Sunflowers a perfect gardening project for children and beginners

Wednesday, May 21, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:21 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Do you enjoy the cheerfulness of sunflowers? Sunflowers are easy to grow, perfect for children or beginning gardeners and come in many varieties. Whether you want pint-sized plants for containers or giants for the garden, sunflowers come in a full range of colors: yellows, oranges, russets, ivory and bicolor.

Sunflowers can be enjoyed by anybody with access to the sun, a piece of land big or small, or to a flower pot. They are good as cut flowers as they produce enough blooms for the table and last a long time in arrangements.

The sunflower (Helianthus annus) is a native plant of North America and was cultivated for food by native peoples for thousands of years. The seeds are also a favorite food of small mammals, and lots of people grow them to feed wildlife over the winter. Birds find them delicious, and no bird-lover’s haven should be without them.

Sunflowers are easy to grow by keeping the following points in mind:

— They need to be planted in full sun where they will not shade other plants.

— Plant them after the last frost.

— Seeds should be 1/2-inch deep and 6 inches apart in well-drained soil. (Children can easily do this with a ruler and a large spoon).

— Compost or other organic material added to the soil will help its growth.

— When the seedlings pop up, thin them to 1 1/2 feet apart or 1 foot for the dwarf varieties (except in containers, where they can be closer together).

— Water well after planting, and keep moist until seeds sprout but not too moist as sunflowers don’t like soggy feet. Once established, sunflowers are basically drought resistant.

There are several dwarf varieties that grow well in containers and would be good for children to plant and care for, including Teddy Bear, Music Box, Big Smile, Double Dandy, Elite Sun, Pacino and Patio.

Sunflowers will pop up out of the ground in about two weeks. If you notice any birds or other animals bothering the seedlings, you can tent a piece of chicken wire, a milk jug with the top and bottom cut off or something similar to protect them.

Many people harvest all of the sunflowers and don’t allow the birds to feed. A nice alternative for children is to cover some of the heads with cheesecloth or old pantyhose so the seeds can be roasted later and then leave the other flowers for the birds. A good activity for children would be to record which birds come to the plants and how many.

When the seeds start to turn brown, they can be cut to within 2 inches of the stem and hung to dry in a ventilated place such as an attic or a garage. When dry, rub them together to loosen, soak overnight in salted water and then drain. Spread them on a cookie sheet and roast for about three hours at 200 degrees until dry.

These can be stored in a container for eating. Be sure to keep out some of the seeds before doing this, place them in envelopes, and label them for planting for next year. Store in a cool, dry place until spring.

Growing sunflowers can be a fun, family project. There is a lot that can be learned about nature by both children and adults. These flowers are cheerful no matter what variety is grown and will bring many moments of pleasure to your gardening experience.

Barbara Michael has been a Master Gardener since 1993, and she serves as the Master Gardener’s liaison to the Community Garden Coalition as well as serving on its board. She enjoys container gardening and houseplants. She can be reached at

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