Sunflowers exude charisma, whether they stand in relaxed formation in a farmer's field, watch over the tomatoes and cucumbers in a suburban vegetable garden, or guard a porch or patio single-handedly in a terra cotta pot. And who can resist smiling at enthusiastic overachievers towering over a garage roof? Perky symbols of optimism and a cinch to grow, they're a perfect plant for kids to plant.
Sunflowers, Helianthus ssp., are appropriately named: they turn their heads to follow the sun on its daily trek. They're North American natives and, like daisies and chrysanthemums, members of the composite family. Sunflower blossoms, which bloom from summer to fall, come in shades of ivory, pale yellow, bright yellow, orange, or red. But the cultivars kids tend to like best are the ones with enormous yellow blooms. One favourite is 'Russian Giant' (H. giganteus, a rapid grower stretching eight- to 12-feet (2.4- to 3.6-metre) tall with massive 10- to 12-inch (25 to 30 centimetre) heads that even Mom and Dad must look up to see. 'Russian Giants' are best planted at the back of a garden, for obvious reasons, or in among shrubs.
Feed them generously and the plants may grow even taller and the heads larger. The Guinness World Record for the tallest sunflower, grown in the Netherlands, is 25 feet 5 1/2 inches (7.76 metres). The sunflower with the largest head was grown in Maple Ridge, British Columbia, and measured 32 1/4 inches (82 centimetres) in diameter.
If shorter is what you're looking for, 'Sunspot', only 18 to 24 inches (45 to 60 centimetres) tall, is a bushy dwarf variety that can be grown in containers as well as the garden. It sports 10-inch (25-centimetre) heads with sunny yellow petals around a golden centre. Also a candidate for container growing is 'Sundance Kid', a multi- branching cultivar with 10-inch (25-centimetre) semi-double flowers in shades of yellow and bronze. 'Sundance Kid' grows 15 to 17 inches (38 to 43 centimetres) tall in containers; 20 to 28 inches (50 to 70 centimetres) in the garden. 'Pacino' is yet another dwarf variety (12 to 16 inches/ 30 to 40 centimetres tall) and has numerous five-inch (13-centimetre) lemon yellow flowers with yellow centres that produce a lovely display. A slightly taller kid-pleaser, 'Teddy Bear' is 24 to 36 inches (60 to 90 centimetres) tall and has large double orange blooms that look somewhat like fluffy pincushions
Plant sunflowers outdoors, after all danger of frost has passed, in a sunny spot with good drainage. Prepare the soil by adding a mixture of manure, peat moss and compost. Sow seeds 1/2 inch (one centimetre) deep, spacing them according to the directions on the packet. Keep the soil moist until the seeds germinate. When the soil temperature is 18 to 28'C (64 to 82'F), seeds sprout in eight to 15 days. If chipmunks or squirrels are digging up the seeds, cover the planted area with nylon bird netting until the seeds germinate. When the second set of leaves appear, feed seedlings 10-52-10 fertilizer once a week for three weeks. Spread mulch around each plant and water regularly. Sunflower roots go deep and spread extensively, so plants can withstand mild drought. Once plants are established, switch to 20-20-20 fertilizer and feed every 10 to 14 days throughout the summer. Loosely tie tall varieties to stakes when they are three feet (90 centimetres) tall and continue to stake them periodically as they grow. When the plants develop a flower, stake them for a final time by loosely tying the last string under the flower head. Most sunflowers mature in 80 to 90 days, although some cultivars such as 'Sunspot' mature in just 60 days.