For many, a love affair with sunflowers begins at an early age when, as children, we watch them grow from tiny seeds into towering giants. Many artists have been inspired by their graphic blooms, while the sturdy stems and cheerful, open flowers are great for cutting. In addition, the seeds offer a rich source of food for birds.
Sunflowers are naturally tall plants, measuring 8–15 feet in height with heavy heads held on sturdy stems punctuated with rough, heart-shaped leaves. However, smaller cultivars are available, with many dwarf varieties growing to just 12 inches. The classic golden petals and chocolate-brown centers are not the only colors available. For a more sophisticated palette, choose from pale cream, dusky pink, or dark, smoldering maroon blooms.
To picture the conditions sunflowers enjoy, just think of sun- drenched fields of golden flowers in the south of France. Use this image as inspiration, and plant bold swathes of blooms. Group them with other late-flowering sun lovers, such as Echinops, Kniphofia, Veronicastrum virginicum, hardy salvias and ornamental grasses, including species of Stipa, Miscanthus and Panicum.
In smaller gardens, opt for the dwarf or medium-sized varieties. Sunflowers with small blooms look best in borders, where giant-flowered types can look overbearing. Use yard-high sunflowers in colors to match your palette at the back of a sunny informal or wildlife design, or line up compact types to edge formal beds or fill a parterre. Sunflowers make good container specimens too. Dwarf types are the obvious choice, but taller plants can be equally effective in large pots. Try them with an edging of annual millet (Pennisetum glaucum ‘Purple Baron’) and ferny Lotus maculatus for a contrast in form and texture.
Sunflowers are best sown from seed in pots in the early spring, but they can also be sown directly in the ground in mid-spring in a sunny, sheltered spot. Guard against slugs, and bird-proof your seedbed with netting until plants are about 4 inches tall. When they reach 6 inches pinch off the shoot tips to encourage branching.