How to Grow and Harvest Sunflowers

How to Grow and Harvest Sunflowers

It's no joke that sunflowers, in my opinion, are the queen of the summer around here! I absolutely adore cut sunflowers, and so do our customers. It's the most popular flower that we sell by far. While I think dahlias are beautiful, growing sunflowers and watching them fly away in customers' arms is a sure sign for me that this tried-and-true bloom will not be dying anytime soon. I mean, what says county summer more than those bright yellow petals and green stalks sitting in a milky white pitcher? 

Sunflowers are one of the easiest flowers to grow. The seeds are large and sow well, making them a great a flower not only for your personal garden or market garden, but also great for pots and children to plant, too. In fact, I just planted our second round of sunnies last week, and Tad helped put each seed into the ground. It was so pleasant to watch him get excited about planting! Though it did not last long - ha! They can grow through intense heat, don't need much maintenance, and bloom abundantly. The only drawback is the days from bloom to death are short, so you have to be fast when it comes to harvesting their beauty.

Sunflowers can be transplanted or direct seeded, depending on where you live and what your garden zone is. If you are direct seeding, which can be quite easy, then it is best to wait until all dangers of spring frosts are gone. For us, this around the end of April. Critters of all kinds are attracted to sunflowers, and if you have had issues with squirrels and mice digging up your newly planted seeds, then you are already of aware of this problem! Beware of small rodents and birds that are attracted to the freshly sprouted greens or the animals that go straight for the seeds. To protect from critters, place a frost cloth or row cover over the seedlings and secure with rocks or garden stakes.

If you want to avoid the possibility of having seeds and baby plants dug out of the ground, then you will want to use transplants! By the time the hardy young plants are ready to be put into the soil, they will already have established a decent root system and the temptingly tasty seed will be gone. I transplanted almost all of our spring sunflowers this year and loved it! It was so easy to do, and the flowers grew really well in pots which made my job easier. The reason that I loved it so much was because I really got a jump start on the sunflower season, and we had blooms as early as mid-May. Lately at the farmer's markets I have only just begun seeing other vendors with sunflowers so that was a really awesome experiment to see unfold.

Transplants are also a great way to get a jumpstart on your succession planting schedule. Sunflowers can be planted every 1 to 2 weeks from spring through midsummer. It's a good idea to plant the last batch sometime around now if you are in Iowa, or about 8-12 weeks before your last spring frost. This depends also on the varieties you choose; most sunflowers take about 50-60 days to mature.

Sunflowers come in two different types, branching and nonbranching. Branching sunflowers will produce multiple blooms and need some space in the garden to "branch out" though I have not seemed to have a problem with planting them more closely than recommended. This is about 12-18" apart. So far, we love branching sunflowers for their relentless production, though the stems can be really thin and flimsy. This makes them a great asset for arrangements over selling them in bunches. If you plan to grow these for personal enjoyment, then you will be happy to know that cutting them will soon lead to more blooms for your garden.

Nonbranching sunflowers only produce one flower. This is why planting so many seeds is necessary if you want lots and lots of gorgeous yellow blooms! It is best to plant these close together, closer than the seed packet tells you, if you want to grow sunflowers for arranging. This is about 6x6 inches apart. I know - it's really close! But it works! As you can see in the photo, our sunflowers have nice thin stems and large flower heads that make them perfect to stick in a vase over a thick, broom-like stalk. 

Sunflowers don't need to be fertilized as they often grow so quickly and are done for. When it comes to harvesting, you want to cut them when they show their first color and a few petals have lifted off from the center. If you leave the blooms fully open too long, insect damage is sure to follow. Bugs love sunflower petals! We leave some of our blooms behind, especially the ones with pollen, for the bees and bugs and also for our own enjoyment.

To extend vase life, leave about 3 to 4 top leaves on the stalk but remove the rest. You may also want to change out the water every day, as it can dirty up the vase. Sunflowers cut at this stage and with proper care can last for 7-10 days.

If you are growing for arrangements, grow pollen-less varieties. Once cut, sunflowers with heavy pollen will drop the yellow onto your table and it can be a mess! Our favorite varieties for cutting are below:

  • SUNRICH GOLD | The green-yellow center of this flower are just beautiful! This flower is very hardy and can withstand a long time in the vase. The entire Sunrich series is really quite spectacular!
  • TEDDY BEAR OR LEMONADE | Both of these flowers are double-blooms, with a fluffy appearance. I don't see many on the market, so they make our blooms stand out and are just as easy to grow as any other variety. The drawback might be that they take some time to mature fully, about 80-95 days!
  • AUTUMN BEAUTY | There's nothing prettier in fall than an orange-red sunflower. These by-color blooms are perfect for an autumn arrangement!

I am loving the flower garden this time of year. It always makes my heart swell walking under the tall stalks of happy sunflowers and seeing a bumblebee perched every so fatly upon the center, undoubtedly filling up on the pollen. They are a happy chorus among the birds and other bugs while I harvest. Not to mention I love seeing the bright and happy blooms on my dining room table at breakfast. Are sunflowers your favorites, too?

xoxo Kayla


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