By The Old House Web


A field of sunny yellow flowers all facing the sun is a sight often met lining rural roads. There are several reasons for growing sunflowers, as both an attractive addition to a garden and as a cash crop. These flowers provide a showy backdrop as well as tasty seeds, which are excellent winter foods for birds and squirrels as well as for domestic pets such as hamsters and gerbils. The sunflower is botanically classified as Helianthus annus, and belongs to the Compositae family.

There are very few requirements necessary in the growing site when cultivating sunflowers. They will grow in any soil type, from sandy to clay and are very tolerant of very basic (alkaline) soils where other plants don't usually flourish. To asure best growth and seed production, one cup of commercial fertilizer per 50 feet of row is recommended.

Sunflowers may be planted several weeks before the last killing frost, as they are quite resistant to freezing. The optimal date for planting in Central Michigan is between May 1 to May 20. Seeds should be planted 1" deep and watered well if the soil is not moist.

Weeds are a frequent problem during growing, but can be eliminated by mulching with compost, grass clippings or similar material. Mulching also helps to hold in soil moisture and protects soil from erosion. The sunflower's greatest need for water during the three week period of the flower's development, although they are extremely drought resistant. However, if natural rainfall is lacking during this period, supplemental water should be supplied.

Harvesting should occur as soon as the seeds begin to turn brown or the backs of the heads turn yellow. Delay in harvesting could cause loss to birds, unless the heads are covered with nylon mesh. After harvest, the flowers should be placed to finish drying, hanging the heads upside down in a warm, dry place. To prepare the seeds for eating, they should be fully dried. After they are fully dry, they should soak overnight in a strong salt water solution. Then, drain and place on cookie sheet; roast at 200 degrees for 3 hours or until crisp.

Although a relatively easy flower to cultivate, there are still a few problems faced when growing sunflowers. Empty seeds are sterile seeds arranged in a circle around the flower head, and are due to a late season frost before pollination. Birds are the main pest of sunflowers; early harvesting or covering the heads may help to deter them. Aphids suck plant juices and in large numbers can cause stunting. However, most all-purpose garden insecticides will kill them. Leaf mottle is caused by fungus which lives in the soil and affected plants cannot be cured. Leaf Mottle can sometimes be prevented by planting in another area the next year.

SOURCE: HM-72 L. L. Williams and R. C. Herner Dept. of Hort; MSU

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