The Casual Gardener: Something special about sunflowers

Sunflowers are great for getting children interested in gardening and introducing them to nature's magic

A sunflower in the Portglenone field of Eamon McAllister. Picture by Hugh Russell

IT'S said that familiarity breeds contempt. In many ways that’s the basis of all fashions – an item is seen as desirable and distinctive until it becomes common, then it’s cool cachet is spent. The popularity of clothes, music, food and even plants are all based on the whims of the public. One day you’re the apple of everybody’s eye, the next you’re spurned.

There’s always an exception that proves the rule, however, and in the case of plants it’s sunflowers. Their appeal never wanes from one decade to the next, as they have special characteristics that make them particularly popular with young gardeners.

Annual sunflowers are part of the Helianthus genus, which also includes the Jerusalem artichoke, a perennial with tuberous roots harvested for eating.

I must confess that it’s been at least 15 years since there was a sunflower grown in our garden and I had to check with my wife to ensure it wasn’t a false memory. It was our daughter, Catherine, now due to celebrate her 21st birthday shortly, who back in the mid-noughties brought home from school a small plant pot from which a sunflower seedling had sprung. Over subsequent weeks, we nurtured the plant and ultimately saw it grow into a mature specimen, around eight-feet tall.

Before being blown over by coastal winds, the sunflower towered over the young Catherine, its huge flowerhead bigger than her own beaming face.

While not a plant that often features in aficionados’ gardens, sunflowers are ideal for getting children and novices interested in gardening and introducing them to nature’s magic.

Not only do they produce those dinner-plate-sized blooms, the seeds are also easy for small hands to handle and the plant requires very little maintenance. Their height inevitably fuels a competitive streak, with a variety of contests taking place each summer seeking the tallest specimen.

For instance, Jacob Thompson, a 13-year-old from Newtownards claimed top prize in Ards and North Down in Bloom Tallest Sunflower competition with his towering 4m 2cm entry. Meanwhile, Radius Housing, whose Sow & Grow initiative featured in this column last month, has revealed that Benny Martin from Edenderry Fold in Portadown scooped its sunflower competition with a 3.1m specimen.

The most important thing when selecting sunflower seeds to grow is to ensure you don’t choose a dwarf variety, because while you’ll get great flowers, they’ll be no more than a few feet from the ground. Recommended tall varieties include ‘Russian Giant’, ‘Velvet Queen’ and Helianthus giganteus.

Sow the seeds in pots from April onwards before hardening off and planting out when the risk of frost has passed. Sunflowers aren’t especially fussy but like their roots in a decent free-draining soil with some added organic matter. They’ll need supported with a cane or suchlike, plenty of watering and a weekly seaweed or tomato feed if they’re to reach dizzy heights. Most importantly, while it may be stating the obvious, they need sun – and plenty of it.

Once established, sunflowers suffer few setbacks but, like all plants, the young ones are susceptible to slug and snail damage, so protect with copper tape or your preferred gastropod-proof barrier.

At the end of summer either leave the faded flower for the birds or harvest the seeds.

The mayor of Ards and North Down Trevor Cummings with 13-year-old Jacob Thompson, winner of the Tallest Sunflower competition. Picture by Ian Pedlow

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