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Gardening column: Here's what you need to know about sunflowers

Friday, August 8, 2014 - 7:59 am

I have a neighbor who has a beautiful black Great Dane — a gentle giant I like to call him. He has as two of his companions inside his 6-foot-tall privacy enclosure, two even taller sunflowers. I’m beginning to think there is a contest going on because for awhile when he stood up to look over the 6 foot fence at us, his head was a couple of feet above the top and he could easily look down on these two plants — then the sunflowers surged ahead and are now 4-6 feet above the top of said fence. I checked today and flower heads are forming at last, which means they are confident that they are the winners and are ready to show their stuff.

Sunflowers (Helianthus Greek word “helios” means sun and “anthos” means flower) are pretty amazing plants and so much fun to grow. You can purchase a variety of seed some that will produce giant stalks and flower heads (such as my neighbors’ plants) or the shorter garden variety that will have many blooms with smaller heads. All varieties have one thing in common — their winsome bloom-faces always follow the sun. Here are a few tips if you decide to add sunflowers to your garden:

• Plant sunflowers in full sun in slightly acidic to alkaline soil (pH 6.0 to 7.5). They don’t like their feet wet so even though the soil doesn’t have to be the best, it needs to drain well.

• They seem to do best if seed is planted directly in the garden at or slightly before the last frost date.

• Sunflower seeds, leaves and stems release substances that hinder the growth of certain other plants — for instance they should be separated from potatoes and pole beans.

• Sunflower seeds that are regularly used as bird feed have toxins in the seed hulls that will eventually kill the grass below the feeders. This toxin is harmless to animals and people and overtime it biodegrades into the soil.

• They have shallow wide-spread roots. Their leaf stems can be easily broken off so when the stalk reaches 3 foot or more, it is a good idea to tie them loosely to a stake to protect against windy days.

• They can stand some drought conditions, but it is best to keep them watered regularly.

• They don’t need a lot of fertilizer but if the soil they are planted in is poor, it helps to add a slow-release low in nitrogen fertilizer. Fertilizer with the larger number in the middle (10-20-10 for instance) will improve the soil and produce larger flowers.

• Birds, squirrels, and deer love these seeds so when harvest time arrives competition can be fierce. If your goal is to collect the seed for your own use, cover each head when it begins to droop (the drying cycle) with cheesecloth or a soft cloth that allows the sun and rain through and yet will hopefully stop the feeding frenzy.

• It is best to let the seed dry on the stalk which is true for all plants if you plan to collect seed for the next season.

• “Contemporary sunflowers trace their ancestry to plants found at archeological sites dating from 3,000 BC. While they grew abundantly on the Great Plains, sunflowers were first purposely cultivated by Native Americans in the Southwest or Mississippi River valley area as a source of medicine, fiber, seeds, and oil.” (Burpee Seeds)

Jane Ford is an Advanced Master Gardener. Email questions to bloominthing@gmail.com. This column is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of The News-Sentinel.