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How to Grow Sunflowers

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Sunflowers, with their large bright annual flowers and tall stems, are an iconic summer flower and you can grow them in your own garden. And while you might not want to grow a yard full of sunflowers (helianthus annuus), growing some in your home garden or yard is easy!

Why grow sunflowers

There are many reasons to bring beautiful sunflowers into your garden this year, and beauty is only one of them. There’s no doubt the showy flowers with the tall, thick stems are visually stunning and are beautiful cut flowers, but what other benefits do sunflowers bring to the garden?

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First, some sunflowers produce delicious seeds which can be harvest and roasted right at home. (See my guides for How to Harvest Sunflowers and Easy Roasted Sunflower Seeds.)

Secondly, these tall growers can serve as both shade and support for smaller plants in the garden. Sunflowers themselves love full sun, but consider growing them next to a crop or plant that needs a bit of shade during the day. You could also grow small climbers next to them for support. 

Finally, sunflowers can help the soil around them. Their roots have been known to break up semi-compacted soil and the blooms draw in the pollinators. Who wouldn’t want a plant that pulls double duty as both a lovely vertical element and a soil help?

Uses for sunflowers

Other than bringing in pollinators, sunflowers also serve other practical purposes. The seeds of many varieties can be harvested and eaten either by you or as bird seed. 

Seeds can also be saved for planting the following year, as long as what you’ve grown was not a hybrid variety. If it was a hybrid, you can still plant the saved seeds, but the sunflower may not have the same properties as the original plant. See the info below for how to save sunflower seeds to use next year. 

There are many sunflower varieties to choose from when considering what to add to your garden this year. It’s always a good idea to consider the amount of space you have and the size of sunflower you’d like to produce. Giant sunflowers will require more space and reach to 8 feet tall while Mexican sunflowers won’t get as tall, but bush out with many blooms each season. Here are some of the most popular varieties of sunflowers for your flower or vegetable garden this year:

  • Lemon Queen- This lovely perennial sunflower has a lighter yellow color, like that of the inside of a lemon. Not used for edible seeds, but this variety will come back each year.
  • Teddy Bear Sunflower– A shorter variety with bristly blooms. Not for seed use, but still a lovely flower.
  • Mammoth Grey Sunflower– Large variety that develops a grey stripe on the seed when ready to be harvested. A family favorite around here!
  • Velvet Queen– This variety has deep red blooms that are sure to be a stunner in your yard or garden this year!

So grab a seed packet of your favorite variety and let’s get planting!

Germinating Sunflower Seeds

One of the first steps to growing sunflower plants is germinating the seeds well and in the right conditions. Once the weather has warmed up and soil is workable, begin planting your sunflower seeds in your garden bed or flower bed. Only sow seeds for the number of flowers that you need for your space. Save extra seeds for the following year. (See my post about Seed Storage Ideas!)

Sow sunflowers 1/2 to 1 inch deep in compost rich soil, gently covering the seed with a loose layer of soil. Water seeds in well using a shower hose attachment or watering can. 

Keep soil moist but not wet for the first week or so. Sunflower seedlings will germinate in 7-10 days. Thin out any young seedlings that were planted too closely together once they’d developed their first set of true leaves, better to have one plant grow well than two struggling plants because they are too close together.

Growing sunflowers at home

  • The right time to grow sunflowers is in the late spring to summer, after all danger of frost has passed. Sunflowers enjoy warm weather and long, sunny days in full sunlight. 
  • Zones 4-9 are ideal for growing sunflowers. For cooler climates, wait until the soil is warm and workable. 
  • Sunflowers seem to grow well in many soil types, but they do prefer well-drained soil. As far as soil alkalinity, sunflowers enjoy a ph of 6 to 7.5. Be sure to have your soil tested annually for a reading of your soil’s pH. See my guide on how to improve your garden soil
  • Planting area should be in direct sunlight with a minimum of 6 hours of sun per day, planted after the last frost date. 
  • Many sunflowers do not require fertilization even though they’re heavy feeders, since they are pretty hardy growers on their own, but giving them a start in soil rich in organic matter is always a good idea.. If you’d like to give them a little boost, then use a good, organic granular fertilizer that will release gradually. I like Espoma’s Garden Tone. The type of granular fertilizer you need will also depend on your soil. If your soil is higher in phosphorus, then be sure to grab a fertilizer with a 0 in the middle, such as blood meal. A soil test will tell you exactly what type of fertilizer would be best for your garden. 

