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Looking to add a burst of colour to your garden or balcony? Sunflowers are flamboyant, versatile plants that you can eat and use in a huge variety of ways. Here’s an expert guide on how to grow them successfully at home.
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Nothing says summer like the appearance of bright, yellow sunflowers heads. Sunny by name and nature, the young plants tilt their heads to follow the sun as it moves across the sky and they’re a wonderful way to add a burst of colour to garden borders and balconies.
Although we might associate sunflowers with the archetypal tall, custard-coloured varieties, there are actually lots of different species – from dwarf sunflowers that grow to barely a foot tall, to plants that reach such a deep shade of red, they look black.
Lucy Hutchings, better known as @SheGrowsVeg on Instagram and the author of Get Up And Grow, quit her job as a jewellery designer in 2018 to start growing plants and vegetables full time, aiming to make gardening as accessible as possible.
“Growing has such a calming effect and there’s something really rewarding about taking a plant from seed all the way through to the point where you can harvest it. It’s a massive sense of achievement,” says Lucy.
As well as designing an allotment garden for the RHS Hampton Court Garden Festival and championing heritage and heirloom vegetable varieties, Lucy is a huge fan of growing sunflowers.
“Sunflowers are one of my favourite plants to grow,” says Lucy. “They’re way more versatile than people think; there are some beautiful varieties out there and you can harvest them and use them in really interesting ways. They’re also very forgiving and easy to grow.”
If you want to start growing sunflowers yourself, Lucy has shared her advice on how you can grow sunflowers from seed year after year, as well as all the different ways you can eat them.
What kind of sunflowers can I grow?
Sunflowers are extremely versatile plants, which makes them easy flowers to grow from seed at home. There are also lots of different varieties (and they’re not all yellow).
“Sunflowers are annuals, which means they bloom once a year, usually from summer into autumn,” says Lucy. “There are a number of different types and they’re all really straightforward to propagate and get growing.”
“These are one of the best types to grow if you want to eat your sunflower and harvest the seeds,” says Lucy. As the name suggests, giant sunflowers can grow extremely tall and usually have one sunflower head that produces lots of seeds.
“My favourite is Mongolian Giant, which is the biggest flowering sunflower,” says Lucy. This species can grow up to 14 feet tall and produces seed heads that are over a foot long.
“Most people will know of ornamental sunflowers,” says Lucy. “These are multi-headed and can grow up to six feet tall. You can also get them in a variety of different colours.”
Lucy recommends a hybrid species called Black Magic: “These are a very, very deep red that’s so intense it appears completely black. It’s a really dramatic and really beautiful hybrid flower.”
These flowers are a lot smaller than their relatives, only reaching around a foot tall. These are good flowers to opt for if you’re growing in a windy spot, or in pots on balconies and patios.
How to grow sunflowers from seeds
“Sunflowers are pretty easy to grow from seed,” says Lucy. “They germinate easily and they’re fast growers.”
Lucy suggests sowing sunflower seeds in April. “As they grow fast, you don’t want to start them too early,” she explains. “Sunflowers won’t survive frosts, so planting them in April with a bit of protection means they’ll be able to be moved outside when the weather starts to warm up.”
If you’re propagating sunflowers yourself, Lucy recommends sowing just one sunflower seed per pot in organic compost.
If you have plenty of outdoor space, you can also plant the seeds straight into the ground and they will germinate as soon as the conditions are right. “The seed basically makes the decision itself when the right time to germinate is,” says Lucy. “Plants know better than we do what they want.”
Lucy finds that seeds planted outside tend to grow stronger and faster than those she propagates herself. An easy way to do this is to use seeds from your old sunflower crop. “If you’re happy with where your sunflowers are growing, I tend to let the deadheads drop and they will usually grow again the next year with no effort on your part,” she says.
Be aware that if you do this with hybrid varieties, the dropped seeds may not flower in the same colours.
How to take care of sunflowers
Give your flowers the right support
If you’re growing tall sunflowers, you’ll have to think about how to support them as their stems get longer and they become more susceptible to the wind.
