SUNFLOWERS ARE CHILD’S PLAY. Fast-growing and unfussy, these easy-to-grow annuals are a solar-driven wonder machine. With stratospheric growth in warm soil and a sunny disposition, sunflowers encourage us to pause our plotting and planning and marvel at the generosity of a little seed.
Whether you decide to plant a hedge of giant sunflowers in the alley to delight the neighbors (and the birds), cultivate branching forms for continuous late-summer bouquets or pop a few seeds of a dwarf variety into a container on the patio, growing sunflowers is like growing smiles.
Cut-flower farmers plant successive crops of sunflowers well into July to keep the harvest going long into fall. Which means: There’s still time to sow this growing season. Choose from a variety of flower colors, growing habits and wildlife benefits.
• Branching sunflowers produce multiple smaller blooms on plants that grow both tall and wide.
‘Lemon Queen’ is an heirloom variety with branching stems of 4-to-6-inch soft yellow blooms with chocolate brown centers. Plants grow quickly to 5 to 7 feet tall. Filled with nourishing pollen and nectar, this variety is often planted by researchers when tracking honeybee populations.
‘Autumn Beauty’ produces a mix of solid and bicolor blooms in sunset hues of gold, orange and rusty red on 5-to-7-foot-tall plants — a beautiful complement to fall foliage. Quick to bloom, in just 60 days.
‘Chocolate’ is a branching sunflower that produces dramatic long-stemmed Hershey-brown blooms on plants that grow 4 to 5 feet tall. Blooms 65 to 75 days from sowing.
• Single-stem sunflowers range from towering giants to tidy, pollen-free blooms bred for the cut-flower industry.
‘Mammoth Grey Stripe’ sunflowers can grow 8 to 12 feet tall and produce flower heads that are 10 inches in diameter. Ripe seed is perfect for snacking, although you might have to compete with birds and squirrels to harvest it. With a long 100-to-110-day growing season, this might be a risky choice if we have an early frost.
A number of hybrid “snacking” varieties have been bred for classic good looks and seed production on shorter plants that produce an edible crop in just 60 to 70 days. In addition to the tasty seeds, sunflower petals are edible as well, with a flavor that’s described as bittersweet or “a little nutty.” Obviously, harvest seeds and petals only from chemical-free plants.
ProCut sunflowers come in a variety of solid and bicolor shades. The 6-to-7-foot-tall single-stem plants flower in 50 to 65 days, have a uniform growth habit and produce pollenless blooms for a longer, tidier vase life. Colors include peach, plum, orange, gold and pale yellow.
• Dwarf sunflowers are suitable for container growing, or if you’d prefer a more manageable size in your beds and borders. Note: Dwarf varieties will be taller when grown in the garden or in larger containers.
‘Sunspot’ is a dwarf form that thinks it’s not. Eighteen-to-24-inch-tall plants produce large flower heads on sturdy single stems. Grow them in containers, or plant in front of taller sunflowers in the garden for layers of blooms.
‘Teddy Bear’ grows to 2 to 4 feet tall, producing loads of fuzzy golden flowers that are 5 to 6 inches across. Flowering begins about 75 days from sowing.
Sow sunflowers where they will receive at least six to eight hours of direct sun. Poke each seed about 1 inch deep into well-amended soil; sunflowers are heavy feeders. Keep moist, and expect seedlings to appear in a week or so. Pro tip: Circle the young plants with an organic slug bait, and protect them from birds.