 species of the sunflower plant. They range in size from dwarf sunflowers that are only 1 1/2 feet tall to Mammoth giant sunflowers that can be over 8 feet tall or even more!
The heads of the largest sunflowers can be a foot or more in diameter!
Soil Requirements for Sunflowers
Sunflowers are not too fussy about the type of soil, so they can be sown in most areas of the garden and in large pots on deck gardens.
However, they are heavy feeders, so adding compost or other organic matter to the soil at planting time will result in better plants that produce more flowers.
When the new growth starts in spring, add a slow release fertilizer to keep the flowers growing all season long.
How Much Sun do Sunflowers Need?
These plants are called sunflowers for a reason – they love the sun!
Plant them in full sun and try to situate the plants on the northern side of the garden, so that they won’t shade other plants or vegetables when they are grown.
Growing sunflowers in the shade will result in stunted flowers that reach for any available sunlight.
How much water do sunflowers need?
Even though sunflowers are drought resistant, they will grow much better if you give them water regularly, especially after the flowers develop.
In general, as long as you water deeply once a week and make sure that the plants get at least an inch of water a week, the plant will do well. This water can come from either from rain or additional watering.
If it hasn’t rained in a week in your area, it is time to water your sunflower plants again!
The flowers of the sunflowers are amazing when they open. They can take time to develop but are worth the wait!
In the wild sunflowers will have more than one head on long stalks. Most garden sunflowers of the normal height varieties will also produce multiple heads.
The taller varieties usually have one head per stem, with all the energy spent growing those long stalks.
The flowers themselves vary dramatically. There are many colors and sizes available.
We all know the bright yellow sunflower with a black or brown center but there are so many other varieties, too – from multi colored plants to huge fluffy Teddy Bear Sunflowers that are so popular right now.
They make fabulous cut flowers for bringing indoors.
When do Sunflowers Bloom?
There is nothing quite like the look of a sunflower in your garden! #♥sunflowers #gardenfaces #hello summer
Each variety is different in their bloom time, but generally sunflowers spend spring getting to their maximum heights. Summer time and part of fall are their peak bloom times.
Even though sunflower seeds sprout quickly – in 7 to 10 days – you may need to wait for up to 2-3 months after planting seeds for the flowers to appear.
Do Sunflower Plants Attract Wildlife?
The seeds and nectar of sunflowers are attractive to many forms of wildlife. Bees, wasps, and butterflies are drawn their nectar.
All animals that save seeds for the winter, such as chipmunks and squirrels, love them. Even raccoons and garden mice will enjoy a sunflower treat or two, as well.
It’s a good idea to leave dead seed heads of sunflower plants for when the cold weather comes. This gives additional food for any birds that may be around in the winter months.
When to Plant Sunflowers
Seeds should be sown after the last frost date when the soil is warmer. Sow seed directly if you can.
While you can get a head start by starting seeds indoors a few weeks before the last frost, they really prefer to be sown directly into the soil. Transplanting Sunflowers doesn’t seem to work very well, in my experience.
Plant seeds an inch deep and about 6 – 12 inches apart. Plant 1 1/2 feet apart for the larger varieties. Water well after planting.
Birds love the seeds of sunflowers, which can make collecting them for personal use hard. Some gardeners recommend covering flower heads with cheesecloth, pantyhose, or the perforated bags that vegetables come in if birds become too much of a nuisance.
The time to harvest seeds is when the backs of the flower heads turn yellow and the seeds start to turn brown. The heads will usually start to droop when they are ready for you to harvest the seeds.
It takes 80 -120 days for seeds to develop flower heads, depending on variety.
Roasted Sunflower seeds make a great snack, similar to pumpkin seeds. To roast sunflower seeds, soak them over night and then bake for 200 º F for 3 hours. Add salt if desired.
Uses for Sunflower Seeds
Growing sunflowers can attract wildlife and also brings beauty to the garden.
