How to Grow Some Sunshine in Your Yard and Feed the Birds in the Process

Tips for growing native sunflowers to attract wildlife

04-01-1998 // Thomas A. Lewis

LIKE PEOPLE, birds can be connoisseurs; they're often fussy about what they eat. But one group of plants seems to have broad appeal for a wide range of feathered species: "Sunflowers are a great choice for planting to attract birds to your yard," says Spencer Tomb, a botany professor at Kansas State University who has conducted considerable research on the bold blossoming plants. "The creatures like the seeds so much that they eat them all long before cold weather comes."

A native to North America, the sunflower was taken to Europe (along with tobacco and corn) by the earliest New World explorers. As a result, the first European settlers who arrived in Massachusetts and Virginia in the early 1600s were already familiar with the big yellow flowers they saw Indians cultivating; by that time, sunflowers had become common ornamentals in some European gardens. It wasn't until later that the settlers learned that sunflowers were a good source of food and oil.

These days, a number of ornamental sunflower varieties are available, ranging in size from 15-inch dwarfs to 12-foot giants and colored not only the traditional yellow but also primrose, white, mahogany red and bronze. Some are even bicolored. The ornamentals produce edible seeds, but they are very small.

The large sunflower varieties you are most likely to encounter today in seed catalogs or stores were developed in Russia. Apparently, the motivation behind such cultivation was the prohibition by the seventeenth-century Russian Orthodox Church of eating oily foods during Lent. When Spanish explorers brought the sunflower to Europe, Russian growers seized it as a source of food oil that did not violate church law.

The Mammoth Russian sunflower first listed in an American seed catalog in 1880 was the progenitor of the most popular edible-seed sunflowers now widely grown today in two major forms: the oil-seed type with a black, modestly sized seed that is ideal for pressing oil; and the confection, which has a large, striped seed ideal for snacking. Either type is fine for birds.

Growing sunflowers is easy as long as you remember that they were named for their love of sunshine. Choose a sheltered location that gets full sun all day long. You will enjoy success with just about any soil that does not retain standing water. (Poor drainage will stunt growth.) Of course, more fertile soil will promote vigorous growth and meatier seeds, so consider adding compost and manure when you prepare the seedbed.

Keep in mind that sunflowers will not produce seed if you have only one plant—there must be at least two for cross-pollination. Sow your seeds in a half-inch-deep furrow, placing them about six inches apart, then cover them with about one-eighth inch of fine soil. The remaining furrow will fill naturally as the seedlings grow. The seeds will germinate best when the soil temperature is about 70 degrees F.

Young seedlings can take a light frost but not a deep freeze. Sunflowers can withstand hot dry weather but benefit from periodic deep waterings. When the first true leaves appear, thin the plants so they are spaced about two feet apart.

When the second set of leaves appear, feed the plants weekly with fertilizer, which will encourage good root development. Stake all the plants with tall poles and secure them every six inches with soft ties. When sunflower heads first appear, do not overwater since the heads may deform.

While the Russian varieties are the most widely grown these days, experts suggest that backyard gardeners not overlook other types of sunflowers. "There are about 50 species native to North America that don't occur naturally anywhere else," says Charles Heiser, a retired Indiana University botanist who is known as "Mr. Sunflower" for his lifelong research on the plants. While most of these species are perennials, Heiser notes that about a dozen are annuals that require seed dispersal by birds and other creatures.

"In early summer when the sunflowers start budding out in my garden, the goldfinches will pull out the flowers' ovaries even before they have a chance to mature," says Heiser. "The birds just can't seem to get enough of these plants."

Writer Thomas A. Lewis has long cultivated sunflowers in his northern Virginia yard.

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