Here come the Sunflowers!
Summer is officially here and some of the flowers I most look forward to during the summer months should be here in no time. One of the easiest flowers to grow from seed has to be the sunflower or at least so I have always thought. Don't get me wrong, sunflowers are one of the most straight forward flowers to grow in a home garden from seed. For us though, growing over 1,000 stems of sunflowers each week requires a bit more forethought and well a lot of work! ;-)
I don't believe I have shared much information on our sunflower production in the past. I thought I might give you a little insight into how we are able to keep picking fresh sunflowers week after week throughout summer and fall.
We strive to plant three, 100 ft rows of sunflowers every week. Each row is direct seeded into landscape fabric with pre-burnt holes at 9" spacing. Sometimes we will direct seed into bare ground, but I find a relatively weed free row to be most appealing. Since we are growing and maintaining so many other plants, we just don't have the extra time to spend weeding sunflowers and I don't think we are quite ready for mechanical (tractor) cultivation just yet so this is how we do it.
This landscape fabric is great because it can be reused for many years. Most of our fabric is on season 6 and I plan for it to last at least that many seasons more! We plant 4 ft wide beds so we use 6 ft landscape fabric to ideally leave us about a 1.5 ft walk way in-between rows. We typically purchase our landscape fabric from our Amish supplier out in Bainbridge but you can also find it readily available online from many different sellers including Amazon.
To get the correct plant spacing, we have created multiple templates using a piece of metal roofing and a hole saw. We simply took measurements and laid out a grid before cutting out each circle. Then we purchased an automatic bernzomatic torch which we use to burn uniform holes into the fabric. We use our fabric for most of our field planted annuals and we also use landscape fabric for our permanent perennial beds as well. You could also use fabric for vegetable gardening. The fabric comes in quite a few different widths, so you can choose what would work best for your garden spacing. I know many growers utilize fabric for just between their walkways as well.
To fasten the fabric down, we purchase landscape fabric staples. Assuming the ground is slightly moist and not too rocky, they can easily be pushed through the fabric and into the ground near the fabric's edge to hold it in place.
For sunflower production, we have found it to be vital that following direct seeding we cover our rows with frost cloth (Agribon) in order to protect the seeds from being eaten by birds. Its amazing the difference the fabric makes in our germination success. Nearly every seed comes up if the row is under fabric! Once about 5-7 days has pass, we are able to remove the fabric and underneath should be little sunflower sprouts in all of the holes.
When direct seeding sunflowers, we push each seed into the ground at about the depth of our finger nail and make sure to cover it back up with soil.
Once the sunflowers have germinated, its generally about 55-60 days until harvest. This is the quickest turn around of any flower that we grow! Most of our flowers are 90-120 days from seed to harvest. We plant sunflowers weekly from May through the beginning of September in the hopes of harvesting around 1,000-1,500 stems per week from July through October. Sometimes the timing doesn't always work out and we end up with a gap in production or several thousand at one time. That's just the way farming goes sometimes and we do our best to adapt when this happens.
Once 55-60 days are past, our sunflowers will begin to bloom. Depending on how warm or sunny it is, they may all bloom in a day or two or we may pick several hundred a day over the course of the week. I always joke that sunflowers don't know the day of the week. I wish they would all bloom Monday through Friday but it seems like oftentimes they may start to bloom on the weekend. Once the sunflowers are ready, they need to be picked whether or not you've had a long day at Saturday's farmers market or setting up a wedding.
The best stage to pick a sunflower is when the petals are still cupped. This allows for the longest vase life and for the sunflowers to continue opening up for the customer. Sunflowers are really long lasting if properly cared for. Their stems have little hairs which can cause vase water to get cloudy quickly so it is important to change the water often (you can add a dash of bleach, an aspirin, or a little vodka if you wish) and recut the stems. Even still, it is not uncommon for our customers to share with us at market that their sunflowers lasted them up to two weeks. This is always a comment we love to hear. We strive to do our best to pick all of our blooms at the perfect time so that they can be enjoyed for as long as possible.
I hope that this gives you some insight into all that goes into growing sunflowers for continual harvest. We grow a lot of your standard yellow sunflower with a dark center but some of my personal favorites are the rarer beauties that are burgundy or plum and also a newer variety call white nite and white light which have very pale yellow petals with either dark or light yellow centers. These varieties have been a hit at the farmers market and we can't wait to have them again later in the season.
If you are interested in growing your own, we are selling our own sunflower seed packets. You can find these fun unusual varieties mentioned above at the Tracey Rae Flower Shop inside Hill's Compounding Pharmacy or at the Madeira & Milford Farmers Market. As I explained above, the awesome thing about sunflowers is how quickly they bloom so there is still plenty of time to get planting!