Since sunflowers have such thick stems, you can use them as living supports for climbing vegetables.
Their size also makes them perfect for wind breaks and privacy screening.
A Note on Sunflowers and Grass
If birds feed on your sunflowers, it may be hard to grow grass near them. The hulls have a toxin that will kill the grass.
Either harvest the seeds before they start to fall, or plant the sunflowers in a place where the grass does not grow nearby.
My daughter’s favorite flower is a sunflower. We snapped this picture of her one day on the way to college. She just HAD to be in that field!
If you have young children, try to get them interested in gardening by growing sunflowers. The seeds are large and easy for them to handle and they sprout and grow very quickly.
Once they stand at the foot of a fully grown sunflower and see how tall it is, they will be hooked!
Pin these tips for growing sunflower plants for later
Would you like a reminder of these sunflower care tips? Just pin this image to one of your gardening boards on Pinterest.
Admin note: This post for growing sunflower plants first appeared on the blog in April of 2017. I have updated the post with new information, a care tips card and a video for you to enjoy.
Active Time 80 days Total Time 80 days Difficulty easy Estimated Cost $3 and up
- Sunflower Seeds
- Sunny Garden Spot
- Compost or other Organic Matter
- Timed release Fertilizer
- Add compost to the ground and mix it in well.
- Plant sunflower seeds directly in the soil after danger of frost has passed.
- Space seeds 6-12 inches apart for most varieties or 18 inches for mammoth varieties.
- Be sure the spot gets 6-8 hours of direct sunlight each day.
- Spread timed release fertilizer when the the plants start to grow.
- Be sure the plants get 1 inch of water a week.
- Harvest when the seed heads start to drop, the backs turn yellow and the seeds turn brown.
Attractive to birds and Butterflies
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- Osmocote 274850 Plus Outdoor and Indoor Smart Release Plant Food Plant Fertilizer (4 Pack), 8 lb
- Seed Needs Bulk Package of 1,000+ Seeds, Sunflower Crazy Mixture 15+ Varieties (Helianthus annuus) Non-GMO Seeds
- Teddy Bear Sunflower Seeds (20 Seed Pack)
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Four Great Reasons to Grow Sunflower this Year
Who really needs a reason to grow sunflower? I have such fond memories of sunflowers from visiting family as a child in North Dakota. One day my great uncle put us up on the barn roof to look out over the fields. In that part of the state, sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) are a big crop and as far as I could see in any direction were the tall stalks and yellow discs of this sunny, yellow flower. I had never before seen the plant as anything other than a decoration. The notion that the sunflower was a “crop” was new to me.
Of course, most people who grow sunflowers in a large area are growing them with a mind to harvest the seeds. Sunflower seeds or sunflower oil are a big deal and how cool is it to grow a valuable crop that brings you such joy while it grows?!
Did you know that there are many other reasons to grow the sunflower though? Here are some of the reasons you may want to grow sunflowers in your yard.
1. Grow Sunflower For Bird Feed
Sunflowers are a good source of protein, potassium, iron, phosphorus, calcium, iodine, magnesium, and vitamins B, C, and E. This means good stuff for us, but also for the birds. You can harvest the seed heads and hang them to dry, saving them for winter feeding, but I prefer to leave them self-serve. There is a special kind of joy to watching a bright bird waving back and forth at the end of a dried sunflower stalk, silhouetted against the white snow. (Find organic sunflower seeds
2. Growing Sunflower Seeds For Good Health
Sunflower seeds are fun to chew and great to add to salads and snack mixes. Their iodine content makes them especially supportive of the endocrine system, in particular your thyroid. More surprising to most is that they can be brewed into tea as well. As a tea, the seeds are often used for a variety of respiratory ailments and fever. (Find organic sunflower seeds here to use for good health or bird feed.)
