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How to Grow Sunflowers

Learn how to grow sunflowers! We tried a few different ways and are sharing tips on how to grow this gorgeous addition to your cut flower garden.

How to grow sunflowers from seed…a stunning addition to your cut flower garden!

I have been mentally writing this post for many months now—you guys know I only write about plants that I have personally cared for or grown. And if you can believe it, this is the first year I’ve grown sunflowers!

I hadn’t wanted to grow them before because I didn’t like how floppy and messy they looked. And because they can take up a lot of space that I just didn’t really have.

Well, cut to winter 2022, and I am already knee-deep in research for what I’ll be planting in my spring garden. And since this is my first full growing season in my new house, well…I went a little crazy!

During my research, I found Henry Wilde sunflowers. These seemed to be the perfect solution to my sunflower hesitation. They were tall and striking, which is what I wanted. But they didn’t have huge, floppy heads.

One plant will branch out to create dozens of gorgeous medium-sized sunflowers that make for perfect cut flowers. And any kind of sunflower makes for a perfect addition to your pollinator garden.

The best news? Sunflowers are incredibly easy to grow. I mean…my mom has sunflowers in her garden that are from bird seed mixes! So there really isn’t a ton to know about growing them. But I do have a few tips to help ensure you can enjoy sunflowers all season long.

a beautiful lush garden with raised vegetable beds, zinnias, and sunflowers
henry wilde sunflower bloom

What makes sunflowers so special?

Sunflowers belong to the genus helianthus, which actually has about 70 different species in it. Most types of sunflowers are native to North and Central America, and the common type of sunflower you’re probably familiar with is helianthus annuus.

But what makes sunflowers so special to begin with? They are a classic, iconic flower. But why? Why are there entire festivals devoted to them? There are a few reasons.

First—they are large, showy, and have a commanding presence in the garden. Their often large, bright flowers make a real statement and are the perfect backdrop for photos!

Second—they are absolutely fantastic for pollinators. That’s because the plants have large heads made up of many tiny flowers. That’s right—a sunflower head is actually a densely packed group of many smaller flowers. 

And each of those smaller flowers gives pollinators an opportunity to feed. This includes bees, butterflies, and more. My sunflowers are always swarming with little loves having a feast.

And third—sunflowers exhibit a really cool behavior called heliotropism. That means that, before blooming, the plant’s heads tilt during the day to follow the sun. At night, they move back into their resting position facing east to wait for sunrise.

Once the plant’s heads are open and fully formed, they stop tracking the sun and often remain facing east. However, the sunflowers on my plant face lots of different directions.

huge henry wilde sunflower plant
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Do sunflowers need full sun all day?

And speaking of sun, sunflowers need a lot of it. Plant your seeds somewhere that gets a lot of sun—the sunniest spot in your yard. At least 6 hours of sun is required, and more is even better.

Have a look at the picture below as an example. The sun rises in the front corner of the house, meaning that as it goes over the house, the right-hand side of this photo (closer to the fence) gets light first.

The sunflower on the left and the sunflower on the right are the same kind—Henry Wilde. I started both seeds indoors and planted these at the same time. They received exactly the same treatment, but the plant that gets more light grew at almost double the rate!

A garden with flowers and raised vegetable beds

Does sunflowers need a lot of water?

When your plants are small, they need a lot of water. The seedlings also need a lot of water to germinate. However, once the plants are established, they are fairly drought tolerant.

We have had an absolutely wacky growing season this year with extended periods of drought and then periods of heavy rain. The sunflowers have been flexible and have grown beautifully no matter what the conditions are.

I always try to let mother nature water the garden, but obviously that doesn’t always work. When we haven’t had rain in 24 hours or so (48 hours or so if it isn’t obscenely hot out), I will water all of my plants by hand with rain water or using the hose.

watering a sunflower plant

However, I only do this with plants in the back. I have some plants along the side of my house that are mostly perennials, so I rarely water those myself (see below). I did plant some sunflower seeds along the side of the house, so those have experienced a similar level of neglect.

And they have done great! They have grown a bit slower and haven’t bloomed as of mid-July, but they look fine. I probably could have encouraged better growth and flowering by regularly watering these.

maturing sunflower growing from a scattered seed

Do sunflowers need a trellis?

