Top Ten Reasons to Grow Sunflowers

Sunflowers are a delight in any garden. They do most of their growing up, not out and they don’t require a lot of fuss. They can grow from a seed to as tall as 25 feet (average is six feet) in just ninety days. What’s not to love?

Here are my top ten reasons to grow sunflowers:

1. They’re easy to grow once they germinate. I’ve solved my squirrel-digging problem by covering them with screen savers until the seedlings take root.

sunflower seeds under screen saver

Sunflower seeds undercover

2. Sunflowers are bee magnets. We need all the bees we can get. You can read more about Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) here.

sunflower and yellow bee

Bees grace the garden

bee and sunflower

Bee in flight

3. Mood enhancers. It’s nearly impossible to stroll past a strong, lemon-yellow flower and not smile.

pom pom sunflower

Joy in every bloom

4. Sunflowers are tall. Growing a flower you can look up to is always fun when you’re 5’10” (177 cm).

sunflower six feet

Six foot sunflowers

5. Bird watching.  Lesser Goldfinches like to eat sunflower leaves. They start low on the plant and move up, so apparently the more established leaves are the delicacy. After a few meals, the leaves look like lace.

sunflower bird collage

Lesser Goldfinch and a well-nibbled sunflower leaf

6. Grow your own privacy screen. What’s not to like about a flowering fence/privacy screen to keep things cozy on the front deck?

sunflower fence

Grow a summer privacy screen in no time

7. Self-healing. I came home a month ago and found one of the flower heads in my driveway, ‘harvested’ before its time. The plant generated several new flowers half way down the stalk of the plant.  That was a nice surprise.

sunflower forced growth

Sunflowers get a second life

8. Free entertainment outside your kitchen window. I parked my camera on the kitchen counter this weekend, ready for my seed-eating guests.  Squirrel antics make me smile.

squirrel snacking on sunflowers front deck

The real reason we grow sunflowers

9. Plenty of seeds to share. Each flower head produces hundreds of seeds, leaving plenty for harvesting and roasting, planting and sharing with the birds and squirrels.

squirrel eating pumpkin seeds

May I offer you some seeds?

10. Planting sunflowers gave me an excuse to publish a top-ten list.

Vintage Postage Give-away

Don’t forget to make your requests. My Vintage Postage Give-away ends this Sunday, August 31st, 2014.  You can read all the details here.

On the form below please request your first, second and third country of choice. Include your full name and mailing address. That’s it. Click on the list of postage stamp countries to see what’s available:

List of postage stamp countries

Sample vintage postage

Vintage postage issued mid-1937 to mid-1938.

What can you do with a bunch of old postage stamps?

  • Use them to make mixed-media art
  • Make a birthday card for someone special
  • Laminate them in strips and use them for bookmarks
  • Add them to a scrapbook page
  • Give them to a child and make up a story to go with them
  • Celebrate history
  • Take part in this gardening nirvana blogging adventure.

Please  send your request via the contact form, below. I would love it if you joined in the fun.

Musings of a Gardener Returning to her Nest

The strangest thing happens when I first return home from a trip. It’s subtle. It doesn’t happen when I’m gone for just a day but if I’m gone a weekend or longer I notice.

If I lived with Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory he could probably sum it up in a sentence or two. In my unscientific mind it feels like my environment shifted. Does this happen to you?

It started at the airport. Mike pulled up to the curb, and the boys spilled out of the car. They didn’t look like the boys at the airport curb just a week before. They’d changed. I studied them closely when we were back in the car. How much could change in eight days? Yet it was there. Palpable.  One week older, that much closer to manhood, tousled hair a fraction longer. Strange.

Back home the environment shifted too. The furniture hadn’t been moved, all the kitties were present and accounted for but time moved ahead by a week. I could feel and it smell it in the air.

