The Best Way To Grow Beautiful (And Useful!) Sunflowers

From delicate miniatures to towering giants, sunflowers are a cheery addition to your garden.

April 11, 2017
sunflowers in a field
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While often admired as simply lovely garden ornamentals, sunflowers actually have an amazing variety of uses. 

In addition to brightening up your garden, sunflowers make a good dried food for poultry and livestock, bright dyes come from their petals, and paper can be made from the stalk pith. On top of that, sunflower seeds and seed meal feed countless people, animals, and birds. Sunflower seed-oil is used in cooking and in soaps and cosmetics. In the garden, you can grow sunflowers not only as beautiful aesthetic additions, but as windbreaks, privacy screens, or living supports for pole beans.

(Whether you're starting your first garden or switching to organic, Rodale’s Basic Organic Gardening has all the answers and advice you need—get your copy today!)

Sunflowers also come in a wide assortment of sizes. Some cultivars grow as tall as 15', and the flower heads can be as big as 1' across; dwarf types, however, are only 1'- 2' tall. There are also early, medium-height sunflowers that stand 5'-6' tall but have heads that are 8"-10" across. Some cultivars produce a single large flower; others form several heads. Here are our best tips to grow your healthiest sunflowers yet this year. 

Related: How To Find The Perfect Kind Of Sunflower For Your Garden

sunflower seedlings
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Plant them in full sun

If possible, choose a site in full sun on the north side of the garden, so the tall plants won't shade your other vegetables once they're grown. Sunflowers aren't fussy about soil so you don't need to worry too much about soil varieties. 

Sunflower seedlings are cold-resistant, so short-season growers may want to get a head start by starting seeds several weeks before the last frost. In most areas, though, it's best to wait until the soil is warmer, around the last frost date. If you're sowing seeds directly, you can sow most sunflower seeds 1" deep and 6" apart. You can move large types to 1½' apart and dwarf or medium-sized cultivars to 1' apart. Water well after planting.

Related: How To Harvest Sunflower Seeds

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Add mulch

Apply a 3"-4" layer of organic mulch to conserve moisture and keep down weeds. Sunflowers are drought-resistant, but they'll grow better if you water them regularly from the time the flowers begin to develop until they're mature.

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Keep a watchful eye

Sunflowers are remarkably trouble-free, but there are a few issues to watch for. You should rotate your crop if leaf mottle, a soil fungus that produces dead areas along leaf veins, becomes a problem.

To protect seeds from birds, you can cover flowers with mesh bags, cheesecloth, old pantyhose, or perforated plastic bags if you start having any issues. An early autumn may interfere with pollination and cause the plant to form empty seeds, but you can avoid this problem by planting earlier the following year. 

Related: What Happened When I Decided To Grow The Flowers For My Daughter's Wedding

harvesting sunflowers
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Harvest your sunflowers

Harvest your sunflower seeds as soon as the seeds start to turn brown, or the backs of the seed heads turn yellow. You can tell because the heads usually begin to droop when they're ready to be harvested. 

Cut your sunflowers along with 2' of stem. You can gift them or use them to brighten your kitchen table office. Or, to dry them out for animal fodder, hang upside down in a dry, well-ventilated place, such as a garage or attic, until fully dry. You can then store them in plastic bags or glass jars for birds and animal food.

To cook your sunflower seeds: Soak them overnight in water (or strong salt water, if a salty flavor is desired), drain, spread them on a shallow baking sheet, and roast for 3 hours at 200°F or until crisp.