The need for support is what kept me from growing sunflowers for so long. I didn’t want to deal with the floppy look some have. But after considerable research, I found that staking and using trellises isn’t necessarilly required for sunflowers.

Even varieties that get very tall like the Henry Wilde sunflowers. That’s because the plant branches out and produces smaller sunflower heads, evening out the distribution of weight. The trunks get SUPER thick as the plants grow, too.

I did tie my sunflowers to a single bamboo stake when they were about 2 feet tall to encourage upright growth and provide a bit more stability until the main trunk of the plant thickened up. But that’s all I’ve done.

If you are growing something like a mammoth sunflower—or something with a very large and heavy flower head—you’ll need support. Try to plant sunflowers along borders, fences, sheds, etc., so you can just use some twine for support.

baby sunflower plant
a beautiful lush garden with zinnias and sunflowers

How long does it take a sunflower to grow?

Sunflowers grow quickly! It might seem frustrating at first, but once the plant gets established in the ground, it will shoot up at a shockingly fast rate. In about one week, mine went from shorter than my 5-year-old to about a foot taller. It was crazy to see!

In general, sunflowers can take about 2-3 months to reach full maturity. You can ensure you have blooms all year long—and earlier blooms—by starting some sunflower seeds indoors in the very early spring. Then direct sow some outdoors after the danger of frost has passed.

It’s currently mid-July, and I have two plants full of blooms. Those are the two I started indoors. I have five other plants around the yard that I sowed directly in the ground in May or so, and those are growing well. But they will give me later blooms.

sunflower maturing
a beautiful lush garden with zinnias and sunflowers

Can I plant sunflowers in June?

Yes! Depending on your growing season timeline, June could absolutely work for you. Because sunflowers can mature and bloom in about 2-3 months, a June planting could mean early September blooms.

Where I live in Maryland, it’s still hot as hell in mid-September. Our temperatures begin reliably dropping in late-September to early October. So, if you’re late to the game, spread some seeds and see what happens!

a beautiful lush garden with zinnias and sunflowers

Want more flowers? Check out my tips on How to Grow Beautiful Zinnia Flowers and my pointers for How to Plant a Garden From Scratch!

Do sunflowers come back each year?

The vast majority of true sunflowers are annuals, meaning they need to be planted each year. Some varieties are perennials, but you’ll probably know if that’s the case.

So, while most true sunflowers don’t come back every year, they are prolific self-seeders. It’s possible—probable, really—that your sunflower plant will drop some seeds. Those seeds will get buried and might sprout in the spring. Gotta love “volunteers.”

If you don’t want sunflowers growing where you have them, you could try to dig the plant up and transplant it elsewhere. Or you could just pluck up the plant and toss it.

sunflower head

Should I start my sunflower seeds indoors?

I started several sunflower plants indoors! For the type of sunflowers I got, the packet said to start them 2-3 weeks before the last frost. But I started them a bit earlier—about 4-5 weeks.

I used a small greenhouse that I kept inside in my sunroom during the day (more on seed starting 101). Once it started getting warmer outside, I would bring the little greenhouse outside on my patio. Even thought it was only about 50 degrees Fahrenheit outside, the greenhouse effect made the inside of the greenhouse at 80 degrees! It was still getting too cold at night, so I brought the plants back inside at night.

This was a lot of work. And it required me to pot up my sunflowers (and other plants) when they outgrew their starter pots. But it also helped to ensure I had good-sized plants to transplant when the danger of our last frost had passed.

As I mentioned before, the plants I started indoors are blooming like crazy right now and have been since late June. So, I’d say it’s worth it to get blooms June through September.

small plastic greenhouse with sunflowers and other plants growing
starting sunflowers from seed
rootball on a sunflower start

Transplanting baby sunflower plants

My sunflower starts transitioned beautifully to the soil, too. Sunflowers can generally grow in pretty poor soil. And that’s great for us, because we have the definition of poor soil! Super dense and rocky clay-based soil.

