Sunflowers are not the typical crop that newbie gardeners think of growing, but this might be a mistake. The fact of the matter is that sunflowers are really easy to care for, and they can also lend a notable hand in the garden. Then, of course, there are all those sunflower seeds that make a delicious snack and quickly nullify the need to ever buy sunflower seeds (to sow) again.
Since long before chemical fertilizers and GMO seeds, sunflowers have been a part of agriculture, dating back to at least 3000 BC, and they have been used for all sorts of handy stuff: seeds, oil, medicine, fiber, as well as beauty. Amazingly, sunflowers can sprout up to six feet high in a matter of three months, and seeds are usually harvestable around the same time, possibly extending on to four months.
Besides being a valuable crop in and of themselves, the Helianthus — or sunflower — family is also used to help out the garden as a whole.
Any time a productive plant requires little to no inputs and virtually no care, it’s got to make it into the garden somehow. Sunflowers are prairie plants, which has made them very tough, not greatly affected by pests or by drought. They grow in just about any type of soil, and they can survive in both acidic and mildly alkaline pH levels. Once they get themselves established, they are likely there for the long haul, so gardeners won’t be using resources to get (and keep) those sunflowers up. Now that is green gardening.
Many people choose to grow living fences. This is sometimes done with cane berries or nitrogen-fixing trees, but sunflowers are another viable option. The great thing about living fences is that they don’t require milled, often virgin wood and steel production. They are just plants, providing more beauty for the garden while defining borders and providing protection.
Just remember not to completely block the sun from the other crops. Putting tall sunflowers on the south side of the garden might not be a great idea. Otherwise, planting them about six inches apart will supply a living fence around the garden or even between beds.
Free Garden Stake
Another popular sunflower function is acting as a free garden stake for climbing vines, such as cucumbers and tomatoes. Unfortunately, sunflowers and green beans — the original garden stake dweller — are known to not be so great of friends. Regardless, sunflowers, like corn, are tall and spindly, so they make great garden stakes for other plants, and they don’t require any extra material. In fact, they can just be composted after the harvest. On the flip side, lettuce likes to grow in the shade of the towering sunflowers.
Beloved (and recently departed) permaculturist, Toby Hemenway, authored a great bookm— Gaia’s Garden — in which he recommended using Helianthus maximaliani, or Maximilian sunflower, as a deer repellent. Otherwise, despite being beautiful animals and welcomed by many into their yards, deer will gladly ransack a garden and strip it down to nearly nothing.
More than a repellent, sunflowers are often grown for the quality of distracting pests, specifically aphids, away from other, more tender crops, like tomatoes. Ants, which feed on the aphid-produced honeydew, will encourage and protect aphid colonies to live on sunflowers. It’s one of nature’s outstanding things. No pesticides required.
Sunflowers are also a new green option because they are particularly attractive to bees and other beneficial, pollen-collecting insects and hummingbirds. As most of us are aware by now, the bees need all the help they can get, so if planting sunflowers did nothing more than that, it’d be worth it. Of course, we know that they do much, much more.
Sunflowers are noted as being allelopathic, which means that they emit a chemical that prevents other plants from propagating nearby. In the garden, potatoes and beans are particularly susceptible, so be aware of that. But, this is what makes them so good for garden borders, as they’ll block weeds from growing in. Sunflowers also aid phytoremediation, which is a process that cleans contaminated soils. It’s even been used as an effective soil cleaner in really damaged sites like Chernobyl and post-Katrina New Orleans.
Of course, many people grow sunflowers for the simple fact that they are stunning, massive flowers that brighten up the scene. Whatever your reason, get them in the garden after the last spring frost and expect to harvest into the fall. Lots of people, especially in areas with long frost-free seasons, will plant a new crop every two weeks to have continuous blooms in the fall. Ain’t it grand when being green just works out so well.
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