Flower Spotlight: Sunflowers

As we get ready to transition into another season (already!), it’s giving me time to process these last five months.  Each of us have different methods of processing the new and uncertain, our failures and successes.  In our household, we like classical music.  We have always loved it while studying or even to just fancy up a dinner of meatloaf sitting on the table.  A little bit of Beethoven in the air creates a new sense of sophistication, inspiration, and a new adventure (even while eating a simple meal!).  I love Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” but it has never resonated with me quite like it has after a full summer season of flower farming.  As the air goes back to having a little nip to it and sweater season is quickly approaching I’ve been finding myself listening specifically to his “Summer” and “Autumn” songs.  While listening to each of the seasons there is a common occurrence, there are ups and there are downs.  Sometimes things are super fast paced and other times mellowness.  There are times to just keep going and getting stuff done and there are other times to reflect.  There are celebrations and there are failures. 

We all have our ups and downs.  Our little flower farming endeavor has definitely a journey on a rocky, hanging off a cliff kind of path.  Though sometimes plagued with uncertainty, it has been an amazing summer.  The people we have been able to make connections with and provide them with a little bit of weekly beauty has been rewarding.  I’ve always known flowers can affect people but seeing it firsthand has been special.  Through my reflection of another ending season, I couldn’t think of a better flower to highlight this month than the sunflower. 


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Finally, a flower that is actually derived from Northern America!  That pretty much makes it apple pie and baseball of the flower world.  It adorns our neglected roadsides with a cheery yellow that sways so gracefully with the summer breeze.  Sunflowers pop up just about anywhere!  Between thieving squirrels stashing sunflowers seeds in a hidden area in the yard or birds pooping them out (yes, kind of gross, but it happens) they grow just about anywhere.  Over on our side yard, that will be a future growing area for sunflowers and currently houses our compost piles, it’s desolate.  We have thrown rocks that have been taken out of the growing patches over there, weeds have grown… and a sunflower.  Just one little sunflower, the seed must have been dropped from the compost pile.  If that little champion didn’t grow and bloom in the middle of terribly compacted dirt and rocks, thrive despite earwigs and only receiving water from the sporadic rainfall.  It is inspiring, and further demonstrates the importance of Ladybird’s quote “bloom where you are planted.”


That’s the thing about sunflowers.  They are resilient, such heavy feeders (meaning they like a lot of nitrogen- I mean they do grow pretty fast and tall) yet can thrive with so little.  As with any flower I grow, I like to read the “meaning” of the flower.  In the Victorian era, flowers were used as a means of communication and I find it quite interesting.  Sometimes I don’t necessarily agree (how can basil mean “hate’?!) but with the sunflower it was on the nose.  Sunflowers carry an array of meanings, basically my conclusion is that it’s the golden retriever of the floral world.  It means loyalty, warmth, strength, happiness, and nourishment.  There’s more but you get the gist. 


The Native Americans grew sunflowers for food, not a big surprise.  We all have eaten or know of sunflower seeds (my husband’s favorite long-drive snack!).  Sunflower seeds are not the only edible parts of the flower.  The flower head can be cooked and is said to taste similar to an artichoke.  The root can also be cooked and prepared.  I haven’t personally experimented with this but if you have let me know how it went!


The other day, we were all out in the garden.  My daughters love the sunflower patch.  If you ask my five-year-old which flower is her favorite, it’s between daisies and sunflowers.  If you ask my three-year-old: it’s pink.  Doesn’t matter what flower, as long as it’s pink.  Being five and now a big kindergartener, our oldest daughter is quite the sponge!  When we are out in the garden, that seems to be when most of her questions come out.  This time we decided to ask her “why do you think that flower is called a sunflower.”  She looked at my husband and I like we were so ignorant “because… it looks like a sun!”  Smart girl.  Of course we had to take the opportunity to go a little more in depth.  It can be common knowledge, but it is also fascinating to watch the sunflowers follow the sun.  Every time I arrange with sunflowers I am amazed how they can twist and turn to follow the sun but yet their stems are stiff!  We thought it was a neat amount of trivia knowledge, our daughter didn’t find it as interesting (maybe next year she will). 