In the garden, the changes were even more profound. Squash bugs took over the last pumpkin hanging. Pantyhose be damned!  I’m glad I harvested the other three early.  Tomatoes remain on the vine, but they’ve lost their rosy plumpness. Left unattended the basil flowered along with a few sweet peas, arriving late to the show.

purple sweet pea

A purple sweet pea…at last. Thanks for the seeds, Boomdee!

pumkin with squash bugs and pantyhose

Pantyhose fail: Squash bugs, 1, Gardener, 0

Most of the sunflowers are bowing with weighty seeds. One newcomer bloomed in my absence. What a happy surprise. I planted a variety pack, but thought I’d seem them all. This one looks like a bright yellow pom-pom and stands over six feet tall.

sunflower seed head

Someone’s enjoying the sunflower seeds

pom pom sunflower

My newest sunflower

Another subtle shift happened while I was away: a shift of mind. Rather then trying to break bad habits, I’m focusing on establishing better ones. I’m heading to bed earlier and reading more. I’m rethinking my blog, exploring new ideas and realizing that a vacation is not only time away but a break from doing the same thing.

The trip itself was a treat beyond measure. I got to spend time with my dearest friend, Boomdee, her delightful cousin, another blogger and a woman I’ve never met. We walked, talked, laughed, shopped and carried on like teenagers. It was good for my heart and my soul.

Victoria, BC, 2014

Victoria, BC, 2014

I love traveling and I love coming home. Time away helps me appreciate the value of both.

How about you? Do you arrive home refreshed and ready for a change, or grateful for the return of your routines?

Mid-Summer Caretaker and the Mighty Seed

By the calendar, it’s mid-summer here in California. Our growing season is longer than most, given our mild climate and rich, agricultural soil. That said, pumpkins and sunflowers adhere to their own cycle and that cycle is coming to an end.

pumpkin progression july 2014

July growth

fading pumpkin vines

Fading vines as all the energy now goes to the fruit

Like many things in life, the anticipation often outranks the reward at the end. It’s the growing that brings so much pleasure. It’s also humbling to realize that much of what’s happening outside these four walls has nothing to do with me.  Nature knows what she’s doing.  While a bit of help from water, fertilizer and nutrient-rich soil is a must, once provided she can take it from there.

sunflowers setting seed

Sunflowers bowing from the weight of the seeds

water on a sunflower

A bit of water pools on the underside of a sunflower

I tend the garden anyway, battling drought conditions, air pollution, nasty bugs and the adorable menace, the western gray squirrel. I’m a caretaker more than anything else.

Squash bug hide and seek

Squash bug hide and seek (we’re still here)

Once you’ve gardened, it’s impossible to feel the same way about the fruits and vegetables that make it to your table.  Something as tiny and unassuming as a seed has all the DNA it needs to know when and where it should grow and for how long.  Helpers, in the form of pollinating bees or seed-scattering birds, also play a role.  I’ve gardened my entire life and I’m still in awe when a seed cracks the earth and a leafy green sprout appears.

According to Boundless Biology:

Seed plants are cultivated for their beauty and smells, as well as their importance in the development of medicines. Plants are also the foundation of human diets across the world . Many societies eat, almost exclusively, vegetarian fare and depend solely on seed plants for their nutritional needs. A few crops (rice, wheat, and potatoes) dominate the agricultural landscape. Many crops were developed during the agricultural revolution when human societies made the transition from nomadic hunter–gatherers to horticulture and agriculture. Cereals, rich in carbohydrates, provide the staple of many human diets. In addition, beans and nuts supply proteins. Fats are derived from crushed seeds, as is the case for peanut and rapeseed (canola) oils, or fruits such as olives.

We live in an amazing world.

