Sunflowers: a feast for your eyes, and for pollinators | Alys Fowler

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The annual sunflower needs no introduction; it is a thing full of cheer, always turning its head to the sun to entice the bees. It is as marvellous in seed as it is in flower and, if left in place, will have songbirds flocking to enjoy its bounty all autumn long.

The brilliant yolk-yellow sorts are well known – every supermarket, garden centre and hardware store will have a packet of some super-sized version for growing to towering heights (they can reach four metres or more). ‘Mongolian Giant’, ‘Giraffe’ and ‘Kong’ are all best if you want such things, but you’ll need scaffolding to go with them, otherwise the plants will tumble.

For borders, I prefer slightly shorter flowers, with less staking involved; sorts that, rather than having one huge flowerhead, branch with numerous smaller ones, often in lovely russets, reds, oranges, buffs and golds. These make for very good cut flowers. You’ll have pickings from July onwards.

There has been much breeding work to create F1 pollenless, short-statured plants for the cut-flower industry, and these are now widely available for gardeners, too. The idea is that they won’t sneeze pollen all over your dining-room table. But no pollen is no good for the pollinators that rely on it as a source of protein to lay eggs. So, as lovely as that lot are, I urge you to sow non-F1 varieties, such as ‘Velvet Queen’ in red; ‘Pastiche’, a bicolour mix in shades of gold, yellow, buff and red; the rich brown-red of ‘Chocolate’; or, at the other end of the spectrum, the pale lemon of ‘Valentine’. All are useful to bees.

If you haven’t already sown, now is a very good time to do so, right into the beginning of May. You can sow direct into weed-free, fertile soil in a sunny position. If the soil is thin, add homemade compost or well-rotted manure to the planting site first. If it’s in a spot that’s at all windy, be prepared to stake later on. Stick to the spacing distances on the seed packet, which tend to be a minimum of 45cm. If you squeeze them in, you’ll just get more spindly stems that require staking.

If you want to start them off in pots first, because of the many creatures that are fond of them at early stages (mice for the seeds, slugs for the seedlings, and curious blackbirds for the fun of it), then use at least 9cm, but better still 1-litre pots. Sow two seeds per pot and in the ground, weeding out the weaker one. For multi-headed types, pinch out the tip at 45cm to encourage branching. Finally, water your plants regularly: thirsty sunflowers just bloom early and then give up.

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