3. Grow Sunflower Petals For Good Health
Sunflower petals are increasingly in demand in the herbal industry. They may be a beautiful addition to a tea blend and can be used in much the same ways as the seeds.
4. Grow Sunflowers As A Soil Conditioner
Sunflowers are good for your soil! The tall stalks stand strong with the help of the root system below. That root system, when allowed to die in place, increases the organic content of your soil and also increases its water holding capacity. Over time, growing sunflowers can increase your garden’s ability to withstand drought conditions.
Last year we sowed a big patch of ground near our driveway with sunflowers. We used a two-wheeled seeder that we normally would use for corn or beans in the garden. The sunflowers came up and created a living wall that the kids loved to disappear into. It was a bright and cheery welcome home and I knew that this year when I was ready to plant lavender, the soil would be in great condition. While the birds were free to pick over these plants all winter, inevitably they missed a few here and there. We’ll have volunteer sunflowers for years to come and I know that I can use them for more than just the birds!
How to Grow Sunflowers
Why purchase a bouquet of flowers when you can pick your own? That is what Holly Vaughan’s husband, Bobby, asked himself about 10 years ago, when he decided to plant a field of zinnias on their farm in Shorter, Alabama. “Rather than buy me flowers for Mother’s Day, he grew them so I could pick them myself. It became a gift that keeps on giving,” says Vaughan, who’s a floral designer in Birmingham. The secluded 435-acre property has been the family’s weekend retreat since 1987. They built a pine log cabin themselves, a project that took over two years (and countless hours of “sweat equity,” as she describes it) to complete.
Image zoom Robbie Caponetto
After one successful zinnia-growing season, Vaughan added sunflowers the next year, putting 4 more acres of the farm’s fertile Black Belt soil to use. “Both of these are happy blooms that are simple to grow outdoors in Alabama,” she says. Low-maintenance and drought tolerant, sunflowers are easy to start from seed. All the work is done on the front end: getting the soil plowed and the seeds planted. Then Vaughan steps back and lets Mother Nature take over. Throughout the summer, her fields are filled with thousands of golden blooms. No farm? No problem. Steal her four tips to grow the season’s cheeriest flowers in your backyard.
1. Prep the Soil
Plant seeds in fertile, well-drained soil either in the ground or in raised beds. Pick a spot that receives full sun and where you can water easily. Then “plow, plow, plow,” Vaughan says. Even if you’re not on a farm, preparation is key for keeping sunflowers happy. Till the soil several times before planting to soften it and prevent weeds from popping up. (If untended, they could grow over sunflowers and block the light.) When growing them in containers, make sure the pots have good drainage, loose soil, and full sun. Protect your plants from squirrels, rabbits, and other wildlife with netting or cages.
2. Pick a Selection
Vaughan buys standard field sunflowers in bulk from her local feed and seed. They grow about 6 feet tall, and each bears one big, yellow head. In gardens with limited space, choose smaller selections (which offer more bloom colors and sizes). Pollen-bearing types will produce seeds. Try ‘Indian Blanket,’ with red petals and yellow tips (4 to 5 feet tall); ‘Moonshadow,’ with pale yellow-to-cream flowers (4 feet tall); or ‘Teddy Bear,’ with pompon-like blooms (1 ½ feet tall). Pollenless selections won’t shed on tabletops, and many produce several flowers on each plant. Try the pinkish yellow ‘Peach Passion’ (4 feet tall) or the deep garnet ‘Prado Red’ (3 ½ to 4 feet tall).
Image zoom Robbie Caponetto
3. Watch the Weather
Waiting until after the last frost is crucial for successful planting. Vaughan tries to hit the season’s sweet spot: late enough to miss that last cold snap but early enough for spring rains. She suggests planting them right after a good rain (so the soil is moist) and before another shower is expected. Sunflowers have expansive root systems, so they can extract moisture from deep in the soil.
