Sunflowers grow large, tall, and cheerful flower heads that brighten and animate your yard—and though you most commonly see these aptly-named beauties in sunny yellow, the annuals can be red or orange, too. There are so many good reasons to grow them, beyond the fact that they make you happy: They're easy to cultivate, attract beneficial pollinators like butterflies and native bees, and draw beautiful songbirds (many species love these blooms!).
You also don't need a sprawling field to make them grow: "Sunflowers can be grown directly in the ground or started in pots and kept as container plants, which is a great way to extend their season in cooler climates," says Stephen McFarlane, regional landscaping manager of Sandals Resorts. Here, learn how to plant, grow, and care for these summertime show-stoppers (and harvest their seeds at the end of their lifecycle!).
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How to Plant Sunflowers
Sunflowers are one of the easiest annual flowers to start from seeds. "You can germinate them indoors in pots or directly in the garden," says Elle Meager, a permaculture teacher and the founder and CEO ofOutdoor Happens. "I prefer direct sowing them outdoors. However, germinating the seeds indoors has advantages if you have a short growing season."
Planting Sunflower Seeds Outdoors
Sow sunflower seeds directly in your outdoor garden when the risk of overnight frost passes in late spring, says Meager. Keep the variety you're growing in mind when determining spacing: Plant regularly-sized sunflowers anywhere from 8 to 12 inches apart—but jumbo-sized sunflowers need between 16 to 20 inches of space to thrive (some cultivars grow shockingly large).
- Choose a planting site in your garden with fertile soil and ample daily sunlight (the spot should receive at least six to eight hours of light per day).
- Sow sunflower seeds 1 to 2 inches deep in the soil.
- Water the seeds with a warm splash of water daily until you see sprouts, which should take about seven days.
Don't limit your garden to one flush of blooms: You can continually plant new sunflower seeds every few weeks through spring and summer to keep your flower beds teeming with life, says Meager.
Germinating Sunflower Seeds Indoors
Want a head start? You can also germinate sunflower seeds indoors. Sow your seeds indoors a few weeks before your last expected overnight frost, says Meager.
- Fill biodegradable peat pots (you'll need several) with an organic growing medium (Sunflowers are not picky, so any decent potting mix will work.)
- Sow your sunflower seeds, one seed per pot, approximately 1.5-inches deep.
- Place the growing pots in a warm part of your home, like a windowsill.
- Keep the soil moist and water daily until seeds germinate (roughly seven days).
- Once the sunflowers are a few inches tall and grow their first set of leaves, transplant the entire peat pot into the garden when risk of overnight frost has passed.
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How to Care for Sunflowers
Sunflowers are one of the easiest crops to grow in your garden. "They also grow surprisingly fast—you won't need to wait long for significant growth and colorful blooms," says Meager.
Sunflowers, of course, thrive in full sunlight. The more direct sunlight you can offer them, the better. You'll also notice that sunflowers exhibit a remarkable heliotropic response; the flower heads follow the sun throughout the day.
You can grow sunflowers in most soil types, from clay and loam to sand mixes; amend dirt with backyard compost or fresh, crumbly organic matter for the best results. The main thing sunflowers won't tolerate is cold, hard, and compact soil.
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Sunflowers appreciate a few inches of water weekly and offer the best seed harvest when hydrated regularly. However, the flower is remarkably drought resistant and can survive with much less water, says Meager.
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How to Harvest Sunflower Seeds
Sunflowers reach full maturity in around three months, after which they're ready to harvest. You'll notice their colors start to brown; the seeds grow heavy and thick and feel loose. The flower head will also point towards the ground when the plant begins to wane and die. At this point, cut off the flower heads (roughly 1 foot below the petals) and hang them in a cool, dry area for a week.
To remove the seeds from the flower head, simply rub them; after drying for a week, they should pop right out. Work over a bucket to collect the cured seeds, which are perfect for snacking or baking.
Popular Types of Sunflowers to Grow
A little-known reason to plant multiple sunflower cultivars? It keeps your garden pollinators happy for longer. "Different sunflower varieties grow and blossom on different schedules," says Meager. "A diverse assortment keeps your garden buzzing with butterflies and bees—and booming with show-stopping colors all summer."
Here are five popular types of sunflowers to grow, according to Meager.
Mammoth sunflowers can reach up to 10 to 12 feet. The flowers are massive, flashy, and colorful.
- Mature size: Up to 12 feet tall
- Color: Yellow
- Time to maturity:85 to 100 days
On the other end of the spectrum are elf sunflower cultivars, which only grow 1 to 2 feet tall. They have yellow or orange blooms and look great in rock gardens or along walkways or front-yard picket fences.
- Mature size: Up to 2 feet tall
- Color: Yellow or orange
- Time to maturity:60 to 75 days
Moulin Rouge Sunflowers
Moulin Rouge sunflowers sport beautiful, burgundy-red flowers and are an excellent way to diversify your garden beds. Medium sized, they'll reach six feet at maturity. Grow them alongside yellow or orange sunflowers for a beautiful contrast.
- Mature size: 6 feet tall
- Color: burgundy
- Time to maturity: 70 to 90 days
Strawberry Lemonade Sunflowers
Strawberry lemonade sunflowers produce multi-colored flowers in shades of cream, pink, yellow, and red. They're roughly the same size as Moulin Rouge sunflowers.
- Size: 5 to 6 feet tall
- Color: multi-colored, featuring shades of pink, yellow, orange, and red
- Time to maturity: 70 to 90 days
American Giant Sunflowers
The heavyweight champion of sunflowers is the American giant. This towering specimen reaches well over 13 feet tall and produces solid-yellow flowers up to 1 foot long. They're positively massive—and bees love them.
