Sunflowers are easy to grow and still look great

The Associated Press
Friday March 23, 2001

Sunflowers have changed. It’s as if they’ve been to charm school and been taught manners, thank you! 

The crude one-size-fits-all character can still be found, but increasingly, sunflowers are wooing gardeners with their bright colors, compact habit, repeat blossoms and overall utility as a garden and cut flower. So civilized are they that sunflowers are now quite welcome as a cut flower indoors and yes, even on the dining room table. 

In earth terms, the transformation has come about in the blink of an eye, but in people terms, it’s been happening in the last four years or so, according to Alana Mezo, a senior horticulturist at the Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, Ill. This marks the second year Mezo will wow visitors with big plantings of many different varieties – big, tall, skinny and bushy – of sunflowers. 

What gets a senior horticulturist at one of the nation’s finest public gardens excited about a humble plant that’s been in cultivation, feeding people, birds and animals for 2,000 years? Simply, the colors and versatility that have been added by breeders in recent years. 

Italian White is one of her favorites because it bears so many flowers and over so many weeks that it’s not unusual to see, on the same plant, flowers fresh for cutting and other flowers gone to seed and being enjoyed by goldfinches and chickadees. 

Most gardeners sow seeds directly in the garden, after danger of frost has past. Starting inside is easy and takes just five weeks to raise a plant ready for transplanting. Chicago Botanic staff does that - germinating the seed and growing the little plants in small “cells,” then moving them into a 4-inch diameter plastic pots and finally, before setting out, setting the plants outside in a protected area for several days so they can get used to the change in environment before being planted. This process is called hardening off. Typically, the germinating and growing-true-leaves stage takes two weeks and the 4-inch-pot stage three weeks. Like other seeds started indoors, a lot of light is critical, and the best way to provide this is with a 4-foot fluorescent shop fixture set 6 inches from the top of the seed tray or germinated plants, and left on 12 to 16 hours a day. 

They need a fair amount of water, especially in hot, sunny spots, because a lot of moisture is lost through the abundant foliage. Day temperatures in the mid-80s are ideal. One way of helping that along is to plant sunflowers near a south-facing building where reflective heat will keep the air a little warmer than in surrounding areas. 

A big mistake is spacing the plants too close together. Branching varieties that grow 4 to 7 feet tall should be spaced 2 to 4 feet apart. Otherwise, the plant won’t reach its branching potential. Smaller varieties can be grown closer together than that; read the seed package for specifics.  

About the only bad thing about sunflowers is that most varieties produce a lot of pollen. In the garden that’s fine. But inside as a cut flower, the pollen stains fabrics of all kinds and the stain is hard to remove. In recent years, breeders have developed varieties that produce little or no pollen and these are a great choice if the plant is being grown for cutting. 

Several pollen-free varieties are available – some names to look for are: Fantasia, Sunny and Claret. Don’t worry about remembering these names – if the variety is pollen-free, the seed package or catalog description will mention it because it is considered a big plus. 

To maintain the repeat bloom nature of many varieties, Mezo recommends deadheading the plant – simply removing spent blossoms. Doing so forces out more side shoots and more flowers, she said.