WATCH: These Sunflower Centerpieces Will Brighten Up Your Breakfast Table
4. Plant Your Seeds
Space them about 8 inches apart and ½ inch deep. The time between sowing and blooming is around 50 to 70 days, depending on the selection. “We stagger the planting of sunflowers starting in mid-March in four two-week intervals so we have blooms and cuttings for a few months,” says Vaughan. They’re in full glory for about three weeks, so with this method, she can enjoy them all summer. If you sow them through late spring, you’ll have flowers into fall.
The Ultimate Guide to Growing Sunflowers
Nothing says summer like bright rows of brilliant Helianthus flowers, commonly known of as sunflowers. Easy to grow, this North American native is a fun plant to add to your vegetable or flower garden. Most people think of sunflowers as the towering varieties filling fields in the prairie states. However, many garden cultivars are designed to be compact and grown in a wide range of hardiness zones. You can choose sunflowers in many different colors featuring heights between 4 to 12 feet.
Often seen as a border plant to give height to the back of a flower bed, sunflowers are multipurpose. They provide beauty to your garden and are a food source for birds and squirrels. Cutting them brings their sunny faces inside for floral arrangements. Many sunflowers feature big, beautiful blooms and can be harvested for their tasty seeds or a rich sunflower oil. If you’re wondering how to plant sunflowers and how to take care of sunflowers in your garden, look no further. All you need is a few simple tips to get the most out of your garden sunflowers.
- How to Plant Sunflower Seeds
- Growing & Caring for Sunflowers
- Harvesting Sunflower Seeds
- Types of Sunflowers
- Common Questions About Growing Sunflowers
How to Plant Sunflower Seeds
Planting sunflower seeds is a quick and easy task. By taking the time to choose the right location and prepare the soil, you give these plants the strongest possible start.
- Choose a Sunny Spot
- Prepare the Soil
- Time It Right
- Plant the Seeds
- Give Plenty of Moisture
- Thin the Seedlings
It almost goes without saying that sunflowers love the sun. Look for a spot with plenty of sun for these fast-growing annuals. Think about what you’ll plant around or near your sunflowers. Most sunflowers grow quite tall and may cast shade on other plants. The short growing season of between 70 to 100 days allows for planting throughout most gardening zones.
Well-draining soil is essential. If your soil is heavy, mix in up to 4 inches of compost. Add nutrients to soil with a complete fertilizer prior to planting. Mix your compost and fertilizer into the top 6 inches of your garden bed. Slightly acidic soil with a pH between 6.0 and 7.5 is ideal. A home soil test can help you determine what your garden soil needs.
Choosing when to plant sunflower seeds requires a bit of waiting. Plant sunflowers in late spring, once the ground is nice and warm. Most sunflowers germinate when soil has reached 70 to 85 degrees F. The best time to plant sunflowers is just before the soil reaches this temperature. Look for a ground temp of between 60 to 70 degrees. For most areas, this will be approximately three weeks after the last frost. Planting sunflowers indoors gives you a head start on the growing season. Simply tuck the seeds into peat pots around the time of your last spring frost. They should be the right size for transplant once the soil is the appropriate temperature.
Different sunflowers require different planting depths and spacing. How to grow sunflowers from seed and how deep to plant sunflower seeds depends on your specific sunflower cultivar. In general, plant sunflower seeds at least 1/2 inch deep. Space seeds 6 inches apart. If planting in rows, you’ll want 2 to 3 feet between each row. Plants should be thinned out in a few weeks to the proper spacing. If soil temperatures are just right, sunflower seedlings will sprout up in 10 to 14 days.
Growing sunflower seeds requires space. To start sunflowers indoors, plant three seeds per each 3- to 4-inch peat pot. A soilless planting media will give you the best drainage. Indoor germination usually happens in 6 to 10 days. You can enjoy continuous blooms through summer by planting seeds every couple of weeks. With consecutive plantings, you’ll have beautiful sunflower blooms right up until the first frost of fall.