So whenever I plant anything in the ground, I dig a hole that’s larger than the plant’s root ball. Then I backfill the hole with a mixture of about 25% native dirt and 75% leaf compost (or some other kind of soil improver). This works beautifully for all of my plants, sunflowers included.

sunflower started indoors early
transplanting a sunflower start
a beautiful lush garden with zinnias and sunflowers

Planting sunflower seeds directly in the ground

You can also very easily just plant your seeds directly in the ground. If you aren’t into seed starting, direct-sowing sunflowers directly in the ground is actually probably the most common way to grow them.

I started them directly in the ground in a few places around my yard, including along the side of the house. Some of the plants I buried a seed with some leaf compost…and others I just shoved them down in the mulch. All of them geminated and grew with success, which shows how easy these are to grow!

mulch and dirt after planting seeds
Seeds planted in the dirt
patches of wet mulch
Seeds shoved down in the mulch
Sunflower seedlings sprouting
Sunflower seedlings sprouting
growing sunflowers from seed in a garden
sunflower bloom
colorful plants in a garden

Can you grow sunflowers in pots?

Absolutely you can. I am not growing any in pots this year, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it! Choose a larger pot—sunflowers can grow very deep root systems.

Also shoot for a small- to medium-sized variety. And look for something that says it can be grown in containers on the packet. Remember that containers dry out faster, so you’ll probably need to water your potted sunflowers more.

sunflower bud
beautiful garden with sunflowers

Should I cut off dead sunflower heads?

Whether or not you should cut off dead sunflower heads depends on what you want to do with the flowers. If you want your plant to continue pushing out blooms, then cut the flower off just below where the head comes out of the stalk.

This will allow the plant for focus its energy on the production of more flowers. Below is an example of two flowers: the top one is a very recent bloom, while the bottom one is on its way out. I’d probably wait another few days before cutting off the bottom one.

You can see that the center is getting larger and more bulbous, while the petals are beginning to shrivel and die off. I snip these and throw them in the compost or in my yard waste bin.

However, if you want to harvest the seeds from your sunflower plant—either to cook or to save for next year—you need to leave the sunflower heads on the stalk until they die off completely.

I don’t like how this looks, so I’ll be trimming mine off until the end of the season. At that point, I’ll let everything on the plant die naturally and will harvest the seeds for roasting and saving. (I’ll update this post and add pics when I do!)

New bloom up top; sunflower beginning to die off on the bottom
New bloom up top; sunflower beginning to die off on the bottom

For more, check out my tips on How to Save Seeds From Milkweed Pods, How to Harvest Zinnia Seeds, and How to Make Seed Bombs!

What animals eat sunflower leaves?

Unfortunately, there are a lot of garden critters who will feast on your sunflower leaves. Squirrels, deer, rabbits, voles, groundhogs, chipmunks…the list goes on. You can see what our groundhogs did to a sunflower I put in the back of the yard while we were camping…

But the plant overall seeds to be rebounding nicely! I didn’t pull this one out because it was tall enough that the critters spared the highest growth. A few other plants bit the dust, though.

Consider caging your sunflower plants or putting them in fenced-in areas that are less vulnerable to critters. Personally, I find that stuff I plant up near my house is much less likely to get eaten than stuff near the back of the yard.

Once your flower heads begin to protrude, enlarge, and drop seeds, you’ll also notice birds moving in. They love to snack on the sunflower seeds, and I love to watch them! I’ll probably put bags over some of the sunflower heads near the end of the season as they die off.

baby sunflower eaten by critters

How do you harvest sunflower seeds?

I’ll come back and update this section of the post once I have some good pics of the process—but it’s very easy. Let the flower heads die off completely on the plant. Once the petals shrivel up and the back of the flower head is brown, you can cut it off.

Then hold the flower head over a table or strainer and open it up like you’re pushing it inside out. Most of the seeds should fall out very easily. You may have to pick some out.

Remember that the flower needs to die off completely on the plant for the seeds to mature. If you cut the flower head off prematurely, the seeds will not be viable.

Pin my tips for how to grow sunflowers!

collage that says how to grow stunning sunflowers with pictures of the flowers
collage that says want to grow sunflowers with pictures of the flowers

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