Smiling Sunflowers

bee and sunflower

Incoming bee

Okay, technically sunflowers don’t smile. The effect is pretty much the same, though.  When I look out my window they’re waving in the breeze, nodding their sunny flower heads and vibrating with bees.  Maybe I’m the one smiling, but either way it’s contagious.

sunflower and yellow bee

Bees move between the sunflowers and the pumpkin vines

The tallest of the sunflowers is my height: 5’10” or 177 cm. It was the first on the scene.  I planted a variety of sunflowers this year, so each one is a bit different. One of the flowers just reaches my knee.

pair of sunflowers

Brothers and sisters

knee high sunflower

Knee high sunflower

Yesterday I gently untangled a few overzealous pumpkin vines, redirecting them back towards the deck. As soon as the sunflowers go to seed, they’ll be overrun by squirrels. I don’t want my furry visitors trampling the pumpkins in their quest. Sunflower stems are sturdy enough to support the heavy seeds. They are not, however meant to withstand the added weight of a squirrel running up and down at snack time.

A little history:

Sunflower (Helianthus annus) is an annual plant native to the Americas. It possesses a large inflorescence (flowering head). The sunflower is named after its huge, fiery blooms, whose shape and image is often used to depict the sun. It has a rough, hairy stem, broad, coarsely toothed, rough leaves and circular heads of flowers. The heads consist of many individual flowers which mature into seeds, often in the hundreds, on a receptacle base. From the Americas, sunflower seeds were brought to Europe in the 16th century, where, along with sunflower oil, they became a widespread cooking ingredient. Leaves of the sunflower can be used as cattle feed, while the stems contain a fibre which may be used in paper production. – Wikipedia

sunflower leaves and bud

Sunflower bud, about a week before it bloomed

opening sunflower

Ready to meet the world


Bronze-centered flower

Here’s a story that will leave you smiling like a sunflower:

The Fukushima Sunflower project is now following the lead of Chernobyl, and fields of sunflowers are bursting into bloom across this contaminated area of Japan. Volunteers, farmers, and officials planted the flowers so that they can absorb the radiation that leaked into the soil from the region’s damaged nuclear power plant. There are concerns that the contamination is mainly in the topsoil and that the roots of the flowers are too deep to absorb it. Time will tell whether this project will be a success.

Officials are hoping that the local economy will benefit as much from the project as the environment. They are hoping tourists will come back to the region to admire the sunflower fields. Due to this magnificent flower’s ability to assist in getting rid of nuclear waste, it has become the international symbol of nuclear disarmament.

I’m smiling. How about you?

sunflowers near walkway

Sunflowers along the deck


The Garden Hums Along

June is a month of growth. My boys turn another year older, with a year’s growth dutifully marked on the wall. On the other side of the wall, the garden is humming along.

Teenage boys have hearty appetites, while gardens continuously quench a powerful thirst. They appear to grow overnight. It’s thrilling and unnerving at the same time.  Suddenly everyone’s growth accelerates.

On the garden front, the sunflowers have dwarfed the Salvia, though they are by no means behind the curve.

Sunflowers, Salvia and Pumpkins

Sunflowers, Salvia and Pumpkins

By season’s end the sage should double in size. Planting sunflowers in the same bed is a one-time affair. By next season it will be too crowded. I’ve planted sunflowers in five different locations over the years, and as long as they receive sun and outsmart the squirrels for a few weeks, they do well.

sunflower buds

Sunflowers ready to bloom

dark sunflower bud

Another Sunflower Variety

The seedlings at the front of the beds are doing well. They stayed under the screen savers long enough that they were able to take a foothold. The taller plants in the back row didn’t have the same protection, and most of them succumbed to snails. One or two hung in there evading detection, and within a few days most of them will bloom. I can hardly wait.

The EarthBox pumpkins are sending out flowers daily. The bees are working their magic.

pumpkin flowers

Flowering Pumpkins

pumpkin tendril pretzel

Look…I grew a pretzel

pumpkin tendrils

I call this one ‘threading the needle’

pumpkin tendril on trellis

Just like the old-fashioned telephone cord

Today I harvested the first of the delicious, sweet tomatoes and remembered to pinch the flowers from the tips of our basil. Once the basil starts to flower, the leaves aren’t as sweet. I’ve learned to nip them in the bud early. This keeps production going.

