Friday, September 10, 2010

2010 Beauties

This year, I successfully grew 30 mammoth sunflowers in clay pots in my backyard. I hope that after looking at these pictures, you too will understand why all the work involved was worth it.


Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Growing Tips

The most important lesson I learned over the past several years is that sunflower seedlings are very desirable to garden critters. It is therefore extremely important that you protect them from these enemies. I discovered a wonderful product called Critter Ridder. Shortly after transplanting my seedlings in the terra cotta pots, I sprayed the edges of the pots with this liquid (it cannot be sprayed directly on new transplants). I recommend wearing a mask and protective eyewear when applying it. Thereafter, I followed the directions on the bottle regarding spraying intervals, eventually applying it directly to the leaves and trunks of the plants. It is a wonderful deterrent. Still, the squirrels here are a nightmare and managed to steal a head or two when I wasn't looking. The point is this: SPRAY THE PLANTS OR FIND ANOTHER WAY TO KEEP SQUIRRELS, GROUNDHOGS AND OTHER CRITTERS AWAY FROM THEM.

Of course, plant the sunnies (or place the pots) in a location with full sun.

I recommend watering them daily, preferably in the early morning or evening (before or after the sun is up) so that the water will seep into the soil (vs. evaporating in the heat of the day).

My aim was to plant one sunny per 16" terra cotta pot. However, I planted many more seeds than nine - so that if one or more were damaged or eaten, I would have backups. Although I was planning to pick the nine plants that demonstrated the most promise and plant one in each of the 16" pots, I couldn't bear to destroy the remaining seedlings and wound up planting them in whatever other pots I had on hand. The height of the plants varied, which I believe was due to the amount of growing space they had. The tallest plants were the ones that had been planted by themselves in one of the 16" pots. In two 3' X 8" pots in which three sunnies had been planted one each didn't make it, leaving additional room for the adjacent plant. These plants clearly benefitted from the extra room, growing to be as tall as the plants that occupied the 16" pots. I'm not sure whether the sunny benefits more from a lower pot that provides more horizontal growing room or a narrower, deeper pot. I have to experiment with different pots to see. As you can see below, their roots grow in layers, stretching out from the stalk.  If you want tall sunnies, give them lots of room to grow.

Interestingly, regardless of the height of the plant or the size of the flower, the seeds are all the same size.

Some of the plants developed a split in their stems (see photo below). In one instance, this killed the plant. In another, the plant healed itself and continued to grow. I'm not sure what causes this (and how to prevent it) but I'm guessing that it is some kind of worm or insect. More on this after I do some research.

I wasn't sure whether a sunny, once decapitated, would grow another head. The answer is yes, but not in the same spot where the original one was. Fascinatingly, the plant will grow one or more smaller heads on the sides of its stalk. I think this is nature's way of ensuring the propagation of sunnies. Here you can see one of the small buds forming on the stalk of a sunny after a squirrel removed its head.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Sunny Life Cycle

Just to give you an idea of how it starts and ends for the sunflower...

The seeds sprout rather quickly. They like a warm sunny environment and moist soil - be sure to water them regularly.

Look for a spot that gets full sun when transplanting them to the ground (or to a pot). Be sure to keep the soil moist. I watered my plants thoroughly every morning before the sun came up. They doubled their height every eight days or so...

Here you can see the beginnings of the sunflower head...

Getting bigger...

And bigger...

What you're looking at here will become that back of the flower. Inside these folds are the pertals tucked down with the tips touching in the middle of the seed head (see next photo).

Now beginning to open...

In bloom...

At the end of its life cycle, the sunny drops its head (and eventually its seeds).
The life cycle for my sunnies spanned roughly two and one-half months. I planted seeds the last week in May and the first week in June and had flowering sunnies by the second week of August. 


I didn't give a lot of thought to the type or brand of seed to buy - the only requirement was that the seeds be of the "Mammoth" variety. I also saved seends from Sunny I but wasn't sure they would sprout. Ordinarily, a sunflower grows to it's height (which is determined in part, by the size of the pot/growing room it has). Thereafter, a small head appears and grows to it's size. From the moment it appears, it follows the sun - long before it is mature. The petals are folded in with the tips touching in the middle of what I call the seed head - and they open rather quickly (one to two days at the most) when the time is right. The magnificent flower follows the sun for a one to two-week period after which, when it's season is over, it lowers its head to the ground and seeds drop (or are pulled out) by birds, squirrels, etc. Sunny I made it to the flowering stage - but her life was cut short. She was decapitated by a strong gust of wind in a storm that passed through. I placed her head in a brown paper bag to let it dry out - then removed the seeds. I planted some of them this year as well as seeds that I purchased (Burpee Organic Sunflower Mammoth and Ferry Morse American Giant Hybrid). All of the Sunny I's seeds sprouted as did seeds from one of the two packets I bought (the Burpees). I later learned from a friend who is an avid gardener that if you purchase seeds that are a hybrid variety, the plant will reseed but it is unclear what the resulting plant type will be. That's fine if you don't mind buying seeds every year - but if you find a variety that you like and you want to cultivate seeds that can be sown the next year, be sure that the first bach of seeds you plant are not hybrids.

Friday, September 3, 2010


Well aware that not all of the seeds planted would sprout and that of those that did, not all would survive, I decided to hedge my bets by planting many seeds (50 at a time). I was intending to grow nine plants total - replicas of the original "Sunny." I purchased nine 16" terra cotta clay pots and potting soil as well as seed starter packs (the kind with the plastic dome that you remove after the seeds germinate) and some seed starter soil). Here is one batch. You'll notice that even when planted at the same time, they grow at different rates. Moreover, some grow "curvy," a quality that they often retain as they grow bigger.

How it all started

Some time ago, I decided to attempt to grow sunflowers in my backyard. It was in part inspired by the mammoth sunnies I had the pleasure of seeing each year in Beach Haven New Jersey. These beauties line a single street and back a ball field and are without exaggeration 10-12' tall. It seemed simple enough. Buy seeds. Follow planting directions. Water plants. VoilĂ  -- or so I thought. The plants did not do well in my acidic southern ocean county backyard soil, and when I managed to get one or two to grow, squirrels, groundhogs or other visitors would eat the seedlings before they had a chance to grow beyong 1-2" tall. Last year I successfully grew "Sunny" a mammoth variety sunflower (Girasol Gigante) whose seeds I took from one of the Beach Haven sunnies after it had taken its last bow in the late days of August. Here she is, grown in a terra cotta 16" clay pot on my back deck. For anyone else who is as taken by sunnies as I am and as determined to grow them in their backyard, the purpose of this blog is to share what I know about growing these beautiful plants and to invite comments regarding the same as I too am still learning.