Lucy suggests that once sunflowers reach about nine or 10ft tall, it’s worth attaching them to a pole or stake. However, it’s important to time this correctly.
“The less support you can give your sunflower the better because as plants wobble around it triggers them to grow naturally stronger because they develop more woodiness in their stems,” says Lucy. “If you stake it from the very beginning it will give you a weaker plant. A bit of tough love will give a sturdier plant.”
Pick a sunny spot
“The clue is in the name,” says Lucy. “Sunflowers do like sunny spots, but as long as they are in the sun for at least part of the day you should be able to get away with that.”
Sunflowers grow tall in order to seek out the sun, so as they get to a certain height they should get enough sun to grow tall.
Tend to your soil
Sunflowers are hardy plants, which means as long as you have a relatively well-cared-for piece of soil that doesn’t get too dry they should grow tall.
“It’s easy to tell when a sunflower is unhappy because its leaves will start to droop if it gets too dry,” says Lucy. “But on the whole, they’re pretty forgiving.”
Regular feeds will help sunflowers grow tall
If you want to give your sunflowers an extra boost, Lucy recommends regular feeding with an organic-based feed. You can find organic feeds online, or in any garden centre or hardware shop.
How to grow sunflowers on patios and balconies
If you don’t have a large amount of outdoor space, it’s still possible to grow some varieties of sunflowers on balconies and patios. Giant sunflowers are more suited to being planted in the ground, but ornamental and dwarf varieties will grow in containers quite happily.
When you’re growing plants in containers it’s important to be diligent with watering. “As there’s no residual water for them to reach for in a pot, you’re entirely responsible for giving them all the water they need,” says Lucy.
Plants on balconies can also be susceptible to wind, so smaller dwarf sunflowers that grow to a more manageable height are a good option.
How long do sunflowers take to grow?
Sunflowers usually take around 11 to 18 weeks to grow and will begin to flower from around July. “You might get a few early ones in June, but they tend to flower from mid-summer and then go all the way through to autumn,” says Lucy.
“If you’re growing a multi-flowering sunflower you can keep taking off the deadheads and it will keep producing loads of flowers.”
If you’re growing in a container and you start to see roots appear from the drainage holes in the bottom of the pot then the sunflower will need repotting in a bigger pot.
If growing in the ground, keep an eye out for slugs that like to feed on young sunflowers.
How to use sunflowers at home
Collecting the flowerheads
“Sunflowers are so versatile,” says Lucy. “I don’t think people realise just how many ways you can eat them.”
Every sunflower will create a crop of seeds you can collect and then roast to use as a snack food or make bird food from. You’ll be able to see when the seeds have set because the petals of the flower will start to die and drop off leaving the round middle where the seeds form.
“You’ll be able to see the fat, round seeds forming,” says Lucy. “Once they’ve appeared, take the sunflower head off and leave it to dry out. This will give you usable seeds.”
Other ways to eat sunflowers
Lucy recommends growing microgreens from your harvested sunflower seeds. “All you need to do is spread the seeds out on moist compost or a coir sheet,” says Lucy. “Snip them off before they grow the second set of leaves and they make really fantastic microgreens. It’s a really good way to get greens through winter.”
The buds can also be eaten when they’re still green, just before they begin to open. “You can pick them and eat them a bit like a globe artichoke,” says Lucy.
If you’re growing giant varieties, try picking the seeds before they’re fully formed and have grown a thick seed coating. You can roast them at this stage and eat them like sweet corn. “It has a similar flavour to corn on the cob,” says Lucy. “I’ve eaten them smothered in miso.”
Lucy Hutchings, horticulturist, garden designer and author
In 2018, Lucy Hutchings left her career in jewellery design to become a full-time horticulturist and garden designer. She set up her Instagram account @SheGrowsVeg to track her progress and in less than two years it picked up a global following of 127,000.
Lucy has designed an allotment garden at the RHS Hampton Court and her book, Get Up And Grow, is available to buy now.