If you bend your ear to the earth you should be able to hear it too: hummmmmmm.

tomato harvest

Harvested tomatoes with a cherry on top

Sunflowers Under Cover

A few years back, I had to plant my sunflower seeds three times.  The first crop, lovingly planted with my son, disappeared.  I’m not naming names, but I saw this little fella in the neighborhood around the same time.

grey squirrel

Doesn’t he look guilty?

I planted the second batch indoors, then transplanted them, but they were leggy and weak.

Refusing to be outsmarted yet again, I came up with a solution after wandering around the hardware store.  I bought small screens, designed to be placed in windows for about $6 a piece.  Any money I saved buying seeds instead of starter plants went out the window that year, but since then, they’ve proved to be an investment.  I even loaned them to a friend off-season to rabbit-proof one of her plants.  You can read my screen saver tutorial here.

This year, I simply planted the seeds and immediately covered them.  Within two weeks, they’ve sprouted and grown.  Once they’ve set true leaves, I’ll uncover them and off we’ll go.

mouse on deck screen savers

Screen Savers protect this year’s crop

They’re not pretty, but they get the job done and they are only there temporarily. Mouse keeps a close eye on things.

screen savers

Screening allows air and water to circulate

sunflower seeds under screen saver

Budding sunflowers

I planted two varieties this year, both from Botanical Interests®: Sunflower Snacker and Sunflower Florist’s Sunny Bouquet, both Helianthus annuus (hybrid). The Snackers, planted in the back row, will grow 6′ – 8′ tall (1.8 – 2.4 m). The Florist’s Sunny Bouquet are a shorter variety, reaching 4′ – 5′ tall (1.2 – 1.5 m).

Please pop by again for updates. Meanwhile, how do you outsmart the foragers in your neighborhood?

A Mighty Wind: Bending and Breaking

sunflowers and garden bench

Sunflower Save

I guess the downside to planting a small garden is that ever single plant seems precious.  Farmers, especially organic ones, expect to lose 20% of their crop.  They simply take it in stride.  Not me!  So when I pulled into the driveway last week, greeted by heavy winds and leaning sunflowers, I knew I had to act.

Earlier this season, I planted several sunflowers from seed, for a near-perfect garden fail.  One sunflower survived.  To be fair, we do have a thriving squirrel population, so it’s important they don’t go without.  😉

I hit the nursery for a second go and bought a cell pack of (6) six-inch plants instead. I planted the second batch of sunflowers during an early season heat-wave and they all survived.  Thrived even!  Within a month they had tripled in height with flowers everywhere. Ironically the one plant started from seed continues to grow in height. It’s the big sister to all the other plants.

I digress.

So…I’m driving up the road bemused at the crazy weather, only to see my precious plants bending in the wind. No one else was home to help,  so I dragged the heavy wooden garden bench across the yard and the walkway so the plants could lean into the back for support.  I grabbed some garden twine and laced up the stalks to the slats in the bench. I’m sure the neighbors thought I had lost it, placing a garden bench at the curb facing the driveway, but I’m past worrying about that.

sunflowers and bench

Garden bench and a card table to the rescue

Relieved that my impromptu support was working, I turned to go inside, only to find the glass hummingbird feeder smashed to pieces.  Again with the mighty wind. The wind snapped the tree branch holding the feeder, sending sticky glass crashing to the ground. I found parts of the feeder on the patio step, across the lawn and in the shrubs along the walkway.

broken hummingbird feeder

Once there was a hummingbird feeder…

“Cleanup on aisle….” Oh right. I guess I’m on my own with this one, too. Ten minutes and one pair of worn out gloves later, the broken glass was up. While I tidied the sharp and sugary mess, hummers buzzed overhead. They couldn’t figure out why dinner had suddenly disappeared. They seemed to think I was responsible.

