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Started from seed in spring or summer, these beauties can reach flowering heights taller than many small trees. And, they put on all of that growth in just a few short months, offering up tasty edible bits by the end of the growing cycle. All it takes is a plot of land that gets several hours of sunlight in summer – and a bit of water as well. And, if your garden calls for something more diminutive or something that comes back year after year, there’s a sunflower for you too.
Because these flowering plants are so easy to grow, they’re an ideal plant for kids to start from seed. If you protect your newly planted seeds from hungry birds, sunflowers do great sown directly into the soil. But, starting seeds in pots is a great way to teach kids about the astonishing growth of plants and the responsibility of caring for living things. As they grow their own, kids will learn to plant seeds and do the work throughout the summer to bring their giant (or miniature) sunflower plants to maturity.
What you’ll need:
Begin by filling your watering can just enough so a child can use it, and set it aside. Next, open up the bag of soil (using your favorite Fiskars scissors, of course), and allow each child to measure one scoop of soil into his small planting container, dusting off the top so it is evenly filled. After his container is filled with soil, have him set it on the ground where he can easily pour a gentle shower of water to moisten the soil. Once all of the soil pots are moistened, gather the kids in another area to look through the seed options. Once then have selected their sunflower seed, return to the now-drained pots. Instruct each kid to stick their finger into the soil – just about any kid length should be fine for sunflower seeds in a small pot. Then, have them pop a seed (or two just to be safe) into the hole, cover it up and gently water it again. Place the pots in a sunny window, or if outside temperatures are already warm, leave the pots outside in a protected area. Each day, your child should check the pot, watering it if it gets drier than “damp”. But, avoid making it soggy or those seeds may rot. And, within a few days the plant should begin emerging from the soil.
Have your kids continue to care for the potted plants as they develop from young seedlings into plants with at least a couple sets of true leaves. Once that happens, gather your troops with their crops into the garden where they can dig a small hole with their trowel and carefully – with your help – transplant their young sunflowers into the ground for the growing season. Be sure they continue to check their plants and water them as needed. For extra fun, have them keep track of the growth on a calendar, marking the day they seeded, the day the seedlings emerged, the day they transplanted into the earth, the day their plant grows as tall as they are, and the day the first flower opens, and the day they harvest. And, when harvest time does come, cure the seeds to eat as a family or just set the seed heads aside to dry as bird food. Come winter, gather up the dried heads and hang them from trees together to feed the hungry birds – another lesson in preserving food and caring for nature.
Need help choosing a variety of sunflower to grow? Consider these:
Grow a Seedy Snack
Sunflower seeds are a great source of protein for you or for birds and other wildlife. What kid doesn’t love sitting in the sun and cracking open home-grown seeds? If growing big, abundant seed is your goal, consider sunflowers like “Snack Seed” or old-fashioned “Mammoth”. Both produce a huge yellow flower head on a sturdy, tall stalk.
Nothing to Sneeze About
Sunflowers offer abundant pollen for bees and other pollinators. But that pollen can be a nuisance when it coats the dining room table beneath a floral arrangement or sets off your child’s asthma. If your goal is a clean arrangement or just less sneezing, shop for pollen-free seed options. But, if you want to lure in pollinators or even get seeds to munch, don’t choose a variety that is pollenless like ‘Chocolate Cherry’.
Look Down, Not Up! Children love to look a sunflower in the face. With exuberant, tall varieties that just isn’t possible. If you prefer a bushier, smaller plant, look for ‘Teddy Bear’ or ‘Music Box’ seed to get plants under 3’ tall. Or try ‘Junior’, which is pollenless and will perform in containers.
The Colors of Autumn
Buttery yellow isn’t the only color of the sunflower petals. Rusty reds, burnt orange, toasty browns, and other autumnal tones shine through in many seed mixes like ‘Cinnamon Sun’ and ‘The Joker’. And, although these plants produce smaller flowers than traditional yellows, they put on several blooms along the stem in a range of colors for many weeks. And, many provide seed to feed songbirds in winter.
Believe it or not, some sunflowers are perennials that regenerate from the root each spring. Some are invasive, so ask before you buy. Others, such as Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) provide delicious edible roots. Its flowers are bright yellow, and the plant can easily attain 15’ heights each season. Just don’t dig up all the tubers to eat, and you’ll have a patch every year.