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How to Grow Sunflowers

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Sunflowers, with their large bright head and tall stems, are an iconic summer flower. And while you might not want to grow a yard full of sunflowers, growing some in your home garden or yard is easy!

Why grow sunflowers

There are many reasons to bring 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, 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.

  • 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!

Growing sunflowers at home

  • The Best time of year to grow sunflowers is in the late spring to summer. Sunflowers enjoy warm weather and long, sunny days. 
  • Zones 4-9 are ideal for growing sunflowers. For cooler zones, wait until the soil is warm and workable. 
  • Sunflowers seem to grow well in many soil types, but they do prefer well draining 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
  • Many sunflowers do not require fertilization, since they are pretty hardy growers on their own. 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. 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, roots and all, or cut off at the base, leaving the roots to feed the soil as they break down. 

When to Harvest Sunflowers

Harvest sunflowers when the seeds have reached full maturity. The petals of the flower will also begin to dry out and fall off. 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. 
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