Because sunflower seeds contain large amounts of natural oil, they require a lot of water for germination. After planting, water the ground thoroughly. Keep the soil moist with frequent, light watering until germination occurs. If starting indoors, cover your pots with clear plastic wrap to keep in moisture. Remove the plastic as soon as the seeds sprout.
Once the sunflower seedlings have their first set of true leaves, thin the seedlings to the recommended row spacing for your variety. Small sunflowers may require only 6 inches between each plant, while large varieties might need up to 3 feet. Closer spacings are possible for garden aesthetics, but crowded plants will produce smaller flowers.
Indoor sunflower seedlings should be reduced to one seedling per cup. Simply choose the strongest sunflower and pinch back the others.
Growing & Caring for Sunflowers
Learning how to grow sunflowers isn’t difficult – they almost grow themselves. And once sunflowers begin to grow, they grow quickly. Sunflower care only requires a few basic growing tips.
- Control Weeds
- Manage Pests and Disease
Although sunflowers require a lot of water to germinate, they only require an inch of water per week during the growing season. Use a watering nozzle to easily water once a week until the top 6 inches of soil is moist.
If you prepared your soil with compost and/or manure, you shouldn’t need extra fertilization during the growing season. If you feel your plants require better nutrition, you can work a balanced, slow-acting granular fertilizer into the soil surrounding your sunflowers. Sunflower fertilizers are available in a few garden centers, but a basic fertilizer is really all you need.
One of the greatest sunflower challenges is weed control. Weeds compete with sunflowers for moisture and nutrition. Unless you want to till, hoe or pull weeds by hand, you’ll want to put down a generous layer of mulch to fight weeds. Add up to a 4-inch layer of organic mulch to your sunflower garden. Leave an area of bare soil around each sunflower stalk to help deter pests and disease.
Although many pests love sunflower plants, the damage is usually minimal. In most cases, insecticides are not necessary unless damage is severe. Most sunflowers rely heavily on insect pollinators, so care should be taken to limit any use of insecticides during pollination. Some pests you may encounter are sunflower moths, cutworms, weevils, caterpillars, grasshoppers, wireworms and the sunflower maggot.
Disease is a big risk, but it mostly affects farm crops. New varieties of sunflowers have resistance to many diseases. Once disease occurs, the only option is to remove and destroy the affected plants. Verticillium wilt, sclerotinia rot, rust and downy mildew may occur. Your best prevention is proper plant spacing in well-draining soil.
When growing seeds for harvest, birds can become an issue. Scarecrows, owl decoys and shiny metal pie plates can help deter birds. You can also plant certain oil-rich cultivars, such as Black Peredovik, to keep birds away from your seed sunflowers.
Harvesting Sunflower Seeds
Harvesting sunflower seeds is the perfect way to enjoy both the beauty of the flowers in your garden and their delicate seeds. Sunflowers produce a bounty of seeds that can be added to breads, eaten on salads or even turned into a creamy nut-free sunflower butter. Growing a seed production variety will increase your harvest of edible sunflower seeds. Expect to harvest seeds approximately 30 days after pollination.
- Beat the Birds
- Don’t Rush Things
- Cover the Sunflower Heads
- Remove the Seeds
- Store for Flavor
You’ve spent all this time learning how to grow sunflower seeds – don’t let the birds eat your harvest! Begin checking for seed maturity in early fall. The seeds will begin to face towards the ground as the flower petals dry and fall out. Once ready, simply cut off seed heads with a generous amount of stem attached. Hang in a warm, dry place away from rodents and insects.
Wait until the back of the sunflower head turns brown before harvesting the seeds. Although you can pick out mature seeds earlier, the browning of the head allows for the easiest and quickest removal.
Seeds naturally fall out of the flower heads as they dry. To catch all the seeds you can, place netting or a paper sack with air holes over each head.
