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Sunflowers come in all sorts of colors. Don’t limit your plantings to yellow.

  • Author: Jeff Lowenfels
    | Alaska gardening
  • Updated: March 11
  • Published March 11

Sunflower in the garden of Nancy Grant on Thursday, July 18, 2019. (Bill Roth / ADN)

The National Garden Bureau has declared this the year of the sunflower. Now, I get a lot of publicity stuff from seed companies and horticultural trade associations urging me to promote some plant or another. I read ‘em and toss them because I always think someone else in Alaska gets the same press releases and will know where I got the idea for my columns. Besides, often the information doesn’t apply to the 49th state.

Every now and then I make an exception, and this week is one. I love sunflowers, and as the press release screams, they are easy, easy, easy to grow. Jude and I rifled through our collection of old seed packets at the start of the pandemic last spring, found some sunflowers and started a half dozen. They really are easy.

While you may be visualizing those tall, yellow beauties from a field in “Doctor Zhivago,” sunflowers come in all manner of red, white, yellow and orange colors and almost any size. The tallest ever grown was 25 feet, but last year Jude and I grew some great 3-footers. Our only problem was we didn’t start enough of them, and they looked lonely.

The reference to Zhivago is a tip-off to the 2 million acres planted by Russians in the 19th century for seed oil. I can only imagine what Alaska would look like if each of us planted a few of these beauties.

While we are at it, let me parrot some other facts. The plants’ flowers really do turn toward the sun. And, you could press seeds for oil, but only if you plant the seed types. Many of the newer varieties have been bred for color and not seeds. In fact, without them at the center of these flowers, you won’t recognize them as sunflowers.

Admittedly, the big, tall, seed sunflowers are a lot of fun to grow, harvest and eat. I do not want to discourage anyone from planting some. However, let’s make a real year out of the celebration and plant other varieties, too. There are so many. What started out as a seed crop in the Americas — as early as 2100 BC according to the release — was brought to Europe and Asia in the 1500s, and the plants have not been the same.

Study seed packages carefully before you purchase, as you cannot tell by the flower picture on the front how tall the plant will be. This being a National Garden Bureau campaign, you can expect to find sunflowers on all the racks and sold by all the mail houses. You can get single stem varieties that grow 3 to 12 feet. And many don’t know there are branching sunflower varieties as well. Some need to be staked, but many do not.

As for flowers, there are the traditional, universally recognized ones and some that you will swear are marigolds or a weird variety of daisy before realizing they are sunflowers. Then there are patterns of red and yellow and orange. If you wanted, you could have a perfectly beautiful, landscaped yard with nothing but sunflowers. Hop on the internet and check around for different kinds of sunflowers. If you cannot find the seeds locally, order them.

Regardless of what varieties you decide to grow, you will want to make sure the seeds are hull-less to ensure quicker germination. If they have hulls, remove them. These are large seeds and they sprout in six or seven days. When someone asks me what seeds are fun to start with children, sunflowers always top the list.

And speaking of kids, if you want a fun, easy, easy gardening project, why not make a sunflower plant fort? The National Garden Bureau provides directions.

It is too early to start sunflowers. Six weeks of growth results in transplantable starts, so hold off. However, you should get seeds now just in case.

Jeff’s Alaska garden calendar

Tree sale: The 2021 Cook Inlet Chapter SAF Seedling Sale is accepting orders for pickup June 26, 2021!

Snow: Spring is coming. Don’t pile snow over your bulbs.

Vegetables to start from seed now: Artichokes (not really a vegetable), leeks, onions and celery.

Flowers to start from seed now: Fibrous begonias, rhodochitins, hollyhock and lupine.