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Sunflower 2
In this guide we talk about how to grow and take care of sunflowers.

Few plants herald the summer quite like the sunflower. They have an attainable nature that makes them a common sight in many communal gardens and allotments. They can also produce immediate impact and draw the eye within a garden space with their bright colour and towering growth.

The sunflower got its name from the fact that its flower will often point itself towards the sun. Ancient Greek mythology tells us that this is because sunflowers were created from Clytie, a jealous nymph who betrayed Apollo the god of the sun for finding another love. She was buried and was reborn in the form of a sunflower. Her love for Apollo carries on, hence why she still watches him as he arcs above her in the sky.

The scientific truth is more to do with how the stem elongates when exposed to sunlight, therefore revolving the head of the plant with it. This repositioning of the plant is beneficial too, as it warms up the many florets in the flower head and helps draw in potential insect pollinators.

  • Sunflowers were grown by Native Americans and used as food as well as for their medicinal properties. The inside of the stem would be broken down into a pulp and placed on wounds, and soaking the plant in water produced a concoction that they would drink to help with chest pains.
  • Sunflowers these days are grown less for their medicinal properties but are still used to produce sunflower oil. The variety of sunflower grown to produce oil has a thinner stem and smaller dark seeds. Sunflower oil is beneficial to our heart and has been proven to lower cholesterol. The oil is not just used in cooking but is also found in beauty products also.
  • Planting sunflowers make for a great introduction into seed sowing for newer or less confident gardeners. The larger seeds are more manageable and easier to handle than other smaller seeds.
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  • Sunflower growing competitions are a great way to get even the most hesitant gardeners planting a seed. The planting process, as demonstrated later, takes very little time but with rulers and measuring tape you can track the progress your seed makes. You can also start to investigate feeding, watering and other planting practices to help you achieve the tallest sunflower possible. Interestingly, the tallest sunflower on record was grown in Germany and measured 8.23 metres (27ft).
  • Making faces with the seeds is a fun and creative way of personifying these conveniently positioned flower heads. Simply take out some of the inner florets/seeds to create eyes and a mouth to give your sunflower an even cheerier looking appearance.
  • To make sure you don’t waste any of the seeds taken out you can either save them for the next year if the variety you had grew particularly well or incorporate the seeds into bird feeders over the winter.
  • To make sure you get the most from the plant, once the sunflower has dyed back, instead of chucking the stem on the compost pile, the spongy honeycombed like centre would make fantastic bug hotel for smaller creepy crawlies to feel right at home.
  • For a mathematically inclined child, and perhaps one in later years, there are not many plants better at demonstrating the Fibonacci sequence. This being the name of the spiral pattern formed by the flowers within the head of the flower, each floret is oriented towards the next by the golden angle of 137.5°. This sequencing can also be found in nature in pinecones and cauliflower heads.
  • Use a range of artistic mediums such as paint, crayon or paper mache to get your children’s creative juices flowing and release their inner Van Gogh.
  1. Fill a 9cm pot with compost, being sure to break up any large lumps beforehand
  2. Gently tap your pot to ensure compost settles and is level with the edge
  3. Use a dibber or even just a pencil to make small hole in the centre of the compost. Place in the seed and cover
  4. Water from above using a watering can with a rose attachment so as not to disturb the compost and seed
  5. Label and place somewhere warm, either on a windowsill or outside in a sunny position
Sunflowers Battersea Park
Sunflowers at our Thrive centre in Battersea Park

As mentioned previously, sunflowers are a relatively easy plant to grow and require little in the way of maintenance. Even the seed sowing directions shown above can be skipped and the seeds can be sown straight into prepared soil where you wish them to grow. The advantage of initially growing in pots is that you can better monitor your seedlings and they are safe from pests such as slugs that may wish to snack on your planting efforts. So, if planting into the ground consider using cloches to keep your seedlings safe.

Once your sunflowers have established, they will benefit from lots of watering and feeding. Sunflowers can require more nutrients than other plants to reach their full potential height so make sure soil is dug in with compost or well-rotted manure before planting and give liquid feeds once a week if you really want an impressively tall plant.

Staking should not be necessary, as many sunflowers bred for height will have a thick stem to allow it to carry the full weight of the flower head. If, however you feel the young plant may need a little help from windier conditions a length of bamboo placed in the ground next to your plant and some twine loosely attaching the two together should suffice to make sure it does not break before achieving its bloom.

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Aaron Simon Kemp