Once thoroughly dry, seeds are easy to remove. You can grab a sunflower head in each hand and rub their faces together to dislodge the seeds. Or, you may be able to simply brush seeds out with your hands or a stiff brush.
To keep sunflower seeds as fresh as possible, store in airtight glass jars in the refrigerator. This keeps moisture levels low. If storing outside of the refrigerator, consider adding desiccant packages to absorb excess moisture. Many people store raw seeds in cloth bags in dark, dry areas to encourage air circulation.
Types of Sunflowers
Sunflowers come in a wide range of sizes and colors. Some of the most popular garden sunflowers include:
- Mammoth – the giant of garden sunflowers. This heirloom plant grows up to 12-feet tall and features huge 12-inch wide blooms with abundant seeds. Quick growth makes for a perfect hedge, screen or sunforest for children. Plant seeds 1-inch deep and space 2-feet apart for the best results.
- Autumn Beauty – a vibrant choice for flower gardens. The bold flowers feature 8-inch wide blooms in bright yellow, bronze and purple combinations. Growing up to 4-feet tall and featuring multiple branches, Autumn Beauty makes an excellent cut flower for floral arrangements. Also known as the common sunflower, the plant has edible flower buds which are delicious when battered and fried. Seeds should be planted 2-inches deep and spaced 18-inches apart.
- Moulin Rouge – not your typical sunflower. The dark red petals only have a slight hint of yellow at their base, which is highlighted by an ebony center. It’s a reliable bloomer and easy to grow. Reaching only 4-feet tall, the dark blooms are just 4-inches wide. Moulin Rouge is an excellent cut flower because it is pollenless.
- Teddy Bear – features fully double, fluffy flowers reaching up to 6 inches in diameter. Without the flat center, the bright deep yellow flowers look like large powder puffs. This dwarf sunflower is ideal for borders and containers. Plant in groups of 3 to 4 seeds at a depth of ½ inch. Thin to one inch once seedlings are three weeks old.
Common Questions About Growing Sunflowers
How much sun do sunflowers need?
Sunflowers need full sun for the best growth. Although only six hours of sun is required, the more sun a sunflower gets, the better the growth. If you crowd plants too closely together, the leaves will be starved for sunlight. This causes the plant to grow too quickly and produce weak stems as plants reach up for more light.
How fast do sunflowers grow?
Sunflowers grow quickly. Many can achieve up to 12 feet of growth in only 3 months. With the proper growing conditions, sunflowers should reach maturity in 70 to 100 days after planting.
How long do sunflowers live?
Most sunflowers are annuals. They germinate in late spring, bloom during the summer and die back at the first frost of fall. When considering how to grow a sunflower that lasts all summer, the best plan is to plant your sunflowers every few weeks to extend bloom time.
Are sunflowers annuals or perennials?
While most varieties of this bright beauty are annual sunflowers, meaning they will not come back the following growing season, they may self-germinate from dropped seeds if you leave the heads on the plants throughout the winter. The perennial Maximillian sunflower features small blooms in late summer and early fall. It can be grown as a perennial up to hardiness Zone 3.
Can you grow sunflowers in a pot?
You can grow many small varieties of sunflowers in pots and containers. Dwarf sunflowers are perfect for growing in pots. Instead of featuring one sunflower on a single stalk, dwarf varieties are bushy and may feature more than one bloom per plant. The sunflowers grow up to five inches in diameter on stalks up to three feet tall. No need to wonder about how to care for sunflowers in pots, this annual plant has the same needs for water, fertilization and sunlight in either gardens or containers.
Why do my sunflowers begin to face the ground?
When sunflowers are young they exhibit heliotropism. This means their flowering heads track the sun as it moves across the sky. As the stem matures and becomes woody, the tracking usually becomes less noticeable. The leaves may still follow the sun, but the flower will not. In many varieties, maturity causes the sunflower to face the ground, which reduces the risk of bird damage.