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Yardsmart: Sunflowers make bargain pollinator plants

Maureen Gilmer
Tribune News Service

For just $10, a renter can plant a summer festival of bloom that transforms your yard into a colorful pollinator heaven. Anyone with a small patch of ground will find growing this plant from seed a most rewarding first garden. What is this great annual plant that is at once a North American native wildflower, a food source and cutting flower? It is the sunflower, of course, with all its exciting modern progeny that rise from seeds poked into soft earth.

This flower of the open plains and wayside places is so well known to a wide range of native bee species as well as honeybees. After pollination, flowers fade and seed forms, then when released songbirds of many stripes arrive to perch upon the drying stalks pecking seed out of the dried disk-like centers. From these wild plants of the Midwest, the huge mammoth sunflower was developed and spread around the world as a seed oil plant. The original strains used in breeding were those selected over centuries by agricultural tribes growing sunflowers on the river flood plains.

Go through seed house websites or catalogs to discover all the different sunflower types that are smaller and more ornamental in your garden than the mammoth. They offer a range of colors popular for cut flowers that are just as easy and cheap to start from seed.

Another way sunflowers vary is by growth habit, with single stem dwarf types sold as cut flowers, which look like mini-mammoths. These are short lifespan plants averaging 60 to 80 days for quick harvest.

The branching varieties are quite similar in growth habit to those wild sunflower progenitors of the Indian gardens, and thus more recognizable to birds and pollinators. Most are 90- to 110-day plants with a few exceptions. Colors range from the standard sunflower to browns and reds and oranges with a number of double forms that are even more ornamental. All evoke memories of van Gogh’s sunflower paintings, where we see some of these early varieties in vases rendered by an impressionist.

One of the best selections of reliable decorative sunflower seed varieties is at They offer a useful comparison chart in the print catalog that shows at a glance each of the 30-plus varieties’ flower size, plant height, flower color and days to bloom. It’s a big help with choosing the best sunflowers for your individual garden at about $3.95 per packet of 50 seeds plus much larger quantity discounts.

Branching varieties produce lots more flowers but can become a bit rangy over time. These produce flowers the size of a dessert plate held on a multitude of stems. It’s common to cut the top bud when they reach a desired size to force side branching and more flower production. These branching varieties integrate nicely into a wide range of spaces as a decorative flower. The more you bring into your garden, the greater your pollinator draw.

For large projects or for those with big landscapes, rural homes, farms and little money, consider sowing black sunflower bird seed wherever ground is disturbed. Rake in before an expected spring rain to sow on a large scale and naturalize. The result is ideal wildlife food source where sites have lost habitat due to grading. This idea re-establishes the original native type wildflowers that will self sow for generations to come.

The best time to plant sunflowers is after the last frost date in your area. For best results, choose locations where you can improve the soil with compost and manure since sunflowers are all heavy feeders. Compost also helps improve drainage and water holding capacity depending on your soil type.

Even if you’ve never grown flowers in your life, you can find great success with branching sunflowers. For a few dollars, turn your yard into Pollinator Heaven, but later on the birds will come to extract those seeds for great entertainment long after the color is gone.

Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at