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Sunflower Treats

On a recent trip to my sister’s house, I took a tour of her garden, but this time I took time to reflect. I saw a lot of myself in her garden. There were things I liked and had in my own garden. I was also reminded of a few things we had in our garden at my parents’ when we were growing up.

My older sister always grew sunflowers and I always grew zinnias. She was the animal lover and I was the plant lover. The sunflowers she grew were for the seeds so she could feed her birds in the fall and winter.

Giant sunflowers
She grew the giant sunflowers and they would grow so tall and the flowers would be so big. It seemed like they were easily 20 feet tall back then, but they were really only 6 or 8 feet. I guess it was because I was so small. She would bring up manure from the barn and mix it with water, making this awful concoction in a bucket for fertilizer. Now I know that the fancy term for this is “manure tea,” a popular type of organic fertilizer. For the longest time she had me convinced that she invented it.

She would cut the flower heads off once the petals had faded and the seeds were ripe, but not fully dry; otherwise the birds would start to harvest them for us. Then she would keep them in the barn in burlap feed bags until they were dry enough to remove. She wouldn’t let me help with the fun stuff like cutting down the big tall stalks to get the flowers full of seeds off, but she would let me help get the seeds out of the dried flower heads.

We would fill up several buckets and it seemed like a lot, but that seed would disappear fast once winter set in. Fortunately, our parents loved feeding the birds also, so they would buy big bags of sunflower seed at the feed store and we would feed the birds all winter.

For the birds
Sunflowers are one of the most recognized of all flowers and are an excellent source of protein for birds in the winter. If you feed the birds, it’s highly likely that a few sunflower seeds will fall to the ground and go uneaten in your garden. In the spring a few always sprout somewhere in my garden, and I just can’t bring myself to weed them out, so I always let them grow.

The scientific word for sunflower, derived from “helios” meaning sun and “anthos” meaning flower, is Helianthus, referring to the ability of the sunflower bloom to follow the sun from sunrise until sunset.

There are all sorts of sunflowers available today, not just the big mammoth striped variety my sister used to grow. Many are much more ornamental in nature, having many flowers per stalk. The flowers of the ornamental varieties are also smaller, ranging in size from 2 to 6 inches in diameter, depending on variety. Sunflowers are even a popular cut flower that you can get at your local florist or farmer’s market.

Everyone in my family dabbles in the garden to some level and our family personality traits show through, including feeding the birds in the winter.

Now it’s time to turn from harvesting seeds to thinking about working on the fall garden. Fall is the most successful season of the year for planting trees and shrubs. It is also a less stressful time to plant, both for you and the plants.

With the leaves going dormant, the plant only has to supply enough food and water for the growing root system. The root system will continue to grow throughout the winter as long as the soil temperature is warm enough. In the spring you are rewarded with a healthy, strong root system, which in turn means a good strong healthy tree that will leaf out well and thrive over the coming year.

After a busy fall, why not go out and buy a few seeds if you didn’t grow sunflowers this year, and just sit back and watch the birds as they enjoy this wintertime treat. Then come spring, plan your own plot of glorious sunflowers along your garden fence.

Sunflower varieties
Here are some suggestions for a variety of the annual ornamental types that produce seed and are of varying height and color:

Giant Russian or Mammoth Russian: 20-inch-wide large yellow flowers with lots of seeds for roasting or feeding birds; grows 6-15 feet tall; staking usually required

Autumn Time: a mix of sunflowers of vibrant gold, yellow, orange, yellow, and bronze blooms; grows 3-5 feet tall on multi-branching stems

Teddy Bear: 3- to 5-inch-wide double flowers that form soft, fluffy, rounded heads; grows 3-4 feet tall

Valentine: 6-inch-wide lemon-yellow flowers with dark chocolate centers; multi-branching, bushy, grows 3-5 feet tall

Sungold: 6- to 8-inch golden yellow, double chrysanthemum-like flowers, grows 5 feet tall

Ring of Fire: 5-inch flower with golden petal edges and a ring of red surrounding the chocolate brown center; grows 4-5 feet tall

Red Sun: 5- to 6-inch-wide deep red to bronze-maroon flowers; grows 5-6 feet tall

Chianti: 4-inch-wide flowers that are maroon and red, flecked with gold; grows 5 feet tall

Perennial sunflower
Helianthus angustifolius—swamp sunflower or narrow-leaf sunflower. Not for producing seed for birds, but it is one of my favorites as it is a profuse bloomer in August and September and brightens up any garden. As the name implies, is tolerant of wet, soggy areas. Flowers are 2 to 3 inches wide, golden yellow daisy-like blooms with black centers; grows 5-7 feet tall.

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