Growing Sunflowers

Sunflowers are beautiful, easy to grow, and attract many kinds of birds to the garden. This is a guide about growing sunflowers.

Growing Sunflowers
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closeup of large sunflowerSunflowers are perhaps the most cheerful and endearing native flower in the United States. For centuries, Native American tribes have harvested these versatile flowers for a variety of nutritional, medicinal and spiritual purposes. Today, they are grown on virtually every continent in the world. Here are some helpful hints for growing and harvesting your own.

Easy-to-Plant & Grow

Sunflowers are one of the easiest garden crops to grow. They tolerate most soil types and their roots grow deep and spread wide, giving them the ability to withstand a fair amount of drought as well as tolerate any soil disturbance brought about by the cultivation of nearby crops. Seeds come in a variety of colors including black, white, red and black and white striped. Start seeds indoors in 4-inch peat pots or sow them directly into the soil. Plant them in a sunny position in soil that affords adequate drainage and has warmed to at least 45º F (preferably above 50ºF). For plant to develop fully flowering heads, avoid fertilizers high in nitrogen.

When purchasing seeds, keep in mind that most commercial varieties of sunflowers seeds are hybrids. This won't make a difference when consuming the seeds, but if your planning on collecting seed for future stock, look for heirloom varieties instead. Seeds should be planted at a depth of 2 inches and spaced 12 inches apart in rows spaced 24 inches apart. Tall varieties or those with extra large heads will need more space. Germination occurs quickly, usually within 7-10 days (often sooner). Most varieties reach maturity in 80-90 days.

The twenty-day period leading up to harvest is the most critical time in the development of sunflower seeds. Avoid placing water stress on plants during this time (either too much or too little) and keep soil moisture levels as consistent as possible.

Pests & Disease

Common Diseases: Watch for verticillium wilt, downy mildew, rust and white mold. As with most garden diseases, prevention is the best medicine. Good sanitation and cultivation techniques (e.g. crop rotation) will go along way toward warding off potential problems.

Non-Insect Pests: Birds and Squirrels love sunflower seeds as much as the gardeners that grow them. Because sunflower seeds mature right around the time these critters are gearing up for fall, your sunflower crop can quickly become ransacked if not protected. Cover sunflower heads with nylon stockings, cheesecloth or paper bags to make robbing the seeds more difficult. Avoid growing your sunflowers near fences or low buildings that offer quick access to squirrels.

Insect Pests: Sunflower moths (the larvae), aphids and white flies are the primary insect pests to watch out for. Sunflowers need bees for pollination, so the use of chemical insecticides isn't recommended. Aphids and white flies can usually be kept under control by periodically spraying your sunflowers with a strong jet of water. Delaying planting until late May or early June will reduce the likelihood of sunflower moth problems.

Drying Flower Heads

To dry heads for floral displays, cut the heads (with the desired portion of stem attached ) just as they are starting to open. The heads will continue to open as they dry. Bind the stems together with a rubber band or soft string and hang them upside down in a warm, dark room to dry.

Harvesting Your Seeds

Seeds can be harvested while green or allowed to remain on the plant to ripen. Regardless of the variety, most sunflowers will tell you when their seeds are ready to be harvested. Their heads will stop tracking the sun and start bowing to the ground, the backs of their heads will turn a light yellow color, the florets in the center of the head will start to shrivel and when cracked open, the seeds will be plump with meat. Cut off heads along with a portion of the stems and hang them upside down to try. Cover the heads with paper bags or cheesecloth to catch any falling seeds. When seeds are dry, simply scrape them away from the head with a knife, or thrash them onto a sheet.

Roasting Your Seeds

To prepare seeds for roasting, cover unshelled seeds with a solution containing 1/4 to 1/2 cup of salt in 2 quarts of water and allow them to soak for 24 hours. Drain and spread out on an absorbent material to dry. Roast sunflower seeds on a cookie sheet or in a shallow pan at 300º F for 30 to 40 minutes or until golden brown. Optional: Add one teaspoon of butter to 1 cup of roasted seeds and salt to taste. Seeds intended for animal food can be stored immediately after drying in an airtight container.

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man tying up sunflowers

Photo Description
I tried to grow these 20 years ago, but a big storm took them away. Now I have been growing the biggest I have ever seen for the last two years. I love watching them grow; it is fabulous.

Photo Location
Scottsdale, AZ

Arizona Sunflowers 1

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Any tips for growing sunflowers?

By Billy

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We live on a hill, good breeze & wind all the time and our soil is a bit on the clay-ey side. I just plant the seeds, water them every now & then and basically leave them alone. They grow beautifully. The ones I planted on Mar. 3rd are about 4" tall now and doing great, even with a couple of late season light frosts.

Yes, they're quite easy! Good luck & have fun with them!

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Read More Answers...

I have entered a competition to grow the tallest sunflower. At the moment it is three feet, but has started to come into flower. Will this stop the plant from growing taller?

    AnswerWas this helpful?Helpful? Yes

    It will probably stop now. You will probably get more blooms and they will be a bit taller.

