What I Learned From Growing Sunflowers for the First Time!

I absolutely love sunflowers. Of all shapes, sizes, and colors. So much so that I have artificial sunflowers around my house all year round. From bright yellows to deep amber hues, they rest in vases that adorn my dining room and bedside tables and are clipped to decorative string lights that drape along my living room windows, giving them a perfect pop of color.

So when I decided to make my first attempt at growing flowers, those golden beauties were the first kind to came to mind. If only I knew I’d be in for a roller coaster ride. So, I wanted to share my experience with y’all in the event that you want to grow sunflowers yourselves!

From Seed to Seedling

I will first say that sprouting sunflowers is soooo easy once you figure out the best method for you. Last year, I sowed some seeds directly into the ground and I don’t know what became of them because they never came up lol. So this year I decided to start them indoors first. Of all the seeds that I grew indoors this season, the sunflower seeds were one of the first to sprout and they did so in about 4 – 7 days. These seedlings grow and begin developing very quickly so if you are growing them indoors, be mindful that it won’t be very long until you need to transplant them.

I sowed my sunflower seeds sometime in May. I decided to transplant them outdoors once they got somewhere between 6” – 12” inches tall. Based on the recommendation on the package, I sowed more seeds as summer progressed so that I would have more sunflowers throughout the season, prolonging the blooming period. The varieties I grew are Velvet Queen, Jerusalem Gold Hybrid, and Carmel Hybrid.

Plant Care and Growth

My sunflowers took about 60 – 75 days to bloom (those two and a half months flew by) and during that time I learned and experienced a lot about them. The following are some of my key takeaways.

Sunflowers need space: I naively ignored the direction to thin (separate) the sunflower seedlings so that they are far apart enough to grow properly. One of my plants somehow grew exponentially faster than the rest and it got really huge before it even bloomed! The span of the leaves itself took a lot of space in the garden bed where I planted the flowers.

I quickly realized that there were way too many plants in the bed so I ended up having to remove several of them to transplant elsewhere. Most of the plants were fine but a few did die in the process. Moving forward, I made sure that the plants were at least 12” apart – as advised – and this turned out to be exactly what they needed.

Sunflower plants that are wayyyy too close together.

Sunflowers need support: I found that my sunflowers often needed support to grow upright and become more sturdy. Even when the plants were more firmly rooted there still seemed to be some level of instability in the early stages of their growth. This may have been a symptom of them being transplanted rather than sown directly into the ground. Although in speaking with a friend who was also growing sunflowers, I learned that she experienced the same thing and had not transplanted hers.

So this may just be the nature of the plant. To address this, I often used twigs found in the garden to support the seedlings that had curvy stems. They eventually became more upright and grew thick stems that grew into even thicker stalks.

As the plants got taller, some of them still had shaky foundations so I used wooden posts to offer the plants more support because they seemed as if they might fall over. And after one night of heavy rains and gusty winds – one of them did just that!

As you can see, the plant completely fell over and the roots were exposed. After carefully placing the plant back into the ground, I ended up using a plastic cord-like material to reset the plant and make sure that it didn’t fall over again. But I could tell that it wasn’t the same (sigh). No worries though because this plant – though slightly hunched over – is still producing beautiful blooms!

Sunflower leaves are tasty: As the plants grew, the sunflower leaves were being chewed and nibbled on by the nightly visitors in my garden. I think the groundhogs were the culprits of this predation. I honestly didn’t see it coming but there was a point in time where I found entire stems that had been cut and I was so sad because I thought they were done for. However, it wasn’t the end because…

Regeneration is possible!: Almost all of the sunflowers seedlings that were cut regrew their leaves and continued the growth process, some of which becoming my most healthy plants. This was truly a lesson in having faith because I thought the plants were done for. Having faith in the power and capability of your plants – of nature itself – is an important requirement in gardening. Something I am constantly learning.

Seeing a plant be revived from being seemingly destroyed is such a fascinating and humbling experience. Moving forward, I protected my sunflower seedlings from being preyed on by putting up some chicken fence material, which worked to keep my garden visitors at bay.

Watering and Plant Food is key: As your sunflowers grow, they will need regular and thorough watering. The more water you provide, the thicker the stalks will be, the taller the plant will grow, and the more abundant blooms you will achieve. I water my sunflowers at least 3x per week and sometimes daily as temperatures increase.

Additionally, getting your flowers – like most plants in your garden – on a routine schedule for plant food will aid them in receiving the nutrients they need to be healthy and to produce bright blooms. I like to use Miracle Grow Plant Food because it’s super easy to apply. I gave my flowers plant food every 7 days and I found that the flowers grew rapidly.

