Sunflowers in your garden

Growing sunflowers is an easy job. Even children enjoy planting sunflowers, and sunflower plants are both pretty and useful for things like raw black oil sunflower seeds for oil or bird feed, sunflower bouquets, or hulled sunflower seeds for eating.

While many see the sunflower as "weedy" or best grown in the backyard, many sunflower varieties are quite elegant, and go well in a contemporary front yard setting.

Of course, if your front yard's theme is French country cottage, primitive country, or you grow a holiday seasonal garden, growing sunflowers fits perfectly.

Facts about sunflowers:

Plant type:

Tender annual (some varieties are perennial) Plant size: 2-20 feet tall, 1-4 feet in diameter, depending on variety.

Edible parts:

Young leaves, petals, seeds Flower


White to dark brownish red, depending on variety.

Flower type:

Composite, the "head" is composed of hundreds of tiny flowers, while the "petals" are actually leaves which protect these tiny flowers while they are still young.


Summer to fall Leaf color(s): grass Greenleaf.


Heart-shaped, giant sunflower leaves can get larger than your head.

Stem color:

Light green can be grown in all climates; however some perennial sunflowers can be grown in cold climates with temperatures down to 15 degree C.

Soil Condition:

Like, average to rich soil (more important for the giant sunflower) Dislikes: sandy soil (especially the giant sunflowers, which will fall over in sand), overwatering, high winds.


Divider hedges, backdrops, centerpieces in flower garden design, cut flowers, hedge mazes, flowering bush, border plant, children's gardens.

The name "sunflower" comes from the fact that growing sunflowers turn their heads to face the sun! This action is called heliotropism. Sunflowers seem to know where the sun is at any given time and overnight return to facing east in time for the dawn.

Some sunflowers insist on pointing east after they bloom. Perennial sunflowers may take up to 3 years to bloom, but then bloom consistently every year.

There are several types of sunflowers:

Giant sunflowers, which grow 8-20 feet tall with heads up to 2 feet in diameter (usually the shorter ones have the larger heads). This type of sunflower usually has one head on it. These are the sort that produces the giant sunflower seeds you see in the stores, and are the ones used in growing sunflower mazes. "Sunzilla" and "Mammoth" are giant sunflower varieties.

Medium sized sunflowers, grow 4-8 feet tall, and often have multiple blossoms on them, giving them more of a bush or tree-like look. These are found in a variety of colors. "Moulin Rouge", "Autumn Beauty", and the black oil sunflower falls into this group (I have several of the latter in my backyard). The flowers are attractive in arrangements.

Miniature sunflowers grow 2-4 feet tall and are popular in borders. These are often used as cut flowers in sunflower bouquets, and are perfect for containers. "Sonja" and "Teddy Bear" are popular miniature sunflower varieties.

Planting sunflowers:

Planting sunflower seeds is easy. Plant seeds directly into the ground anytime in the spring after the ground have thawed. They do best in full sun, although they will tolerate some partial shade. Space seeds 1-3 feet apart and cover with an inch or so of dirt. Seeds can be started indoors and transplanted when the sunflower is very young (as in right when the sprout comes from the soil) but you may not get as good of a result this way.  

Water daily until the seed germinates, in about 5-7 days. If you don't see a seedling after a week, plant another seed there, as the first one likely didn't make it.

Birds and animals like to dig up and eat sunflower seeds, especially in the early spring, so some people cover the seeds with a row cover or netting for the first week, until the seed has sprouted. Once you begin growing sunflowers, you will have "volunteers" the next year, although the seeds will usually be smaller as years go by. If you are planting for giant sunflower seeds you will probably need to plant new seed every year. Enriching the soil over the winter with manure or compost will improve the next summer's seed production quite a bit.

Growing sunflowers:

Sunflowers don't need much care. If there is a severe drought, they may need a bit of watering, but other than that they are fairly tough plants. A lone giant sunflower may need staking, especially if the ground tends to be soggy, you routinely have high winds, or your soil is sandy, to keep it from toppling over. If you do stake, be careful to use soft, flexible ties (pieces cut from old stockings are perfect for this) to keep from damaging the stem. Giant sunflowers planted in a clump need to be watched.  If one starts to fall over it may take the whole group with it, even in the most stable soil. Cutting out a "Tower of Pizza" at the base with some garden loppers before it falls is the best way to manage this problem.

Harvesting sunflowers:

Sunflower leaves and petals are best harvested when very young, when they can be used in salads. Later, the leaves become "fuzzy”.

Cut off the heads of giant and black oil sunflowers when the back of the head starts to turn yellow on a cloudy day, because remember, they are facing the sun! Lay the heads out to dry where they will be safe from animals.

Do not put them outside if you have raccoons nearby. When the heads turn brown, the seeds come off fairly easily. Rub the head with another head or with your hand over a large bowl to catch the seeds.

The stalks and dry empty heads can be used for animal fodder (my rabbits like eating them), crafts, or can be chopped and put into the compost. Stalks with smaller flower heads can be left standing for birds to pick at over the winter if you like. You'll most likely have volunteer sunflowers come up in that area, so do this when you want your sunflowers to reseed for next year.