Sunflowers are on my mind these days, in part because these sunflowers almost bonk me on the head every time I walk down the path in the photo above. Bees get scared as I get close, and they jump off the flowers to buzz around me. But I just can’t get myself to cut those sunflowers back off the path. They are so beautiful.

And sunflowers are so useful, as they provide food for the bees.

A sunflower feeding a native bee.

And they provide food for the birds as well.

Finches perch on the leaf petiole and peck.

And sunflowers feed us.

I love toasted sunflower seeds. Look how many seeds will come from the head on the sunflower at right, which is far bigger than my son’s head.

Varieties and uses

While we do have some native sunflowers that grow in Southern California, in this post I’m talking about the kinds of sunflowers that we cultivate, the kinds that have been bred for flowers of various colors, tastier seeds, or massive size.

If you want to impress neighbors, or your kids, grow a variety like ‘Mammoth’, which gets almost as tall as a tree. Here’s a ‘Mammoth’ sunflower that I grew a few years back:

If you want to feed the bees, grow ‘Lemon Queen’, which always has numerous bees visiting it in my yard.

‘Lemon Queen’ sunflowers, with a honeybee visitor.

If you want bee visits and unexpected color in a sunflower, try ‘Velvet Queen’. (I grew my original Queens from the seeds sold by Botanical Interests called “Two Queens.”)

‘Velvet Queen’ sunflower, with a native bee visitor.

There are innumerable other sunflower cultivars. Some are short. Some don’t have pollen so when you cut a flower and put it in a vase on your table it doesn’t shed yellow dust. But I’m not sure about those. I’m thinking that sunflowers should be robust and more functional than table decoration. So I personally like to grow the above mentioned varieties or similar ones, or their self-sown progeny.

Letting sunflowers self-sow sometimes brings surprising results. This year, I have one plant that emerged with variegated foliage.

Variegated leaves on a volunteer sunflower plant.

When to sow or plant

Sunflowers like to grow during the warmer months of the year. When I sow them, it’s usually starting in spring and going through the end of summer. But I have had sunflowers germinate and grow on their own in different parts of my yard throughout the entire year. They will grow through winter in Southern California if the spot is warm enough.

This volunteer sunflower grew throughout winter on a south-facing slope. I took the photo on February 25, 2019.

How do they grow on their own? The center of that sunflower becomes a mass of seeds, and even as the birds eat many of them, some shake loose and fall to the ground and some are dropped by the birds in other locations. Then when the conditions are right, the seeds germinate.

This year, this one came up right next to my Dapple Dandy pluot tree. OK then.

Cottontail rabbits will eat young sunflower plants so anytime I want to ensure that a sunflower plant matures I put a cage of poultry wire around it until the plant gets a couple feet tall.

I sowed three sunflower seeds in this spot but I forgot to cage them. This is the only seedling that survived rabbit nibbling.

Instead of sowing sunflower seeds in modules or trays, or buying seedlings, I mostly sow seeds directly in the dirt wherever I want the plants to grow. If the soil is warm enough, the sunflower seed will germinate and grow incredibly fast. When I’ve sown sunflower seeds in modules in the past, I’ve had a hard time transplanting them before they get rootbound — that’s how fast they grow.

Spacing and arranging sunflower plantings

Ultimately, many sunflower varieties will get over ten feet tall, especially if they’re well watered. Because of this, I like to sow the seeds at the north end of vegetable beds. This way the sunflowers won’t shade the vegetables.

Young sunflower growing at north end of bed of carrots, will never shade the carrots.

But if you’re only growing one or two sunflowers, then the shade won’t be too much for some sweet potatoes or watermelon vines to thrive underneath.

Sweet potato and watermelon vines grew well under the light shade of a couple sunflowers a few summers ago.

You can also use the sunflowers as a scaffold for other vegetables to climb on. One year, my son sowed peas under sunflowers and the pea vines climbed the sunflowers and yielded well. The point is that you don’t need to dedicate garden space to just sunflowers.

Watering

Up to a point, sunflowers grow taller and bloom more if you give them more water. However, they also grow well and bloom satisfactorily if they only get peripheral water. What I mean by peripheral water is if they are growing in proximity to other plants that are irrigated.

It so happens that all of the sunflowers that are currently blooming in my yard have self-sown, and they are growing without dedicated irrigation, but some are growing within reach of irrigation that is meant for other plants. These sunflowers are bigger and blooming more heavily than those without any irrigation nearby.

For example, these sunflowers along my driveway popped up on their own.

I’ve had to prune these volunteer sunflowers so we can drive through.

Beside the sunflowers on the left is my vegetable garden, which is irrigated of course. And beside the sunflowers on the right are some avocado trees, which are irrigated of course.

Sunflowers are adept at finding nearby irrigation, exploiting some of it, but not robbing too much such that the irrigated plants suffer.

The sunflowers that I mentioned at the beginning of this post that crowd my path and nearly bonk me on the head are also volunteers which have no dedicated irrigation, but there are some boysenberries and raspberries watered near them.

Volunteer sunflowers getting peripheral irrigation from nearby berry bushes.

The sunflowers are drinking some of that berry water, and the bees say thank you.

Native bees still sleeping together on a sunflower yesterday morning.

You might also like to read my post, “Oh, the mistakes I’ve made: Thinking flowers were for girls.”

A list with links to all of my Yard Posts is HERE

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