• Post published:08/14/2010
  • Post comments:4 Comments
Sunflowers at the Pleasant Street Community Garden

When we think of sunflowers most of us think of tall stems with large blossoms heavy with seeds – that will be half eaten by the birds unless we protect them for our own use or display.  The Recorder and the Greenfield Garden Club will be holding their Annual Sunflower Contest on Saturday, August 21 at the Energy Park and we expect to see many of these beauties vying for attention.

The contest has several categories for youth (under age 16) and adults (16 and over). There will be bragging rights and ribbons for the tallest, most blooms on a single plant, largest blossom head, heaviest blossom head and the best arrangement which must be mostly sunflowers. Judges reserve the right to create a special category if necessary. Photos of the winners will appear in the following week’s Life & Times section.

Whether or not we grow sunflowers for a competition it is important to remember that sunflowers are heavy feeders.  A sunflower bed should be prepared and well fertilized with plenty of compost and rotted manure in the spring. These days I am happy to say that it is easy to buy good compost from Martins Farm or Bear Path Farm.

In addition to my compost, which has a good helping of rotted chicken manure for nitrogen, I keep a bag of greensand on hand to add the necessary potassium. Nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus are the three major nutrients needed by plants .

In addition to planting sunflower seed of whatever variety in a well prepared bed, watering throughout the season is important, especially during a summer like this one which has been so dry.  Please note, this is good advice no matter what you are growing, edible or ornamental.

Tall sunflowers like Russian Mammoth are easy to find, but there are many other sunflowers that are stunning in the garden and beautiful on the dining table. Johnny’s Selected Seeds sells a whole series of sunflowers developed as cutting flowers.  Pollenless sunflowers like the tall pale Buttercream, softly colored Peach Passion, and deep burgundy Moulin Rouge make life neater for the housekeeper.

Brilliantly colored sunflowers like Chocolate, Strawberry Blonde and Velvet Queen bring a new palette to these flowers, and while they may have smaller or larger centers, they have the familiar form. Double Quick Orange on the other hand  looks like a shaggy lion’s mane.  Teddy Bear, resembling the plush of that childhood toy, is one of the dwarf varieties now available and suitable for containers; Giant Sungold looks like Teddy Bear’s big brother.

The sunflower family, Helianthus, is comprised of 52 species, some of which are perennials. Perhaps the most well known is the Jerusalem artichoke, H. tuberosus.  It is a plant native to North America and has nothing to do with Jerusalem or artichokes.  One story says that Samuel Champlain first described the flavor of the edible root as similar to that of the artichoke.  New Englanders call the root, which has the crunch of a raw potato, sun chokes.

Whether you call them sun chokes or Jerusalem artichokes, they are quite nutritious and good to eat raw, roasted or steamed. Boiling them makes them mushy. They grow to heights of seven feet or more and produce sunny yellow flowers in late summer. Steve Ziglar at the New England Wildflower Society said they do not recommend planting them in the regular vegetable garden because they can quickly spread throughout the garden, either because a bit of a tuber was not harvested or because a well fed mole moved a piece from the planting bed to his dining room and didn’t finish his meal. If they are not harvested and replanted, but left to bloom in the same place year after year, the quality of the tuber for eating declines.  I know I have seen Jerusalem artichokes growing along Route 2 but I have never tried to harvest any.

I remembered seeing ‘perennial sunflowers’ in Ted Watt’s Greenfield garden on last year’s Greenfield Garden Club tour. Knowing that most perennial sunflowers are aggressive growers, I called and asked him what variety he used. Alas, he said his ‘sunflowers’ are not Helianthus at all, but Silphium perfoliatum, a native plant sometimes called cup plant because of the way the leaves grow around the stem, forming what could be called a cup.

Watt uses them as a flowery hedge at one edge of his garden, next to the sidewalk and gets many admiring comments.  The warning he had about these ‘sunfllowers’ is that they must be deadheaded.  If they are allowed to go to seed, the vital seeds will blow away and come up everywhere in the garden.

Here in Heath we have great sunflower fields. These real sunflowers, with big seed heads are being grown as a biofuel plant. The several farmers who have formed the Hilltown Farmers Biodiesel Co-op were able to get a grant to help buy the necessary seed press and mobile biodiesel processor that can travel from farm to farm as they each take their turn using the equipment. Their goal is to save money, reduce their dependence on oil, and protect the environment.

I hope to see you at the Energy Park on Saturday, August 21. We’ll be accepting entries between noon and 2 pm. Then the judging will begin. Take care of your sunflowers til then.

Between the Rows  August 7, 2010

Sunflowers in the Children's Garden at the Berkshire Botanical Garden

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Cyndy

    Hi Pat – Sounds like a really fun event! Our local community gardens have some whopper sized sunflowers this year – I guess they’ve enjoyed all the heat we’ve had.

  2. Pat

    Cyndy – It is a fun event and the sunflowers are much better this year because of the heat, and I guess they don’t mind the lack of rain too much. The heat is good for peaches, too.

  3. Rose

    A sunflower contest sounds like so much fun! Unfortunately, I wouldn’t be able to enter it, because my husband mowed down all my sunflower seedlings this spring (apparently, he wasn’t listening when I told him I’d planted them next to the shed):) Last year I had some of the Chocolate variety, which I really liked; wish I had planted those again.

    Thanks for all the interesting info on sunflowers. I didn’t realize Jerusalem artichoke belonged in this family. At one of our Master Gardener classes we were warned never to plant these–apparently, they are very invasive here.

  4. Lisa at Greenbow

    Aren’t sunflowers the most cheerful flowers?? No wonder people try to make them grow larger and larger.

Leave a Reply