- Mature size: Over 13 feet tall
- Color: Bright yellow
- Time to maturity: 75 to 90 days
Common Problems With Sunflowers
Sunflowers are famously easy to grow. However, you may experience a few easily fixable problems.
Lanky Growing Habit
If you grow jumbo sunflowers, stake them. "Sunflowers easily topple over—especially the taller and heavier cultivars," says Meager. "You'll want to secure them with wooden garden stakes and some garden twine as they reach 3 feet and upwards, especially if you anticipate lots of wind."
Insect and Animal Pests
A few unwelcome garden invaders famously attack sunflowers—and they're the usual suspects, like Japanese beetles, grasshoppers, aphids, stink bugs, and caterpillars. Aphids are easy to manage; mist them with the hose and watch them go flying. Keep larger insect pests, like stink bugs and Japanese beetles, at bay by manually plucking them from your sunflowers. Whatever you do, don't soak your sunflowers with insecticide, says Meager. You run the risk of injuring beneficial creatures who visit your sunflowers, like bumblebees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.
Generally, birds, deer, and rabbits are the three creatures that will wreak the most havoc on your sunflower crop—far more than any garden bug.
Month-by-Month Sunflower Grow Chart
Looking for an easy sunflower cheat sheet? Turn to our month-by-month grow chart, which will help you stay on track—but you won't have to do much. Sunflowers can flourish and blossom so long as there's no risk of frost and their seeds effortlessly germinate in soil temperatures of around 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. They're the ultimate low-fuss flower, says Meager.
|May||Late May is the perfect time to sow your sunflowers directly in your garden soil in many parts of the U.S. You can also begin germinating your sunflower seeds indoors in May.|
|June||Early June is arguably the best time for sowing sunflower seeds directly into the soil. You can also safely transplant your baby sunflower plants outdoors at this time. Even if you planted some sunflowers in May, plant more in June. That way, you'll have a continued barrage of colorful flowers throughout the season. Plant new sunflower seeds every week in June for longer-lasting coverage and more bees.|
|July||July is the last month to sow new sunflower seeds, says Meager. Most sunflower cultivars mature in around three months—and the first frost can occur in late September or early October in many U.S. locations.|
|August||In August, your sunflowers will approach full maturity. You'll notice lovely blooms, deep flowering colors, and thick, heavy sunflower seeds. Sit back and enjoy the show.|
|September||Most sunflowers will begin to fade by the end of September. Those not devoured by songbirds and deer can be harvested if you wish.|
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Provide flowers with plenty of daily sunlight, whether in a garden or containers, for at least six to eight hours. If growing sunflowers in a container, provide enough drainage and loose soil. As sun-loving plants, wait until the last frost passes to plant seeds.What do I need to know before planting sunflowers? ›
Choose a planting site in your garden with fertile soil and ample daily sunlight (the spot should receive at least six to eight hours of light per day). Sow sunflower seeds 1 to 2 inches deep in the soil. Water the seeds with a warm splash of water daily until you see sprouts, which should take about seven days.Do sunflower seeds need to be dried before planting? ›
Drying Seeds For Re-Planting
Rinse sunflower seeds before laying out to dry. Allow them to dry for several hours (or overnight). If you're saving the seeds to re-plant, store them in an airtight container in a cool, dry place until you are ready to plant.
When to Plant Sunflowers. Plant seeds after the danger of spring frost has passed and the soil temperature is at least 60 degrees. This will be between March and May, depending on where you live.How many sunflower seeds to plant per hole? ›
Place one seed in the divot and cover it with soil. If you have extra seeds, you can put 2-3 in one hole and then trim off the two weaker seedlings. Water the soil gently to help settle it. Sunflower seeds of most varieties should be planted about 18-24 inches apart, as they will grow to be quite large.Do sunflowers come back every year? ›
Many flowers carry the name “sunflower” that are, in fact, completely different species of plants. Some sunflowers are annual and survive only one season, and others are perennials that will return every year. All perennial and annual sunflowers produce brilliant flowers that are a highlight of any late-summer garden.Is Miracle Grow good for sunflowers? ›
While sunflowers are not big feeders, you will get more and better blooms if you make sure they get a steady stream of nutrition. A month after planting, begin feeding sunflowers with Miracle-Gro® Water Soluble All Purpose Plant Food.Do you water sunflowers after planting? ›
Because sunflower seeds contain large amounts of natural oil, they require a lot of water for germination. After planting, water the ground thoroughly. Keep the soil moist with frequent, light watering until germination occurs. If starting indoors, cover your pots with clear plastic wrap to keep in moisture.What not to plant next to sunflowers? ›
Sunflowers have a high allelopathic potential and may reduce the yield of present/future potato crops. They also compete for nutrients within the soil so you won't get the maximum benefits from either by planting these two next to each other.How often do you water sunflowers? ›
Sunflowers need to be watered regularly, about once every 3-5 days, depending on the weather and soil conditions. In hot and dry conditions, they may need to be watered more frequently.
To grow well, they need plenty of sunlight (approximately 6-8 hours a day) so it's important to plant them in a spot that gets plenty of sunlight throughout the day. Sunflowers also need plenty of space as they have long roots that need to stretch out so plant them in an area with well-dug, loose, well-draining soil.Do sunflower seed plants come back every year? ›
Some sunflowers are annual and survive only one season, and others are perennials that will return every year. All perennial and annual sunflowers produce brilliant flowers that are a highlight of any late-summer garden.How long does it take to grow and harvest sunflower seeds? ›
How fast do sunflowers grow? Sunflowers grow quickly. Many can achieve up to 12 feet of growth in only 3 months. With the proper growing conditions, sunflowers should reach maturity in 70 to 100 days after planting.