    Here's a guide if you would like to try again:

    ReplyWas this helpful?Helpful? Yes

    Finch on our Sunflowers

    Photo Description
    I captured these photos of a goldfinch eating the sunflower seeds from our flowers in our front garden. I took the pictures from inside looking through our glass doors.

    Photo Location
    Maryville, TN

    Finch on our Sunflowers

    CommentWas this helpful?Helpful? Yes

    Sunflowers From Bird SeedsI feed all birds and they always leave me a gift of Sunflowers. I have hundreds of sunflowers, just from birdseed.

    By PJ from Oklahoma

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    sunflowers in vases

    Photo Description
    I have been growing very special sunflowers for two years now. They seem to really take off as soon as I put the seed in the ground. It is almost magical.

    Photo Location
    Scottsdale, az

    CommentWas this helpful?Helpful? Yes

    I captured these photos of the bees on our sunflowers busy pollinating the flowers. Bees and Sunflowers (Maryville, TN) Bees and Sunflowers (Maryville, TN) Bees and Sunflowers (Maryville, TN) Bees and Sunflowers (Maryville, TN) Bees and Sunflowers (Maryville, TN)

    By lovingnature from TN

    CommentWas this helpful?Helpful? Yes

    SunflowerTips for growing sunflowers from the ThriftyFun community.

    Basics For Sunflowers

    Here are some basics on growing sunflowers:
    1. Plant them in full sun.

    2. Plant seeds 1 inch deep and 6 inches apart (or according to package directions). Water well after planting.

    3. Seedlings usually germinate within a week or two and take 80-90 days to reach maturity.

    4. For taller plants that flower earlier, start them in 4 inch peat pots indoors.

    5. Seedlings are usually thinned to 12-18 inches apart, but can be plants more closely together in containers.

    6. Russian Giants, Kong, and Mammoth varieties grow as tall as 15 feet and have flower heads as large as 20" in diameter. You'll need a pot at least 15" inches deep and 15" in diameter (or larger) to grow these giants.

    7. Sunflower roots grow deep and spread wide so make sure you use a large enough container.

    8. Tall plants may need staking.

    9. Keep the soil in your containers moist and fertilize them with a 1/2 strength organic liquid fertilizer every two weeks.

    10. Sunflowers need lots of water (plants 6 feet tall can consume 8 gallons per week), but over-watering them can cause deformed seed heads. Use well-drained soil and keep the soil in your containers evenly moist. Water seedling deeply once per week for the first month so they develop deep roots. After that, water your sunflowers lightly every day.

    Good Luck!


    Soak The Seeds

    Try soaking the sunflower seeds in warm water the night before you plant them.

    Remove Wilting Foilage

    It helps also to take off any foliage that is wilting or being eaten by bugs. Of course deadhead those plants to get blooms throughout fall!

    By Wendola

    Coffee Grounds

    My nanny used to fertilize hers with some old coffee grounds once every couple of weeks and they grew and bloomed beautifully! Just sprinkle the grounds around the base of the plant and water.

    By Michelle

    Sunflowers Need...

    Lots of sunshine and water!

    By Frugalelf

    Grow From Seed

    Sunflower are super easy to grow. In Canada, it is cold most of the year, I plant the sunflower seeds in my garden the end of May. By the end of August, my heads are mature and ready for drying, for eating, or feeding the birds. I would not buy a mature plant. The beautiful yellow flower only lasts a few days.

    By Maggie

    Grow In Potting Soil

    I have grown sunflowers since I was young. I am wanting them to grow big and use them in senior pictures. I started them in regular dirt and one in potting soil. The ones in the dirt were eaten, I think by something, and the one in the potting soil is amazing. Since then, I have planted 11 in cups with potting mix and potting soil. When you plant them in this, make sure you make a hole in the bottom or near the bottom. They look amazing, I just planted them 5 days ago and they are coming along great.

    By Sunflower Queen

    Balcony Tips

    Sunflower seeds aren't that costly. I'd go to a garden section of a hardware store and buy them. If you are going to grow them in a planter on the balcony, first invest in a heavy planter to put them in. They'll grow tall and would be top heavy. Nice soil, sun, some water and patience, and voila! Good luck!

    By Badwater

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    I have found feeding your flowers with a nice solution of plant food makes your blooms look wonderful. . .

    Sunflowers With Bees

    CommentMoreRead More...Was this helpful?Helpful? Yes

    Are sunflowers perennials? Do they re-grow each year or do you have to plant new seeds every year?

    Hardiness Zone: 6a

    By Mark from Birmingham, MI

    AnswerWas this helpful?Helpful? Yes

    Sunflowers are annuals, but do self-seed! Mulliens look like overgrown Foxglove, are annuals too, and also self-seed prolifically. They are not nearly as pretty as sunflowers, and can be quite invasive and do only come in yellow! Helleniums are family members and some are perennials. There are so many beautiful Sunflowers, it is just fun to plant different colors/versions each year. They are varied from creamy whites, to beautiful deep burgundies, even multi-colored!

