Sunflowers may resemble a huge yellow sun towering overhead, but their name comes from their ability to keep their “face” turned toward the sun. Everyone recognizes a conventional sunflower with its huge dark disk surrounded by yellow petals, set atop a sturdy stalk that may reach over eight feet in height. A quick tour of a seed catalog shows that this is just the beginning. Breeders have developed shorter plants (as low as two feet) and an expanded palette of hues ranging from mahogany through orange to lemon yellow, white, and even soft rose to wine-red. Many types sport more than one color.
Sunflowers are an excellent choice for a children’s garden. They are easily grown from their large seeds—perfect for chubby fingers—plus it’s exciting to grow flowers bigger than you are!
Early varieties (Moulin Rouge (left), Double Dandy, Pacino, Sunspot, Del Sol, and Dwarf Yellow Spray are some examples) bloom in about two months, and are the best choices for short summers. Other cultivars can take much longer. The annual plants are killed by frost, but seedheads left in the garden provide nutritious food for winter birds.
When it comes time to plant, pick a site that receives full sun, and make sure your soil has plenty of organic matter. Sow around mid-May in the Pikes Peak area. Cover seeds with a half-inch of fine soil and keep the ground moist until they sprout. Plants prefer regular irrigation, but can handle some drying. A three to four inch layer of mulch smothers weeds and helps to keep the soil evenly damp.
Taller sunflower varieties should be placed at the back of a border or along a fence, where their height is an asset. Shorter types make a bold statement in a mixed border. Some are even appropriate as bedding plants. Consider growing extra plants for cutting: sunflowers make striking arrangements. As you plan next summer’s garden, I hope you’ll include at least one type of these stand-out annuals.
A note on the newer pollen free hybrids:
Although touted as “pollen free,” these cultivars do produce pollen, but it sticks to the anthers instead of dropping on the table under your vase of cut flowers. This is great for the housekeeper, but not so good for the bees as they’re unable to harvest this sticky pollen. (It seems a bit unfair for a hard-working bee to arrive at a sunflower expecting a veritable feast and instead be sent away hungry.) If your goal is growing seed, a normal-pollen-producing variety will be needed as a pollinator.