Sunflower forests are a perfect project for renters and kids

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There’s nothing more amazing than a sunflower forest, which is a perfect project for renters or as an activity for families with kids. But the other day, I opened a seed packet and found so few seeds that it would’ve cost me a small fortune to plant a sunflower forest.

It reminded me of my favorite Dreyer’s ice cream, which recently downsized its cartons to avoid having to raise prices. Seed companies may be doing the same thing in hard times.

In my new book, “The Small Budget Gardener,”I lay out many older money-saving tips that are suddenly relevant again. You may not know that black-oil sunflower seed is a popular wild-bird food. This is the seed of native sunflowers of the Midwest that grow large and branch widely.

These black-oil plants produce many modest-sized flowers that are excellent for cutting. If the spent flowers are cut promptly, plants form new buds just like bedding annuals do. If the flowers are left on the plant, the central disk matures and becomes packed with seeds. Birds of all kinds will perch upon the drying heads, picking out the seeds one at a time. A sunflower forest can attract whole flocks for a really raucous affair. When grown in front of a window, this offers endless entertainment from indoors. It makes a fine nature lesson for the kids, too.

The key is to look for black-oil sunflower seeds in the pet section, not the garden section. Most major discount stores as well as national pet-supply chains and home-improvement stores sell them alongside traditional wild-bird foods. A 10-pound bag costs roughly $10. That is thousands of seeds that can generate thousands of plants. If you compare to the sparse offering of a seed packet in the garden department, it’s easy to see the savings.

Part of this price difference is due to regulation on the packaging and sale of seed. Seed houses must conform to national rules of seed dating, age and purity. Bird food does not fall under that umbrella, allowing a much simpler packaging process. Just be sure that the bags you buy are fresh and new for the current year for maximum germination rates.

The black-oil seed is the genesis strain for modern sunflowers. Giant mammoth and colorful florist hybrids are varieties that can add diversity to your sunflower garden. Mammoth is a good source of edible seed that you can harvest and eat with your kids. Mom will love the red and orange tints of florist varieties added to indoor arrangements.

No other plant gives so much in just a single season than the sunflower. Because children are often impatient, they need plants that grow big and bold in a short time. A mammoth sunflower can grow from zero to 10 feet in just two months, and black-oil sunflowers are right on its tail.

A sunflower forest is the perfect choice for filling a rarely used side yard between you and your neighbor. It makes a good visual screen to increase privacy or block out an ugly stored recreational vehicle. That screen will grow and fill out in just one season.

If there’s already landscaping in place, plant sunflowers in gaps between your shrubs and plants. They are perfect for filling out bare spots with big, beautiful flowers. For renters who must look upon uninspired landscaping, this is the perfect quick fix. Enrich the soil with steer manure before planting, and keep it well watered as such explosive growth needs plenty of moisture.

In these days of economic insecurity, try fresh ways of gardening on a shoestring budget. Every kind of birdseed will yield a plant, whether it is the black-oil sunflower or many others, including milo, safflower, sorghum and niger.

Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist. Her blog, the MoZone, offers ideas for cash-strapped families. Read the blog at E-mail her at