A sunflower bed obviously needs sun and while the flowers are fairly tolerant of short dry spells, they do need water to germinate and get a good start. A rainier summer leads to larger sunflowers, a dry one to smaller ones- both are pretty. Staggering the plantings of the seeds spreads out the harvest so you have flowers to sell throughout the summer. A couple signs along a well-traveled road bring the buyers to you (and the occasional event planner, as we've discovered).
All that said, below you'll find details about what WE did. If this is a project your family would like to take on this summer, you can adapt our plan to fit your situation. As our children get older, we hope to turn it over to them, teaching them more about business and responsibility.
The planning involves looking at your allotted space/plot (relatively flat with full sun is ideal) and determining how many sunflowers you can plant and then ordering the seeds. On both sides of our house are good-sized flat lawns that we are happy not to mow. The plot on the south side of our house that we devote to growing sunflowers is 40 by 70 feet. Last year, we decided to plant 5 plantings, but only planted 4 in the end because we ran out of steam and seeds. In each of the 4 plantings there were 15 rows. In each row we planted 80 seeds (6 inches apart). We left one foot of space between each row with two feet of space between each planting. This summer, we will divide the plot into more, smaller plantings so they will be staggered more evenly throughout the summer.
Our side yard before it turned into the sunflower plot.
The last two summers, we chose to order our seeds from Johnny's Selected Seeds. Last year, we bought 3500 Sunrich Orange Summer (F1) seeds (to add to some we had left over from the year before), a sunflower that is meant to be cut for arrangements, thus it doesn't drop pollen- something people appreciate not having all over their tables. The one drawback of this particular variety is that the stems excrete a sticky substance that is a bit of a pain to wash off if you get it on your hands. We use gardening gloves when working with the flowers and sometimes leave wipes at our road side stand for people to use to pick up their bunches.
The first stage in planting is preparing the soil. How you want to get rid of your lawn or weeds is up to you. You can kill the grass in the manner you prefer. The nice thing about growing sunflowers is that you really only have to keep the weeds down while the plants are just starting to come up. Soon, the flowers will outgrow the weeds, so weeds in between the rows are okay and there is no weeding to be bothered with (unless you love weeding, of course). For us, we determined that preparing the soil in batches as we plant in stages works best. If you rid the whole plot of weeds at the beginning, you might have weeds growing again by the time you're planting later plantings. If you don't want to put in the work twice, only work just ahead of yourself.
Preparing the soil for the next planting (you can see earlier plantings coming up in the background).Last year, Jamey experimented with the best way to till the soil just prior to planting. The methods he used (all during the same planting so rain amounts were the same) were a) just shoving the seed into the earth (hey, if it worked, it would certainly be the easiest!), b) punching a narrow PVC pipe into the ground a couple inches and dropping a seed down the pipe and kicking the dirt over, and c) using my Grandpa's old wheel hoe (pictured above). The rows that yielded the most germinated seeds were the wheel hoe rows, so that's how we planted the rest of the spring. Staking the ends of the rows and tying a string, marked every six inches, between the two made for straight rows and proper seed spacing.
We plant our first planting when the danger of frost has past. This first group was ready to cut and sell in mid July. We sold our last bunch on September 24th to an on-duty sheriff (I thought one of the kids called 911) who needed flowers for his wife for their anniversary (THAT day). He said the only flower she likes are sunflowers. Needless to say, I searched high and low and mustered up a pretty decent last bouquet for him.
Giving the sunflowers a proper start is really important. If it's super dry, they won't germinate and you might end up with your next planting coming up at the same time. This doesn't sound so bad, but in our case it meant we had too many flowers ready to be cut at the same time and the demand couldn't keep up with the supply. If you are able, watering them regularly just for the first week may help with the germination process and get them started. Once they're started, they take pretty good care of themselves unless you run into a severe drought. We had some really dry spells last summer and didn't water (our area was too large and we needed to save cistern water for our vegetable garden) and they did fine although some were on the small-side.
This period entails watching and praying that the rabbits and chickens stay out of the plot to give your little plants time to get established.
