Field of sunflowers in Italy
Angela Slater
Daughter of a farmer and market gardener so have always had a connection with the outdoors, whether it was keeping animals or producing fruit, vegetables and cut flowers. Along with my work at Hayes Garden World I also have a smallholding, mainly breeding rare breed pigs. I gained an HND and BSc in Conservation and Environmental Land Management, as a result I am an ardent environmentalist and have a keen interest in environmentally friendly gardening. In my time at Hayes I worked for several years in the Outdoor Plant and Houseplant areas

How To Grow Sunflowers

Grow sunflowers for competition, winter bird food or just a great show

Sunflowers originally come from the Americas; being first domesticated in Mexico around 2600BC. They are the national flower of Ukraine and the state of Kansas, USA. They are an annual grown for the seeds and oil. The seeds are used for bird food; livestock feed; snacks; salads; bread and the oil is used for cooking. They come in several colours: yellow, red, chocolate, orange and cream. They vary in size from the small varieties, approximately 45cm (18”), suitable for growing in pots to the ‘tallest sunflower ‘reaching 4.2m (14’).

Growing conditions

They need fertile, moist but well-draining soil in full sun.

Sow

Sow outside from mid-April to the end of May. Rake the soil until it is fine then plant the seed 1.5cm (1”) deep; water well with a fine rose on the watering can. Plant the seeds 30cm (12”) apart unless growing a prize winning tall flower, then sow in a pot and plant out the strongest seedling in a plot about 1m (40”) square.

Grow

When the seedlings emerge it may be necessary to protect them from slugs with an individual cloche made from a 2ltr drinks bottle with the cap removed and the bottom cut off. Remember to keep them well watered. If you are growing a prize winner feed with a liquid balanced fertiliser once a week when the seedling has become established. Keep them weed free, as weeds are competition for the food and water. As they grow support them with a cane and tie with soft string. Chives can be planted with them to deter aphids. Leave the dead heads over winter for the birds. The mid-height varieties are suitable for creating a temporary screen, but they will need staking. They will flower from mid-summer.

Sunflowers growing in a field

Recommended varieties

Mongolian Giant; one of the tallest, growing to 4.2m (14’) with a large head about 45cm (18”) across.
Russian Giant; a tall growing variety up to 3m (10’) with a flower head about 30cm (12”) across.
Velvet Queen; deep red/copper flowers growing to a height of 180cm (6’).
Shock-o-Lat; chocolate flowers edged with gold growing to a height of 180cm (6’). Produces multiple heads on one stem, with each flower head being 15cm (6”) across.
Sunflower maximiliani; masses of small yellow, chocolate scented blooms growing to a height of 180cm (6’).
Italian White; grows to a height of 120 – 150cm (4 – 5’) and has creamy white petals with a chocolate centre.
Key Lime Pie; creamy primrose petals with a lime green centre growing to a height of 140cm (55”).
Teddy Bear; suitable for growing in a pot as it only grows to a height of 45cm (18”) and has large 15cm (6”) yellow double flowers.
Solar Flash; a gold and bronze variety suitable for growing in a pot, only reaching a height of 50cm (20”).