Landscaping with Sunflowers
Expert tips for growing sunflowers, plus a sunflower playhouse project idea and unique varieties to consider
Carol J. Alexander
The radiant sunflower makes everyone smile. Short or tall; single-stemmed or branching; yellow, orange, or brown; the variety of options make sunflowers perfect for landscaping challenges like fence rows, borders, and backdrops to perennial beds. And because most varieties are annuals, you’re free to change your sunflower designs each year.
Chris McLaughlin is the author of “Growing Heirloom Flowers” and owner of Laughing Crow & Company, a flower and Angora goat fiber farm in Shingle Springs, California. Here, Chris shares her tips for planting and choosing among the over 70 species of sunflowers for your landscaping needs. She also shares how to grow a sunflower playhouse for children, as well as some recommendations for lesser-known varietals to explore.
How to Plant and Grow Sunflowers
“The thing I love about sunflowers is they’re so forgiving,” Chris says. “They’ll grow in the poorest of soil; they may not be as tall.”
When sowing sunflower seeds, space them about 6 inches apart in a trench 1 to 2 inches deep. Cover and keep moist until the sunflower seeds sprout. Once the second set of leaves appear, thin the plants to about 2 feet apart.
Chris suggests sowing seeds every two weeks. “Then you always have blooms to enjoy,” she says.
Where to Plant Sunflowers for Landscaping
All annual sunflowers thrive in full sun. Young buds follow it from horizon to horizon each day, though fully mature plants face east.
Fence Rows: Mammoth sunflowers are perfect for some beauty along fences. Standing as imposing sentinels, these large flowers can grow to 15 feet tall—sometimes even higher.
If your lawn extends to your fence, simply dig out a little space for the seed, rhizome, or small plant, and work in some compost when planting, Chris suggests.
“I like to mix compost in when planting the seeds to give germination a boost,” she says.
Surround the planting area with something to protect it, such as a bit of fencing, until your flowers have grown tall enough to stay safe from the lawnmower.
You may also like: Landscaping Along Fencing for Beauty and Privacy
Backdrops for Annual Beds: Tall varieties, like Chianti hybrid with luscious magenta petals and a flowerhead 3 to 4 inches across, and the lemon queen with a buttery rich 4- to 5-inch flowerhead, can make the perfect backdrop for your annual bed. “Plant them where you don’t mind disturbing the bed at the end of the season,” Chris says.
She suggests pairing sunflowers with summer-blooming flowers like cosmos, marigolds, and zinnias. Look for flowers that bush out to hide the tall sunflower stalks.
Around Mailboxes and Walkways: In spots where you want to add some cheer, but not height, consider a shorter sunflower variety. The busy bee variety looks like the typical yellow sunflower but only grows 3 to 4 feet tall. It’s aptly named for the pollinators it attracts.
Flower Gardens: Annual sunflowers make a wonderful addition to a cut flower garden. “A lot of hybrid varieties are pollen-less,” says Chris, “which is nice because they don’t drop pollen when sitting in a vase on your table. But they still have nectar for the bees, just not the pollen.” Along with shades of yellow, these sunflowers also come in rich fall colors.
A Fun Family Project: A Sunflower Playhouse
Along with planting sunflowers to add beauty to your landscape, these blooms can make a fun play area for children that’s equally nice to look at.
Chris enjoys using giant sunflower varieties to create a playhouse for her grandkids.
Plant the seeds in a square, about 6 to 10 feet across, leaving space for a door. To encourage the flowers to grow to their maximum height, add compost in the trench with the seeds.
Once the sunflowers reach 2 feet tall, plant morning glory seeds at the base of each flower. “The morning glories will vine up the [sunflowers] and over the top,” says Chris. “You could also gently tie twine from the top of one sunflower wall to the other and the morning glories will grow across the ceiling.”
Perennial Sunflowers to Grow
The common-name sunflower generally refers to the annual species Helianthus annuus, but there are a few perennials types. In fact, Chris thinks the perennial varieties are under-appreciated. “They’re smaller and more daisy-like than their annual cousins,” she says.
Here are some to consider planting on your land:
Maximilian’s Sunflower: Resembling a black-eyed Susan more than your common sunflower, this variety stretches to heights of up to 10 feet on a branching stem. It produces buttery 2- to 3-inch flower heads from mid-summer to first frost, grows well from seed, and self-sows year after year.
Swamp Sunflower: This one is more beautiful than it sounds. A branching variety, the swamp sunflower grows up to 5 feet and produces 3-inch bright yellow flowers. Not only can swamp sunflowers grow in poor soil, making them great for hedgerows, they’re also one of the last flowers to bloom for the season.
Willowleaf Sunflower: This variety is native to North America (it’s particularly common in the Plains region) and grows up to 6 feet. Its long, slender leaves are dark bluish-green. Willowleaf blooms from late summer to early fall and grows well in a container. It’s propagated through rhizomes and spreads underground.