Horticulture/Gardening advice requested -- Sunflowers

This past June, when Michaela finished second grade, she brought home her horticulture project for the spring, a brace of sunflower seedlings. She had planted them in a little four-inch pot, and they were doing quite nicely. I brought them into our back yard (somewhat alkaline soil, southern exposure) and planted them about eighteen inches from a five-and-a-half foot high board fence. We watered the plants daily, gave them a tablespoon of plant food in a gallon of water weekly, and were rewarded with some very nice progress almost immediately. By the beginniing of July, both plants exceeded three feet in height, and one of them was even putting out a bud.

By mid-July, the first plant had blossomed into a very respectable sunflower (approximately 7" in diameter) although it grew no higher. The other plant just kept getting taller, putting out more leaves, and FINALLY at the beginning of August, put out a bud. At this time, it became necessary to stake the stalk, because it was just too heavy to remain upright on its own. The blossom on the first flower had by now wasted away, having lost its pollen and its petals, and leaving behind a handsome bed of seeds (well, it’s not quite so handsome now). The second flower far out-performed the first, and while it’s nothing that would get Michaela a guest spot on The Victory Garden, we are all very proud of the flower, and of the family’s achievement in producing it. At its maximum, the plant topped me by half a head, reaching six-and a half-feet. The flower itself was a good thirteen inches in diameter, with a seed cluster that measures eight inches in diameter.

All of which brings us to today. The first flower is long gone. The stalk is dried out, the seed cluster is face-down in the dirt, but evidently still intact. That is, there is no evidence that any of the seeds have actually fallen out. I am still giving the area its accustomed regimen of water and food, so the ground should still be fertile. The second flower, after several weeks of heliotroping, appears to have worn out the necessary fibers in its stalk, and droops listlessly, suspended about three and a half feet from the ground. It still has (tired-looking) petals, and the seed cluster is far less mature than the first flower’s. Whereas the seeds of the first flower have the well-known light-and-dark striped shell, the younger flower’s seeds seem to be individually encased in a fleshy rind. In the newer flower, each seed has a tiny floret attached to its end; I suspect that these were once filled (or covered) with the bright yellow pollen that was dusting the uppermost leaves for the first few days after the blossom opened.

kaylasmom, Michaela, and I would like to harvest at least some of these seeds and continue growing sunflowers, possibly in our front yard; the process has been very rewarding. Unfortunately, I have not the slightest idea how to begin. The Western Garden Book indicates that this species of helianthus can pretty much self-propagate and grow like a weed, but I’m pretty sure that’s not what we’re after (the nasturtiums we have now, while quite attractive, are a bit of a nuisance).

Anybody with experience on the controlled propagation of sunflowers? I have a suspicion that leaving the older flower’s seed cluster face down on the ground, and continuing to water it might result in a patch of these babies appearing next Spring. Is there an accepted “best way” of harvesting the seeds for replanting? Should we avoid removing the seeds from the younger seed cluster until the fleshy rind has matured to hard shell, or does that fleshy rind represent an opportunity for forced sprouting? Is it better to plant the seeds in a pot and transplant them, or to shove them into the dirt now and start hoping?

There’s just so much to learn. I do appreciate any help you can offer us.

On the theory that interested traffic is more likely to see this on Monday than late at night on a Sunday, I am taking this opportunity to bump this back to the front page one time (as permitted under guidelines from the FAQ in ATMB).

I hope to have some knowledgeable contributions soon, and I thank you in advance.

If the seeds have already formed, you can cut the flowerhead off and put it somewhere to dry. PRotect it from birds.

Thanks for that, lissener. Any data on how I’ll know when the seeds are ready to be removed from the seed cluster? Am I better off planting them in individual pots, or sowing them where I want them to grow? Should I wait until next March, or is now okay (I live in Southern California, where the risk of a killing frost is negligible)? Is it important to keep the seed casing intact before I plant it, or is a small split in the shell benign?

I’m in Seattle, which rarely frosts. Nonetheless, dropped seeds don’t come up until the spring, usually right along with the newly boughten seeds. So it probably doesn’t matter: scatter them fall or spring, they’ll probably sprout the same time.

Sunflowers don’t need intervention to germinate, like lupines for example do. Since they re-seed aggressively on their own, the rule of thumb should probably be, the less prep you do the better.

Thank you again, lissener. As I’ve never successfully started a plant from a seed, can you tell me how deep I should plant them? And should I water them throughout the winter months, or can I leave them dry?

Plant them only deeply enough to prevent birdpoaching; say a knuckle. Water them in the spring.

I grew about five different varieties of sunflowers this year, along my fence. I use harvest the heads to feed the squirrels and birds and kept only a handful of seeds to plant again next year.

When the heads, as you say, look tired, you can whack them off and some varieties of sunflower will sprout more blooms, but smaller than the first. I wait until all the pollen has dropped off and the stalk and leaves look sort of crispy and dried out. It’s not attractive, but you’re letting the seeds ripen. Then I pull the entire plant out of the ground by the roots. I spread out some newspaper and work the heads with my heads, spraying seeds all over the damn place until all the seeds are out of the flowerhead and on my newspaper. You can store them in zip loc baggies, dried, in a cool, dry place until your next growing season. Plant them after the last frost in your area, about an inch deep. Plant each seed about 3-4 inches away from each other. Water as needed – it sounded like you were watering and feeding way too frequently.

Or you could be lazy like me and yank the entire dead plant out of the bed, toss it in the driveway and let the birds pick out the seeds for themselves, and when they’ve cleaned it out, toss the remains in the compost pile. YMMV