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4 Things to Know About Sunflowers

Think of sunflowers as sunshine on a stem. The dazzling blooms bring the happy, whether they're growing in a garden or cut for bouquets. These four tidbits about these summer-into-fall showstoppers will help ensure you're ready to go next growing season.

1. They're Not Always Yellow—or Tall

When most people think of sunflowers, they think of three things: yellow, big, and tall. The classic image of blooms towering 10-feet high in a field—or even a single one in a garden reaching upward like Jack's beanstalk—deserves a double take. But these extroverts aren't the only option. There are hundreds of varieties of annual and perennial sunflowers. Dwarf varieties grow only a few feet tall. Some sunflowers have multiple stems, making them nice for cutting gardens. And, as Better Homes & Gardens noted, sunflowers come in surprising colors. You'll find petals in burgundy, orange, peach, bronze, green, cream, golden yellows, or multicolored, for example.

See Sunflower Varieties

2. One Flower Head Can Have Thousands of Seeds

The jumbo sunflowers that form a single head—and also turn heads in a garden or field—aren't just for looks. Some varieties such as 'Giant Grey Stripe' and 'Mammoth Russian' are grown for their edible seeds. (Sunflowers typically sold for bouquets don't tend to have edible seeds.) A single sunflower head can produce up to 2,000 seeds. What becomes of them? Here are three ideas.

•Sow for snacks. Raw or baked, sunflower seeds are a good source of vitamin E. To roast harvested seeds, spread them loose on a baking sheet and roast at 350°F for 10 minutes. When you hear the shells cracking, they're done.

•Make birdseed. Black oil sunflower seeds have thin shells and meaty seeds. You can leave the flower heads on the stems or cut them off and place them on a flat feeder or a table.

•Save for next year. After the seed head starts to dry and turn yellow, cut it from the stalk. Store the head in a dry place to allow seeds to mature. Place dried seeds in a sealed container and store in a cool, dry place until spring.

Tip: A flower head is ready to harvest when its back turns from green to yellow and/or when a big head begins to droop. They're ready to store when the disk at the back of the flower turns brown.

3. They're Easy to Grow From Seeds

Good news: Sunflowers are easy to grow from a just a packet of seeds. In fact, it may be easier to find seeds than it is sunflowers in containers. If you've been in awe of the cheerful blooms that color gardens into fall, start planning for the next growing season so you can get in on the fun. Here's a few planting pointers.

•Plot your position. True to their name, sunflowers are sun worshippers. To thrive, they need at least six hours of sun a day. Scope out areas for tall varieties to help hide an unsightly view, such as the side of a building or fence. Small varieties can bring a hit of bright color to the front of a flower bed. Check seed catalogs to find interesting varieties. A sunflower's name is often a clue to its size. 'Sunzilla' and 'Heirloom Titan' hint at tall-growing varieties, while dwarf sunflowers bear names like 'Elf' and 'Junior.'

•Sow in the spring. To start seeds indoors in the spring, use grow-lights or a sunny window. Seeds should germinate in seven to 10 days. Transfer plants to the garden after danger of the last frost has passed. To sow seeds directly in your garden, plant them 1 inch deep and space 1–6 inches apart, depending on the variety. If you want to have continual blooms to cut for bouquets, sow new rows every two weeks.

•Give them space. Seedlings tend to emerge two weeks after planting. When they get to about 3 inches tall, thin them down to the healthiest, leaving plants that are spaced about 12 to 18 inches apart. The payback for your thinning efforts is strong, upright flowers. Sunflowers that grow too closely together can have weak, wobbly stems.

•Plan on maintenance. Add a 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch, such as shredded bark, pine needles, or grass clippings, to conserve soil moisture and discourage weeds. Moist, well-drained soil (along with plenty of sun) is key. To keep tall varieties upright, plan on staking their stalks when they reach 4 feet tall.

4. They Make Fuss-Free Bouquets

Regardless of color or stature, sunflowers share a commonality: They look great just plunked in a vase, which can be as basic as a pitcher or jar. Let a few leaves spill over the edges for a natural look. (Be sure, though, to clip (not pull) any lower leaves so they're not sitting in the water, which can cause bacteria to develop and shorten the flowers' lifespan.) Then sit back and enjoy!

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