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    I'm trying to grow sunflower from seeds using cut plastic bottles and paper egg tray. These are the seedlings after 1 week. FYI, the seed package was written "Sunburst Mixed" and can grow as tall as 180 cm. Actually, I was looking for the kind that can grow about 3 feet height or less but couldn't find them. My questions are, why are they "bending" like that? Is it normal? What can I do to make them straight? Although some of them grow straight and are not bending like that. Should I move them to pots? I can't plant them out yet because they are so tiny, weak and will be destroyed by rain or wind. Any tips will be appreciated. Thanks before.

    Hardiness Zone: 11

    Susan from Surabaya, Indonesia

    AnswerWas this helpful?Helpful? Yes

    They do need direct sunlight. When starting plants indoors like that, it's helpful to put a "grow" light right over them so they don't have to stretch so far to find sunlight.

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    I raised Mammoth Sunflowers this year, and they were beautiful. I would like to try to do it for a living, what spray should I use for the bugs that get into the seeds?

    Hardiness Zone: 9b

    Marcia from Alturas, FL



    There are a couple of different insects that specifically go after the seeds on sunflower plants. One is the Sunflower Seed Weevil (the Red or Gray variety), and the other is the Sunflower Midge.

    In the larvae stage, Sunflower Seed Weevils have cream or yellow colored bodies that are legless and c-shaped. The larvae usually emerge in mid to late summer to feed on the seeds. There are several non-chemical methods used by commercial growers here in the Midwest to control the weevils. They include yearly crop rotation, early planting, fall plowing to destroy over wintering larvae and trap cropping.

    If you're are not familiar with the term, trap cropping is planting a border consisting of a row or two of "bait" sunflowers around the perimeter of your main sunflower crop. These "bait" sunflowers should be planted so they bloom 10-14 days ahead of the rest of your crop. The emerging larvae will naturally migrate toward the first sunflowers that bloom and produce pollen. When they become concentrated in one area of the field, it is easier and more economical to manage them. When your trap crop becomes infested with weevils, you can then spray them with the appropriate chemical control. What you spray will depend on whether or not you're going to sell the sunflowers as cut flowers, or for consumption by animals, etc. Laws regarding insecticide use on commercial flowers can vary from state to state, so I would contact your local county extension agency for more information on the rules governing the commercial growing and selling of sunflowers in Florida.

    The Sunflower Midge larva has a small (0.07 inch) cream colored body that is tapered to the front and rear. The larvae emerge in early July to feed on the sunflowers' developing heads and seeds.

    Most conventional insecticides are not effective against the Sunflower Midge, because the larvae crawl inside the seed soon after hatching so they are protected from topically applied chemicals. By delaying planting until late May or early June, you can significantly reduce the amount of crop loss due to midge damage. Again, your country extension agent should be able to give you more detailed advice on controlling these pests in your area.

    Good luck!

    AnswerWas this helpful?Helpful? Yes

    I agree with the panty hose. Please don't use any sprays, because some of beautiful song birds may eat the seeds or the bugs.

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    My sunflower just keeps growing! The head hasn't come out yet and I am wondering if there is anything I should do to ensure that the head gets big as well. I've tied it up loosely to the garage so it won't fall over.

    AnswerWas this helpful?Helpful? Yes

    It looks like a "maximimus", or something similar to that

    We grow regular sunflowers by the acre here and we just use ferilizers, 10-10-10.

    But in my small gardens and flower beds i plant these also and i use the above fertilizer and every now and then a dose of the liquid for flowers. And the heads get so big and heavy if it is not tied to something it will bend and break.

    But yours looks like it is gonna be a normal size head. This is what you want.

    Will you post a picture of it when it does bloom???

    I am a sunflower


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    Why my sunflowers turn brown from top to bottom as soon as they start to bloom?

    Hardiness Zone: 7b

    Glavern from N.C.

    AnswerWas this helpful?Helpful? Yes

    I would think it is from the heat and drought we are having as I am in Greensboro, NC. Sunflowers are very hardy and easy to grow. Better luck you next year!

    ReplyWas this helpful?Helpful? Yes

    I grew some mammoth sunflowers and have seeds. Can I plant those seeds? How do I use the seeds for planting?

    Hardiness Zone: 7a

    By Venman from Ocean County, NJ


    Advice for Growing Sunflowers

    Dry seeds and remove from heads. Do not remove from shells. Store in cool, dry location and plant outdoors in the spring after frost, just like purchased seed. Or start in pots a few weeks before last frost, then transplant. (09/11/2010)

    By Contester

    CommentWas this helpful?Helpful? Yes

    I am planning to grow sunflowers in my dryland. Please give me some advice to grow a perfect harvest.



    Hardiness Zone: 1

    By Srinivas from India


    Advice for Growing Sunflowers

    Srinivas, I live in Phoenix, Az., US. It is low desert and very hot in summer. I grow sunflowers here with a little water. I grew up in Kansas where it gets pretty hot, but has more rainfall than here and sunflowers grow wild there. Good luck with them, I love them and there are many kinds.

    Pat (05/18/2010)

    By desertgal

    CommentWas this helpful?Helpful? Yes
    Home and Garden Gardening FlowersApril 10, 2012
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