The joy of sunflowers, from a gardener UVM Extension | Opinion

Sunflowers, which come in many varieties and colors, add beauty to the landscape and attract birds to the garden. (photo: Bonnie Kirn Donahue)

The sunflower is a fantastic long-lived flower to celebrate the end of summer. Now is a great time to take a look at the sunflower plantations in your community to take in their beauty and think about how you would like to grow them next season.

Sunflowers (Helianthus annus) are multi-season plants with an important presence throughout the year. In late fall, their colors add sparkle to the secluded greens of the summer garden.

If the stems are left in place over the winter, the sunflower heads will dry out and provide seeds for birds and squirrels (and potentially entertainment for you). Their solid structure is also endlessly interesting to look at against the stark whites and grays of the winter landscape.

When browsing seed catalogs this winter to order seeds for next year’s garden, think about the many varieties of sunflowers that can be grown in home gardens in northern climates.

Sunflowers are easy and inexpensive to grow. They can be started easily from seed and come in many varieties and colors. Some are bright yellow with brown centers, while others are made up of rich browns, oranges, reds, pale yellows and everything in between.

Some varieties grow with a large head on a single stem, and others grow with several branches with several flowers that unfold from the center. Some grow a few feet tall, while others rise above fences. There are so many options to explore and experience in your landscape.

Sunflowers can be planted indoors in late spring. However, if you do decide to start them indoors, be careful. Sunflowers produce taproots and don’t like their roots to be disturbed. Using pots made of biodegradable material can help when transferring plants from indoors to outdoors.

For direct sowing in the garden, wait until after the last spring frosts to plant. Choose a sunny area with well-drained soil. Personal experience has shown me that groundhogs and deer love to eat young sunflower seedlings, so keep that in mind if you find it difficult to keep these animals away every year.

I have tried fencing entire flower beds or garden areas and using wire baskets to protect individual plants when they are young. This has produced varying results, but in my experience many sunflowers that have been nibbled on seem to bounce back.

sunflower 2

Bees and other pollinators are attracted to sunflowers not only for pollen, but also for shelter on the flower head. (photo: Bonnie Kirn Donahue)

Pollinators are also attracted to sunflowers. This makes sunflowers exciting to watch in bloom from summer to fall. If you look for a few minutes, you might see many different insects enjoying the pollen and shelter of a beautiful sunflower head. Pollinators appreciate regular blooms, so consider planting several varieties of sunflowers that bloom at different times to give insects and bees an extended season to enjoy.

The solid structure of the sunflower can also be used creatively. If planted next to each other in a row, they can be grown as a seasonal hedge or fence. Sunflowers planted in a circle or in some other form can become a magical, inexpensive playhouse for children to enjoy outdoors.

At the end of summer, take a look at the sunflowers around you and think about how you would like to use them next year. There is so much to look forward to in next year’s garden.

Bonnie Kirn Donahue is a Master Gardener and UVM Extension Landscaper from central Vermont.

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