Here in the high desert, if you want to grow you need to be tough.  Like sage brush tough.  Sunflowers are.  When planted close enough together they can become a beautiful and efficient windbreak for you summer garden.  They provide fresh blooms from early summer to the first hard frost.  They come in such unique colors and shapes.  Bonus for those with allergies to pollen- you can even grow varieties that don’t have pollen.  I love pairing sunflowers with just about anything, but throw in some grasses and amaranth, I’m ready for some pumpkin patches and hot tea. 


We grow many different varieties of sunflowers, I’m drawn to the unique and different.  The classic yellows have their place but give me the deep plums and the unusual double varieties any day!  A couple of weeks ago, I was at Eddy Street Vintage Market as a vendor for their Artisan’s & Antiques.  In a mad dash, I stuffed a bunch of sunflowers in a vase.  It was a low one and had a lot of sunflowers that I didn’t see fit to sell, but they added to my little area.  As Monet said “I must have flowers always and always.”  Just discarding them didn’t seem right.  It was a good choice!  An oil painter came up to me and inspiration was lit!  She said it reminded her of Van Gogh, and she took snapshot after snapshot, excited to paint.  It was a mixture of many different varieties, all the ones that were too short or too decayed.  She saw the beauty in what I saw as imperfect. 


Even as I look out back, I see some sunflowers that need to be torn out. They are done, slouched over.  As an urban farmer, with such limited space, it’s always about keeping the garden beds in rotation.  If something isn’t growing or usable, it needs to go to get ready for the next flower. It’s not my favorite sunflower, in fact it was a volunteer from last year that didn’t become true to any variety I had grown.  It has pollen.  It has bugs.  But there it is.  Feeding the finches, finishing its life gracefully and still providing nourishment even in it’s final days.  Though slouched, still standing rather tall and only bending to better drop it’s seeds for them to see next season.  This leads me to the last meaning I found the sunflower to have” admiration.  I admire the sunflower, for its beauty and its strength.  Van Gogh had once said “[t]he sunflower is mine, in a way.”  I feel I must challenge him on this. We are owned by the sunflowers.  For they captivate us in their beauty so much so we want to grow them, have them in our homes, and paint them.  The sunflower inspires us.  Such an effortless flower to grow with so much to offer.


Want to grow your own sunflowers?

They are one of the easiest flowers to grow, and oh so rewarding!  In our area we are cutting it a little close to the end of the season, but you will be prepared with knowledge for fall sowing or spring sowing!

First off, if you can- direct sow.  What does that mean?  Prepare your flower site, and pop in two sunflower seeds per hole.  Remember, the depth you want to plant the seed is about double the size of the seed itself.  You can start the seeds inside or in a greenhouse but I must warn you, you will have happier and healthier plants if you direct sow.  The sunflower's long taproot prefers not to be touched and they can get rather leggy, which makes them weaker and more prone to breakage.  Water evenly and regularly, have them on a drip if possible.  If birds or squirrels are a problem, I recommend placing frost cloth or netting over the planted site until they are large enough to not be affected.  Though these guys are resilient, to get the best blooms, fertilize weekly with fish emulsion and kelp meal.  

Sunflower seedlings are tough, as we can see in our area with volunteer sunflowers popping up everywhere.  You can fall sow some, and they will germinate and start growing for you in early spring.  Though, with this, you may need to provide protection to the seedling from frost.  Otherwise, sow in late spring/early summer.  You can continue to sow sunflowers every three weeks for branching varieties, every week for the big boy single stem varieties.  

Branching sunflowers love elbow room, we plant ours a minimum eighteen inches apart.  If you decide to dive into grown single stem varieties, and want them to be a usable size for bouquets, we space ours four to six inches apart.

For best results, rotate sunflowers to a different plant site each season.  They get hungry, therefore amend the plant site with good compost.

Hope you enjoyed this dose of floral bliss!

- Jessica