With everyone’s budget feeling tighter these days, there may not be money for flats of annuals. Not to worry, a trip to the local hardware store for a package of seeds can give you lots of color and drama for less than $2. What to plant? The sunflower, of course. In Illinois, and many other northern gardens, now is the time to plant them. Seeds are best planted just after danger of frost has passed.
I’ve been growing these in my back yard for many years now, and they are a favorite with my husband and kids every year. I clear a spot in the ground, scatter the seeds from the packet so that they each one is several inches away from the next nearest one, and cover them loosely with a thin layer of soil or mulch. Then I water and wait. In a week or two, seedlings sprout. Sunflowers do require full sun, so I plant them where they will get 6 to 8 hours of sunlight each day, and away from shade cast by trees or buildings.
By July, the seedlings will be several feet tall. In mid- to late-summer, there plants will produce large blooms. Last summer, our sunflowers rose to a height of 15 feet, amazing the neighbors and passers-by. These results weren’t typical, but in a normal year, the plants are usually 6-12 feet tall.
For the largest plants, choose Mammoth, a variety available from Burpee and other vendors. This produces large yellow flowers on 12-foot stalks. The seeds, produced on a center disk after 80 days, are edible. Kong hybrid is another, similar “super-tall” sunflower, reaching heights up to 14 feet.
Endurance sunflower, from Seeds of Change, produces 4- to 6-inch flowers on 6- to 9-foot stalks. This unusual variety, a cross between the Isreali and Silver Leaf sunflowers, boots up to 50 branches per plant, with each branch ending in a cluster of 2 to 5 flowers. Petals are a bright yellow color. Seeds of Change claims these also make good cut flowers, lasting longest when picked in the morning just after flowers open.
Soroya sunflower, available from Park Seed and Burpee, was named an All-America winner. It is dependable and showy. Plants grow slightly higher than the 5 to 6 feet tall Burpee promises in my back yard. They produce multiple 4- to 6-inch blooms on each plant. Because each plant produces several branches, the blooming season is longer than for unbranched varieties.
Honey Bear produces large, frilly yellow blossoms on 4 to 6 foot stems. The shape is unlike that of a classic sunflower, but may be of interest to those looking for a novelty flower or extra frills.
If a 6-foot-tall plant is just too large for your garden, dwarf varieties of sunflowers may fit the bill. These are typically 2-4 feet tall, and have flowers about as large as on the full-size varieties. Elf, one of the shortest, is only 16 inches tall. Other dwarf varieties are Munchkin, Indian Basket, and Lemon Éclair.
There are probably hundreds of sunflower varieties, certainly too many to list here. The best advice is to read the package carefully when you go to the hardware store. Almost always, it will list the height and bloom size, allowing you to choose one that best fits your garden.