It was tempting to redirect them to the aforementioned sunflowers for a drink. “Hey…look over there!” Since we’re in the business of spoiling our local wildlife, however, I headed indoors to unearth our backup feeder. I mixed up a quart of sugar-water and we were back in business.

The mighty wind is fierce and strong; the resident gardener, resourceful.

Win or lose?

I think we’ll call this one a draw.

Sunflower Power: Still Number One

I’m a firm believer in one of the following two clichés:

  • Variety is the spice of life.
  • Familiarity breeds contempt.

Can you guess which one?

Emerging Sunflower

Emerging Sunflower, 2013

sunflower 2012

Sunflower, 2012

Sunflower going to seed 2011

Sunflower going to seed, 2011

sunflower packet

Hope blooms from a packet of seeds

Did you guess?

I love the variety a garden affords. When you live and play in California soil, variety abounds. That said, I have three garden favorites that appear year after year: pumpkins, tomatoes and sunflowers.

My top three favorites never breed contempt. For over a decade now, sunflowers make the list. One tiny seed leads to a magnificent flowering plant, growing a majestic 5 – 12 feet (1.5 to 4 meters) or more. As they grow, they attract  beneficial insects.  They’re a huge favorite with the bees.  Sunflowers produce a mass of seeds which we generally ‘offer’ the squirrels at season’s end. The bright yellow flower is my favorite anyway, so I’m happy to share the remaining spoils.

How about you: variety, familiarity or a little of both?

sunflower collage 2013

Sunflowers, 2013

Also from gardeningnirvana:

Sunflowers: Better Luck Next Year?

Budding Sunflower

Budding Sunflower

I tried something a little different with my sunflowers this year. I sowed the seeds in narrow planters and lined the front of the deck.  If all went according to plan, the seeds would produce tall, healthy specimens.  The towering wall of sunflowers would face the kitchen but could also be enjoyed by passersby.   I was jazzed!

My son helped me plant the first crop, which promptly disappeared.  Squirrels made off with the seeds.  A few went undetected, but once sprouted they ate those as well.  I managed to preserve three plants.  Moving on to plan B, I purchased more seeds, and started them indoors.  I also planted a few in the side yard hoping the critters wouldn’t notice the new location.  Last summer the flowers grew as tall as the house there.  Alas, those too disappeared.  Poof.

Indoors, the seeds sprouted quickly. I needed a plan to keep them safe.  The morning of Mother’s Day, my husband helped me assemble what I now refer to as “screen savers,” a system I created with left over screening and sliding window screens from the hardware store.  They worked!

I originally planned to remove the screens from the established plants, but the stalks remained on the thin side.  The soil dried out quickly, even after I added a thick layer of mulch.  Eventually the stalks cleared the top of the screens and started their accent.  The birds arrived, pecking away at the leaves, creating patterns as they chipped away.  Every few days, the plant added leaves and the birds came back for more.

SunflowerThis week, ninety days later and right on schedule, the sunflowers are in bloom.  The original three are the hardiest of the plants and the first to bloom.  They are taller and stronger than the others.  The transplants are fairly weak, with bent stalks and smaller stems.  But they too have buds.

What have I learned for next year?

  • The planters need to be at least twice the current depth
  • Sow directly into the soil, add lots of mulch, and screen
  • Plant a lot more seeds, then thin when necessary
  • Don’t give up hope!

Row fo Sunflowers

Sunflowers in a row

Sunflowers Line the Deck

Sunflower Wall or Bust

My longed-for “wall of sunflowers” is coming along nicely, but I’ve revised my description a bit.

Three sunflower seedlings survived the first planting but the squirrels pilfered the rest.  The second crop did much better after I engineered a screen saver, but the plants are shorter.  I thought they would catch up in height, but since they are also setting buds, I think they’ll remain vertically challenged.  So…here are my…sunflowers, minus the flowers.  They’ll be along shortly.

Sunflower bud

Sunflower Bud

Sunflowers Line the Deck

Sunflowers Line the Upper Deck
Lavender grazes below