Caring for Sunflowers

Caring for sunflowers is rather easy, especially if you’ve placed them in a good spot to begin with. They can withstand dry conditions to a point, so only water if you haven’t received rain in a while. Ideally, sunflowers would need an inch of water per week. Be sure they don’t get too much water, which can lead to root rot

Also, there’s no pruning of plants required. Once the sunflower heads have reached the point of harvesting, you can take out the whole plant, sunflower roots and all, or cut off at the base, leaving the roots to feed the soil as they break down. 

When to Harvest Sunflowers

For best results, harvest sunflowers when the seeds have reached full maturity. The petals of the flower will also begin to dry out and fall off and if you’re growing . Certain types of sunflower seeds will also develop a visible stripe which is a good indicator, as well as the plumpness of the seeds. 

Harvesting sunflower seeds is one of the best parts of growing them. See my video and instructions for how to harvest sunflower seeds. This is a great activity to do with kids and grandkids.

Common sunflower pests (and natural remedies)

  • Cutworms– These pests usually attack sunflowers early on. Just like their name implies, they will cut the plant off at the base. To avoid cutworms, turn over soil a few weeks before planting so any larvae there can be exposed to the light and become a snack for birds. Cardboard collars, such as paper cups can be used as well. Be sure these are pushed down several inches into the soil. 
  • Beetles– Sunflower beetles can make a snack out of the leaves of the sunflower plant. Keep an eye out for these and use a glove to pick them up and drop them into a jar of soapy water. Larger plants won’t suffer much from beetles, but smaller seedlings and plants can be damaged severely.

For more info about Natural Pest Control, check out my book Natural Pest Control for the Home Garden.

Sunflower Growing FAQ’s

  • Can you grow sunflowers in containers? Yes! You can grow sunflowers in containers. Choose a large container, especially if growing any form of mammoth sunflowers. Since sunflowers can be top heavy, a large container will hold the plant well without risk of tipping over. Mexican sunflowers and other shorter sunflowers could use slightly smaller container. Be sure any container has drainage holes. 
  • Can you save sunflower seeds for planting next year? Yes! Once you’ve harvested ripe sunflower seeds, allow them to dry out completely. Once dry, store them in a cool dry place, such as an envelope and be sure to label it. 
  • Do sunflowers grow back each year? That depends. Most sunflowers are annuals, but if you allow an annual sunflower to release its seeds into the soil, some may germinate the next spring. There’s also a good chance though that birds will eat them before this can happen, so don’t count on reseeding if you want sunflowers the following year. Perennial varieties of sunflowers, which tend to be smaller than annual types, include Lemon Queen, Maximiliani, and Willowleaf. 
  • Can sunflower seeds be started indoors? Yes! If you want to give your sunflower seed germination a head start, you can begin them in seed trays in a quality seed starting mix a couple of weeks before the last spring frost. Transplant outdoors after hardening off. See my full post for how to harden off seedlings. 
  • Can you eat sunflower plants? ​Yes, but let me clarify by saying, you can grow sunflower microgreens and eat those, not the large stalk and leaves grown outside. Sunflower seeds can be germinated inside much like other microgreens and eaten, so delicious and healthy for you!

I hope this encourages you to grow sunflowers this year! Feel free to let us know in the comments your favorite variety of sunflower to grow or any sunflower growing tips you may have. Happy Gardening!