One of the great things about gardening is that in some ways your garden can take care of itself. But there are a few things that you can do to make your work a little easier. One of these things is to select plants for your garden that will help control insect pests.
Sunflowers (Helianthus) are great companions and beautiful throughout the garden. Plant with Cucumbers, beans, and vining plants to provide a trellis. They are hardy and a great trap crop for aphids and other pests. They typically produce plenty of their own seeds to use next year.
W&N watercolour on Bockingford - ©Maree Clarkson
Vibrant and strong, Sunflowers are symbolic of adoration.
I see you there in glory shining bright,
Following the sun and its path of light.
Standing tall above all others in the field,
You grow, conquer, and do not yield.
The little birds take great delight
In playing round you, from day to night.
With your petals of yellow and leaves of green
How very easily you are seen!
~Extract from 'Poem to a Sunflower' By Katherine R. Lane
I use sunflowers as a way to draw aphids away from my other plants. Ants move their colonies onto sunflowers. The sunflowers are tough enough that they suffer no damage. Sunflowers also attract wasps, which are great insects to have around as they prey on a variety of harmful insects.
These hardy, easy-to-grow annuals brighten up any garden with their large, dramatic heads and petals. Sunflowers can grow anywhere from two to fifteen feet tall depending on the variety, and their seeds can even be harvested and enjoyed as a delicious snack.
A Sunflower that took root on our smallholding just outside the garden fence last summer. I usually wait for these to mature and then pick the head to give to my Cockatoo, Danny. It keeps him busy for hours!
Sunflowers thrive in warm to hot climates with full sunshine during the day. Climates with long hot summers are perfect for growing sunflowers. Sunflowers prefer a slightly acidic to somewhat alkaline soil so they grow easily in my garden which has mostly an acidic soil. Many sunflowers just appear in my garden, obviously seeds dropped by birds, but I also sow seeds from time to time. Choose a site in full sun on the south side of the garden (in South Africa), so the tall plants won't shade your other flowers or vegetables. Sunflowers aren't fussy about soil but the one thing that can harm them is flooded soil, so water sparingly or have a well-drained spot for them. Plant the large seeds no more than 1 inch (2.5cm) deep and 4 to 6 inches (10-15cm) apart in well-dug, loose soil after it has thoroughly warmed, from mid-august to late October.
If you plan to harvest seeds, keep an eye out for ripeness. The back of the flower head will turn from green to yellow and the bracts will begin to dry and turn brown; this happens about 30 to 45 days after bloom and seed moisture is about 35%. Generally, when the head turns brown on the back, seeds are usually ready for harvest.
Sunflowers are virtually as care free as their smiling faces suggest. However, they are sometimes infected with fungal diseases such as mildews and rusts. Downy Mildew causes mottling and pale areas on upper leaf surfaces and a fuzzy mold growth on their undersides. Eventually the leaves wither and die. The oldest leaves are usually infected first. Downy mildew is most likely to occur on cool damp nights and warm humid days. It spreads by means of tiny spores carried to plants and soil by wind and rain or transmitted by garden tools. It will not kill a mature plant; it just mars its appearance. I normally just leave it unless it's a serious infection, then I remove the plant or spray it with a home-made mix of dishwashing liquid mixed with some tobacco in water. This seems to keep it at bay.
Wit & Wisdom
- Need a bird seeder? Save dry heads and set them out in winter.
- Save thick sunflower stems and dry them for winter kindling.
- Interesting Fact: An anonymous buyer paid over $39 million in 1987 for Vincent van Gogh's Sunflowers.
- Where sunflower seeds are regularly used as bird feed, toxins from the accumulated seed hulls eventually kill the grass below. Harmless to animals or people, the toxins eventually biodegrade in the soil.
The start of beauty - She will be beautiful one day – turning her yellow face to the sun – gracing the landscape with sunshine A young Sunflower on my smallholding.
A close-up of a sunflower in my garden
24th October 2013 - Stray seeds taking root in my garden
29th October 2013 - Already 1.5m tall - Soon these two sunflowers will be 3meters tall and I'll be able to harvest the seeds for my bird feeders.
12thNovember - already 2m tall - can't wait for the flowers!