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Secrets to Successfully Growing and Assembling Sunflowers


You can have lots of bright sunflower faces around you this summer, whether you grow your own or pick up cut flowers when you shop. Enjoying sunflowers in our bouquets and gardens is an idea that never gets old. 

Florists know how to condition cut sunflowers to stay fresh for a week in the vase. That’s part of what the customer pays for. Meanwhile, gardeners using their own sunflowers can watch their gorgeous, freshly cut blooms wilt and fade in a vase of water in less than an hour. 

It’s easy to prevent this little disaster. The secret lies in successful harvesting and conditioning. For that “fresh as a daisy” look, harvest your flowers early in the day, before they get hot or dry. Take sharp clippers and a bucket of cool water outside with you. Add floral conditioner to the water if you like. Look for flowers that are fully grown but just starting to unfurl their petals. Cut each with a long stem and place inside the bucket. Bring the bucket of flowers inside to a cool work area. The kitchen will do. 

Next, set up a second container. Fill it with fresh, cool water and add floral conditioner. You may have packets of this powder left over from floral purchases, or you can make your own by adding a tablespoon of sugar and a tablespoon of chlorine bleach to each gallon of water. The sugar is for energy and the bleach kills bacteria.

One by one, take the flowers out of the harvest bucket, strip off all the lower leaves, re-cut the stem bases under water to prevent air bubbles from blocking the veins, and put them into the conditioning container. Ideally the deep water covers the stems of the flowers but not the heads. Let them recover and stiffen up for at least three hours before arranging them. Then arrange them to your liking, cutting the stems underwater again as you work.

When shopping, look for fresh blooms just beginning to open. If you buy them at a grocery store, use those bouquet-size plastic bags to keep them from drying out, and don’t leave them in a hot car. Bring these beauties home promptly. Your newly purchased flowers also benefit from a few hours of extra conditioning in deep water. Sunflowers must drink a lot, and this keeps them fresh once arranged. 

Ornamental annual sunflowers are easy to grow. Select the best type for your preference or purpose. Your favorite seed catalog or garden center should have many options. Are you growing them for garden appearance? For cut flowers? For edible seed? For containers? 

Although dwarf types can be found as seed in packets or already growing in pots, the cutting types are usually six or seven feet tall and their seed should be planted where you want the mature plants to grow. With care, they can be transplanted if necessary. Seeds sown at the end of April can be in full bloom in July. The speed is amazing. 

There is one requirement above all. Naturally, sunflowers need a lot of sun. They’re tough prairie plants, but they’ll be weak and wimpy if grown in a shady spot. They need rich soil and ample water to reach their full potential, but they’ll make do with less if their need for sun is met.

Native Americans were growing sunflowers before Europeans arrived, and the early explorers took seeds back to Europe. Eventually, the Russians developed them as a source of vegetable oil—an oil that was approved for use during Lent, by the way. Mammoth Russian and Mammoth Grey Striped are classic large-headed agricultural sunflowers (seed heads a foot across) used for food and oil. Now there’s Titan, with 24-inch heads. Breeders also back-crossed these with wild types to get branching, ornamental sunflowers in countless shapes, colors and sizes. 

There are sunflowers for many purposes and styles. For bouquets, look for tall, branching plants with many flowers. They can be six feet tall or more, but it depends on your conditions and the varietyselected. Colors run from pale butter-yellow and gold to orange, burgundy and brown. The centers can be yellow, orange or brown. The Teddy Bear has fluffy double yellow flowers and no visible pollen. The Goldy Double is frilly and fun.

The pollen can be a problem in bouquets, as it stains tablecloths. Pollen-free choices include the Pro-Cut series in various colors, Pristine Mix, and Royal Flush in a rainbow mix. Lemon Queen is a big, healthy plant that naturally branches and produces loads of golden flowers. OK, there’s pollen—but the bees love it. For other types, it’s an option to pinch the central growing tip back when the plants are two feet high to stimulate branching, giving you smaller but more numerous flowers.

For garden beds and big garden containers, there are many sizes and colors. Look for good branching so flowers continue to develop over a longer season. Every year, the owners of a yellow house I pass grow a line of tall yellow sunflowers in front of it. Henry Wilde is a big yellow type said to be good for planting near a barn or fence. Smaller,shorter sunflowers can make amazing container gardens. If you can’t decide what type to order, get a mixture. Johnny’s Sunflower Collection is a wee packet of seeds that includes a pinch of practically everything.