Califonia Bountiful

Gardening: Something new under the sun

Apr./May 2012 California Bountiful magazine

More online: Gardening to-do list for April/May

Prada Red

Teddy Bear

Lemon Queen

Peach Passion

Evening Star variety

Evening Star variety

Vanilla Ice

Ask anyone on the street to share a few facts about sunflowers, and the conversation might sound something like this: Sunflowers grow as tall as the sky, produce a huge, single flower and are always yellow.

I'm going to ask you to ignore those comments. In fact, I'm going to call them common misconceptions.

Today's sunflowers are multi-branching plants that produce dozens and dozens of flowers suitable for arrangements, and in a range of colors you'd never imagine: pale cream, off-white, deep red-black, bright orange, tawny bronze and, yes, butter yellow.

Some grow a scant 12 inches tall. Others reach 6 or 8 feet. Some have petals so tightly packed together they look like powder puffs. Others produce long, graceful petals that surround swirls of tiny, nutty brown seeds. Most produce several crops of flowers, especially if you keep cutting them, although the first crop is the largest.

You can find these gems on seed racks at local nurseries and in most seed catalogs. Pick up several packets so you can mix and match flower arrangements all summer.

Spring is a perfect time to plant sunflowers. They aren't fussy about soil or water, but do demand plenty of sunshine. Pick a spot that gets at least five hours of sun each day. I plant mine in the vegetable garden alongside the tomatoes, eggplant and squash.

Pull any weeds and smooth the soil. You can broadcast the seed (toss it on the bed), press it into the soil about an inch deep, and then cover it lightly with soil. Water and wait. Be warned, however: Slugs love sunflowers, too, so keep an eye on the emerging seedlings. Once slugs feast on those baby leaves and all that's left is a stem, you'll have to start over.

I let my plants drop seeds at the end of the season, so come spring there are always a few sunflowers sprouting in unexpected places. Of course, I won't know what types those are until they bloom, but surprises are nice in the garden. For the main crop, I start seeds in plastic pots, and then plant them when all chance of frost is past.

Then I wait for the flower show, clippers in hand.

Pat Rubin

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