Some flowers are synonymous with summer, embodying the long, lazy days, blue skies and warm sunshine. For me, sunflowers are one of those plants. Images of them can transport me in my mind to a summer’s day even if the reality is it’s the middle of winter and it’s cold and grey outside.
Sunflowers are one of the best plants to get children interested in growing. The seeds are large and easy to handle and they germinate relatively quickly. They’re easy to grow if you can get them to a height where slugs and snails are no longer able to devour them. You can use wildlife-friendly ways to control slugs, such as copper rings, plastic collars or a circle of horticultural grit around the plants. But the best route to success is to sow the seeds in 9cm pots and when they have developed two sets of leaves pot them up into 1 litre pots, growing them on in a greenhouse, cold frame or on a windowsill until they’re about 30cm tall before planting them out.
Sunflowers are generally simple, daisy-like blooms with a central disc of tiny flowers packed together surrounded by a ring of colourful petals. The large flowers are great for attracting pollinating insects, but make sure you grow varieties with single, open flowers, not doubles, and avoid F¹ hybrids which generally have less pollen than other sunflowers. The seedheads are fantastic food for birds in autumn and winter, so either leave the plants standing so the birds can help themselves, or wait until the seeds have ripened and collect them so that you can fill your bird feeders when the weather turns cold.
If you like picking flowers to fill vases in the house then look for sunflower varieties that have smaller flowerheads on slender stems, as the larger types tend to be too big for arranging. The branching types are the best as these produce lots of flowers over a long period, which means there are plenty to pick and they’re daintier than the single-stemmed giants. However, if you’re looking for record-breaking tall stems topped with huge flowers ‘Russian Giant’ is the one to go for.
Classic sunflowers have golden yellow petals but there are a whole host of other colours from which to choose. There are velvety reds, chocolate browns, pale lemons and multi-coloured ones. While the tall ones will reach over 2–3 metres, shorter ones grow to around 1.5 metres and there are compact ones which can be grown in pots.
Some of my own favourites include:
‘Magic Roundabout’ which is a lovely mix of multi-coloured, small flower heads in a lovely mix of pale yellows, browns and creams.
‘Sonja’ has small, golden yellow blooms and the plants grow to about 90cm tall.
‘Earthwalker’ is a tall sunflower with flowers in shades of terracotta.
‘Valentine’ has slender, branching stems that are topped with flowers made up of lemon petals surrounding dark brown centres.
Om Louise Curley
Louise is a horticulturalist, garden writer and author of the award-winning book The Cut Flower Patch. She’s passionate about the power of plants to make us feel happy and is an advocate for organic gardening and encouraging wildlife into gardens.Get to know Louise Curley
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