One plant, many flowers: It’s possible to have multiple sunflowers per plant! This was a very pleasant surprise for me. After a sunflower plant had produced an obvious flower head, I was shocked to find that more flower heads were growing along the stalk and beneath the initial flower head. I never knew that sunflowers could grow this way because I’ve only ever seen the plants to have one flower whenever I’ve seen them in pictures or in person. Am I the only one who didn’t know? Either way, it’s pretty dope.

Fun fact: Did you know that what we traditionally consider to be a sunflower is technically one big flower head containing several tiny flowers? If you look in the center of a sunflower you will find individual florets that contain pollen and eventually produce seeds.

If You Grow It, They Will Come

Sunflowers will attract all types of animal life into your garden, which can be both good and bad (I already told you about what happened to the leaves). Once you achieve some blooms, you will find pollinators swarming your garden! Attracting pollinators is super important for the growth of your garden and for the environment. Bees, butterflies, beetles, and flies are some of the insects that – through seeking nectar and pollen for food – work hard to ensure that pollen makes its way from one flower to another, causing those flowers to be fertilized and thus able to produce seed bearing fruits.

This is the essential process that plants need to continue reproducing and that humans need for our food to grow. And of course the insects are rewarded with the food they need. It’s the symbiotic relationship for me! We love a good mutually beneficial process. So, by having sunflowers in your garden, you attract pollinators that will eventually make their way to the rest of your plants and activate their growth. How perfect!

But in the lightness exists some darkness. The most heartbreaking and unexpected thing that I’ve experienced with my sunflowers is them being under CONSTANT attack by birds!

I didn’t realize this was going to be a struggle when my sunflowers started blooming. A week or so into achieving the blooms, I started to notice that the flower heads were indented in the center. A literal chunk was missing! I wasn’t sure what was going on but the chunk kept growing in size. And eventually the flower petals were falling off and then suddenly the flower was barren. I was so distraught! Imagine spending 2 months tending a flower to grow and then once it does it loses all of its petals almost immediately. 😩

Eventually I noticed that there were seeds developing underneath the flower’s center where I found the chunk. (Seeds begin developing after the flowers are fertilized by the pollinators). And I started finding piles of seeds on the leaves and at the base of the plant. And that’s when I realized that the birds were responsible. They were eating the seeds and – by constantly landing on the flowers – causing the petals to fall out. I even caught them in the act a few times.

The sad part is that the sunflower seeds haven’t even fully developed yet. They aren’t the tough bodied shells that we are used to. Upon touching them, I found them to be soft and fluffly and sometimes a whitish purple in color. The birds visit the flowers every time they bloom and peck at them until all the seeds are gone! I was actually hoping to harvest the seeds by the end of the summer so that I can have them to plant next year. So needless to say, this was REALLY disappointing to witness.

Conclusion

I googled and read several articles trying to find a solution to protect and preserve my flowers but couldn’t find anything helpful. I eventually had to come to the realization that not everything is meant to last. I then saw a friend of mine share the following post and it was like the universe was sending me a message:

Nothing lasts forever. We have to enjoy the beautiful things in life while they exist – even if briefly. So although it does suck that my sunflowers have been ravaged like this – lol – I’ve accepted that it’s just going to happen (birds gotta eat too!). Now I’m enjoying the flowers as they grow and bloom. I’ve also been making the best out of the situation by harvesting and drying out their petals (since they’ve been falling out anyway) to be used for herbal purposes. And when possible, I’ve taken a few cuttings to place in vases around my apartment. Because fresh and natural flowers are always better than artificial ones. 🙂

I recently realized that it was my Velvet Queen flowers that were being attacked. My Jerusalem Gold hybrid and Carmel hybrid flowers (which were sown as a second batch during the mid summer) have just begun to bloom this week and so far they seem to be doing just fine. While writing this blog post I took a look at the package of the Jerusalem Gold and saw that it is a pollenless hybrid. This must mean that it will not be producing any seeds. No seeds (hopefully) means no ravaging birds and more beautiful blooms that I can enjoy. I’ll be sure to update this with the outcome.

Although I came across some struggles growing these sunflowers, I’d absolutely – and plan to – do it again! And if you are considering growing sunflowers yourself, I definitely recommend doing it! All in all, this was an easy plant to grow and to see it bloom has been satisfying. It’s such a nice feeling to know you grew something so beautiful. That you provided the care and effort it needed for it to achieve its greatest features.

Seeing these babies bloom has been one of the highlights of my garden this season. I’m so excited to try again next year and to experiment with some different hybrids (hopefully some that are less likely to be attacked by birds). Now that I know what it takes, I plan to have a whole yard of assorted flowers. In the meantime, I’m enjoying what I have now. One flower at a time. 🙂

Have you ever grown sunflowers? Do you want to try growing sunflowers for the first time? Share your thoughts, questions, and/or suggestions with me in the comments below!

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