Monday, February 20, 2012

How to Plant & Grow Cut Sunflowers to Sell

The past two summers, we've planted sunflowers in our yard and sold them at the end of our driveway.  The first year, it was my brother who ran the little operation.  But then he moved away and we were left to decide what we wanted in that used plot of yard.  After weighing our options, we decided to plant sunflowers again.  And, we've decided to plant them again this year.


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.

Planning

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.

Planting

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.

Waiting

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.


Cutting

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.


Selling

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!

Cleaning Up

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!


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34 comments:

  1. I love this...thanks for sharing!!!
    can you tell us how apx how much you made in a summer?

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  2. Thank you, Jane! EXCELLENT post. I'm in zone 7 as well, I've bought my seeds (last year from Johnny's), I have a wheel hoe... I just needed some advice like this and to determine where these will be planted I don't have a nice large flat area Irving in the mountains). I may have to split them up into a few different areas. Thanks again for all the details - so helpful!!!

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  3. Okay, I totally needed this post. Thank you. The Girl Who thinks She's A Bird will be in charge of picking and selling the extra produce and flowers this summer.

    I like the passive cool whip container on a table idea. I certainly don't want people knocking on my door or worse yet coming round back to find me to make change.

    Thanks Jane!

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  4. I live in zone 4 and have great success growing sunflowers from direct-sown seed. I've never tried a plot for selling, just enjoyed a few in my garden rows. --Julie in Wisconsin

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    Replies
    1. I live in zone4 and could use some advice on initial planting times, so I will have plenty of bloom s for my daughter's August 2nd wedding.

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    2. Congratulations on the wedding coming up!! You'll need to choose a variety and then check with the supplier to find out how many days ahead you'll need to plant them or do it the other way around:-). Different varieties vary on their plant to bloom time frames. Best of luck to you!

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  5. Thanks for the post! Have you written anything similar about growing herbs? I live in a condo in a big city, so I will be doing so in a planter on the patio, and i have no idea where to start

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    Replies
    1. Herbs are very simple to grow. The instructions on the seed packets will tell you everything you'll need to know. You'll really enjoy having fresh herbs so handy. I would start with basil, parsley, cilantro and oregano. They'll look lovely all growing together in a patio pot. Keep them from drying out and pinch off the blooms to keep them from going to seed and getting leggy.

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    2. Thanks for inspiring me! I started today :)

      http://thebiggestmuch.blogspot.com/2012/02/growing-herbs-part-1.html

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  6. I'm curious what type of sunflower seeds that you might recommend....

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    Replies
    1. Above you'll see what variety we've used the past couple years. We can't really speak to other varieties, but we have been very pleased with the one we've chosen.

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  7. I've read that other plants don't do as well when sunflowers are nearby... any experience with this???

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    Replies
    1. The sunflowers we plant to sell are on their own, but we plant other sunflowers in our vegetable gardens regularly and haven't noticed any problems with the plants nearby.

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  8. I love this post, Jane. It has given me some great ideas, some not even related to sunflowers!

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  9. Thank you for showing us your sunflower business. The flowers are so beautiful and must bring hundreds of smiling faces. You are teaching your children a true labor of love. While supplementing your income, you also honor and praise our Father.Blessings to you and your family.

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  10. Really fun post and pretty pics. I was wondering... one foot of space between rows in each planting seems rather tight for maneuvering through to cut. How does that work?

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    Replies
    1. It is tight- you have to walk sideways down the rows, but it utilizes the most space. The leaves are big but very flexible, so pushing through them is easy. I forgot to mention above (I'll add it) that we use small, hand held pruning shears to cut through the (sometimes rather thick) stalks. This doesn't require a whole lot of room. After cutting a few, it is easiest to walk them out to the buckets instead of trying to maneuver in there with a huge handful. You could certainly increase the space between rows if you wanted to give yourself a bit more space:-).

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  11. That is a great business idea. Thanks for sharing all the steps.

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  12. This is a wonderful idea. Any thoughts on the smaller varieties of sunflower? There are so many colors now. I am leaving my job this week to stay home full time on the farm, and still need to make some of the money we need to thrive. Your website is very inspirational! Thank you!

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  13. Hi! Do the birds like to eat the particular seeds you use?
    Thanks!
    Charlene

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    Replies
    1. We cut the flowers early before the seeds fully form. Of the imperfect ones that don't get cut, the birds to enjoy the mature seeds. If we can get those heads before the birds, we store them for the chickens in the winter:-).

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  14. Hi, my name is Caleb and I live in NC. I am having trouble finding work and I just got about a hundred packs of sunflower seeds for my birthday. (plus about a hundred packs of various vegitable seeds). Can i make a living with this amount of seeds?

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    Replies
    1. Hello, Caleb. Thanks for your question, but it's pretty impossible for me to answer it. It very much depends on where you live (traffic by your road-side stand) and if you can also sell them to local florists. We have family friends that supply florists with the sunflowers they grow (and sell at multiple stands) in an affluent community and they are able to make good money that way. A farmer's market may be another option as well. It would be an excellent supplemental income over the summer months- in our area we cut from mid-July into early September and make about $500 during this time. I hope this is helpful and I wish you the very best.

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  15. HI IM GROWING SUNFLOWERS FOR THE SEEDS TO EAT. ANY TIPS? I AM DOING FOR MY OWN USE..

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    Replies
    1. Sorry, Rebecca, but we've never done this. Best of luck to you!

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  16. Hi there,

    I am growing a 1000 linear foot sunflower river... existing soil is very silty. My biggest concern is preparing the soil. Do I need to add much compost? I was going to strip the sod, till the silty soil and add about 3" of triple mix on top. Does this sound reasonable or should I till everything together and add compost? Did you have to weed much?

    Thanks in advance for your expertise... I start Monday so very excited!

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    Replies
    1. Hello, there! We did not prepare the soil at all other than just tilling it up- we didn't add any compost at all. We do weed a little bit to let the sunflowers get a good head start on the weeds, but then the sunflowers take off and grow so fast that they outgrow the weeds. We don't weed much after this, because the weeds don't seem to bother the sunflowers. That said, I'm sure they would do better weeded some:-). Good luck!

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  17. this is so awesome! i love that you do this. i would not mind being your neighbor in the least :)

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  18. Can anyone tell me if I can grow a Sun Flower from a cut Sun Flower. Will it take root in water then plant in soil?

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    Replies
    1. Unfortunately, you can't root cut sunflowers. The best way to get sun flowers from sun flowers is to harvest the seeds and that works best from living (still planted) sunflowers. Here is a link that gives pretty good instructions on how to do that...http://homeguides.sfgate.com/collect-sunflower-seeds-replanting-41735.html Good luck!

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  19. Which type of sunflower did you plant? They look great and I'm looking to do this for my wedding!

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    Replies
    1. Please look above in the post- the paragraph just under the second photo provides those details. Congratulations on your engagement!!

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