During this time you'll also want to make your signs and stand for out by the road. An umbrella is a good idea as it will help your cut flowers stay nicer, longer. This is all pretty obvious, but I'll say it anyway...signs facing both directions are helpful and they should give your buyers time to slow down before they have to pull over. Placing your stand near a pull-off or driveway may make some buyers feel safer than if they have to pull over right along the road. Make your lettering large enough to be seen and neat so they can be read easily.
We use small, hand held pruning shears to cut through the (sometimes rather thick, but easy to cut) stalks. We found that cutting the sunflowers as soon as we could see yellow worked well when it was practical to do so. Within a few days, the flower would open, giving our buyers a chance to get their full enjoyment out of the flowers. Mixing one or two open sunflowers in with some that were showing only a little yellow gave folks a teaser as to what to expect from the rest of the bunch.
We choose to put anywhere from 5-10 sunflowers in a bunch depending on the size of the flowers. If one particular planting produced really large heads, we'd put 5 in a bunch. If a dryer spell yielded smaller ones, we'd make bouquets of 10. Often, Jamey would collect the ready flowers, leaving the stems very long, and then stripping off the leaves by grabbing the stem gently just under the head of the flower and then sliding his hand down the stem. They come off easily and quickly this way. He'd place the cut flowers in 5 gallon buckets with water in the bottom and bring them up to me at the back of the house.
I would then form the bunches being careful to arrange them so that the flowers would have room to open and wouldn't be opening up into each other and therefore getting smooshed (that's official sunflower-growing terminology). I then used green garden twisty ties (to hold the bunches together) a few inches from the head and a foot lower. Then, I trimmed the ends so that they were long enough to still fit in the 5-gallon bucket (without the actual flower heads leaning on the bucket side) and to make them the same length. We'd add more water if needed and Jamey or I would carry the buckets out to our stand.
We chose to sell our bunches for $5 each. According to a family member who has worked for a florist, large sunflowers can be sold for $5 a piece. We wanted to make a profit, but also want everyone to be able to afford to enjoy them, so we're sticking with our price.
We also choose to trust our customers. Instead of making a lock-box where payment can be left, we use a cool whip container with a rock in it (so it doesn't blow away). This way, we can leave some change in it if someone needs to break a twenty dollar bill so they don't need to come knocking at the house. We've only lost a total of maybe $40 over the past two years with this method and very few customers came to our door needing help. Bringing the money container in every evening (and setting the buckets of flowers back) each night takes some of the temptation to steal away.
If a bunch or two sat out fully opened for more than several days, we'd bring them inside to enjoy them ourselves or share them with friends and neighbors. You do not want to sell someone flowers that will start dropping petals two days after they take them home.
Our sunflowers at a wedding.
When we did have an over-abundance of sunflowers all at once and we knew we couldn't sell them all at the end of our lane, we took bunches to local florists and sold some to them. This lead to several orders from event planners, who were recommended by florists who wouldn't have known about us if we hadn't stopped by.
It's close to impossible to promise a certain number for an exact time, so be careful and make sure the buyer understands. For example, a woman asked for 60 sunflowers for a certain event. She would need to pick up the flowers the evening before. She asked for them weeks in advance. At the time, we had a general idea when the next planting would be ready to cut, but I had to ask her (feeling a bit like Abraham), "What if we don't have 60 then. What if we only have 50?" She said that would be fine. I went on, "What if we only have 40 at that time- would that be okay?" Again, she said it would. I even went further and asked about 30- she hesitated here, but again, said she would understand. I ended up having 59 sunflowers for her. You bet I praised the Lord that day!
When the sunflowers are finished you'll have a strange looking plot of stalks left to deal with. Sam enjoys stomping and chopping them down. Clearing the plot in the fall gives you a fresh start in the spring and makes for a nicer looking yard for your neighbors (Hi, Marie!).
So, there you have it. That's what we did and how we did it. Feel free to ask any questions you might have and we'll do our best to answer them. Please note: Questions about your growing zone would be best asked of the seed company folks. We only have experience growing them in our zone (zone 7) so we are not knowledgeable about how sunflowers would grow in other areas. Otherwise, ask away and happy planning and planting!