Sunflowers are a fantastic, long-lived flower to celebrate the end of summer. Now is a great time to observe sunflower plantings in your community to enjoy their beauty and think about how you might 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 bring a brightness to the receding greens of the summer garden.
If the stalks are left up through the winter, sunflower heads dry and provide seeds for birds and squirrels (and potentially entertainment for you). Their strong structure also is infinitely interesting to look at against the stark whites and grays of the winter landscape.
When browsing seed catalogues this winter to order seeds for next year's garden, consider 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.
Certain varieties grow with one large head on a single stem, and others grow multi-branched with multiple flowers that fan out from the center. Some grow a few feet tall, while others tower above fences. There are so many options to explore and experiment with in your landscape.
Sunflowers can be started indoors in late spring. However, if you decide to start them inside, be careful. Sunflowers produce taproots and don't appreciate their roots being disturbed. Using pots made of biodegradable material can help when transferring plants from indoors to outdoors.
For direct seeding in the garden, wait until after the last frost in spring to plant. Choose an area that gets full sun with well-drained soil. Personal experience has shown me that woodchucks and deer enjoy eating young sunflower plants, so keep this in mind if you struggle with keeping these animals away each year.
I have tried fencing off whole beds or garden spaces and using wire baskets to protect individual plants when they are young. This has produced varied results, but in my experience, many of the sunflowers that have been nibbled seem to bounce back.
Pollinators also are attracted to sunflowers. This makes sunflowers exciting to observe in bloom from summer through fall. If you watch for a couple of minutes, you may see many different insects enjoying the pollen and shelter of a magnificent sunflower head. Pollinators appreciate consistent blooms, so consider planting multiple varieties of sunflowers that bloom at different times to give the insects and bees an extended season to enjoy.
The strong structure of sunflowers also can be used in creative ways. If planted next to each other in a line, they can be grown as a seasonal hedge or fence line. Sunflowers planted in a circle or other shape can become a magical and low-cost playhouse for kids to enjoy outdoors.
As summer comes to a close, take a look at the sunflowers around you and consider how you might like to utilize them next year. There is so much to look forward to in next year's garden.
Bonnie Kirn Donahue is a UVM Extension Master Gardener and landscape designer from central Vermont.