Every gardener should grow annual sunflowers—but not just for their good looks. Yes, sunflowers are cheery and gorgeous, but there are a lot of other reasons why these beauties should find a permanent a home on your farm. With a broad assortment of flower colors and forms, as well as an incredible diversity of plant heights and growth habits, sunflowers have a broad appeal. These North American natives are low-maintenance and inexpensive to grow, but knowing which varieties are best for your farm means carefully considering exactly why you want to grow them.
Sunflowers for the Insects
The bright blooms of sunflowers are a welcome mat for hundreds of different pollinators and other beneficial insects. Not only are honeybees frequent visitors, but native bee species, butterflies, beetles and other pollinating insects are, too. Vegetable crops greatly benefit from the increased diversity of pollinators encouraged by sunflowers. There are also scores of beneficial predatory insects that use the pollen and nectar of sunflowers as a food source. These good insects—including ladybugs, parasitic wasps, tachinid flies, hover flies, lacewings and many others—help control many common garden pests.
When it comes to insect-supporting sunflower varieties, be sure to avoid the pollen-less types, as they produce no protein-rich pollen for the insects. Skip the pom-pom-like double varieties, too. Their nectaries are hidden beneath a mass of petals, which insects may have a hard time accessing. Instead, here are some excellent, non-hybrid, insect-friendly sunflower varieties to add to your garden:
This heirloom sunflower bears a lot of flowers on multi-branched plants that reach 8 feet tall. Their classic-looking, yellow-petaled flowers have a dark center. Pollinators and other insects can feast on Henry Wild’s pollen and nectar for months, as the plant seems to be in continual flower throughout the growing season.
Boasting a mixture of flower colors, this old-fashioned sunflower produces 6-inch blooms on 7-foot-tall, heavily branched plants. The flowers are a mixture of yellow, gold, red, burgundy and rose-colored petals, all with dark centers. Each blossom is swarming with beneficial insects from first flower until frost.
Grown by the Arikara tribe in North Dakota, this stunning variety has been sown by generations of Native Americans and is praised for its delicious, edible seeds. Plants grow up to 10 feet and produce large, yellow-petaled flowers with dark centers. Some plants are single stalked while others are branched, but all support a broad array of insects.
Sunflowers for the Vase
If you plan to sell or use your sunflowers as cut flowers, you’ll want to look for highly branched varieties. Rather than producing one large flower, these selections produce dozens of blooms per plant. They often yield weeks of fresh-cut blossoms from a single row of plants. Because sunflowers shed a lot of pollen, pollen-less varieties make good cut flowers, as they won’t drop sticky yellow pollen all over furniture and carpets. Here are some sunflower varieties perfectly suited to the vase:
This bi-colored sunflower has a deep, dark middle and reddish-brown petals with yellow tips. It reaches 3 feet tall and produces many side branches.
This lovely variety has pom-pom-like double flowers that reach 6 inches across. Plants are 6 to 8 feet tall and have many short, flowering branches. The flowers are perky orange and look amazing in a vase.
A pollen-less, multi-branched sunflower, Cherry Rose is a bright combination of rose and yellow tones. Some flowers are more pink, while others are wine-colored, but all of them are gorgeous! Mature plants are 5 feet tall, and the flowers reach 3 inches across.
Sunflowers for the Structure
Because of their tall, straight and strong stature, some sunflower varieties make excellent living trellises. In the vegetable garden, they provide support for climbing beans, cucumbers, peas and other vining crops. You can also use them to make living “houses,” tepees and mazes for kids (and grown-ups!) to enjoy. For this purpose, it’s best to pick tall, sturdy varieties.
This gigantic sunflower makes an excellent living trellis for pole beans and winter squash. Planted in groups, they can form a miniature forest or tepee. Reaching a whopping 16 feet tall and producing a single gargantuan flower, American Giant is one spectacular sunflower.
Mammoth Gray Stripe
Grown by many farmers for its delicious seeds, this super-tall selection is also a great structural plant. The seeds are black-and-white striped and have a high oil content. The mature plants top out at 12 feet tall—perfect for making a sunflower maze!
The perfect choice for dense plantings, Holiday forms many thick, sturdy branches on a 5- to 7-foot-tall plant. The flowers are a beautiful orange-yellow, and when planted in a close row, the branches overlap, forming a living wall or fence, perfect for screening neighbors or creating a border around the vegetable garden.
Sunflowers for the Seeds
If you enjoy growing sunflowers for their edible seeds, be sure to grow varieties bred for excellent seed production. Whether you plan to eat the seeds yourself or use them as birdseed, these selections boast massive blooms, filled to the brim with meaty seeds.
If you want to grow seeds for human consumption or for birdseed, this is the variety for you! The seeds are plump and tasty. Reaching 5 to 7 feet tall, the flowers reach nearly a foot across and produce hundreds of seeds.
Among the largest seeded sunflowers in existence, Mongolian Giant produces seeds that are over 1 inch long! Single-flowered plants grow up to 18 feet tall, and yellow flower heads are each 1½ feet wide.
With flowers that are a mind-blowing 2 feet across, Titan produces scores of delicious, large seeds. Plants reach 10 to 12 feet tall and bear classic yellow-petaled flowers. The stems are extremely sturdy.
Know Before You Grow
No matter which sunflowers you decide to grow, sow their seeds outdoors, directly into the garden, after the danger of frost has passed and when the soil temperature reaches about 60 degrees F. Plant seeds 1/2 inch deep and 1 foot apart. Sunflower seeds germinate in 10 to 14 days at optimum soil temperatures. For row plantings, be sure to separate the rows by at least 2 to 3 feet to ensure plenty of air circulation and room for harvesting. Sunflowers grow best in—you guessed it—full sun.