Hello gardeners!

Spring is here and the gardens are gradually switching from winter crops such as broccoli, cauliflower, kale and cabbage to the warm season crops of tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, peppers and melons. We actually have started harvesting some zucchini and yellow squash in March. It’s the start of the most dynamic season of the year for growing and soon the kitchen will have plenty of veggies for the residents’ menus.

Enough of the discussion on garden food for now, because I want to touch on an equally important side of what makes us unique in the assisted -living community world here at Sunshine Care. A vase full of flowers is as important to our residents as a delicious home grown organic salad. Eyes light up when handed a bouquet of beautiful roses from our Memorial Garden. Alstroemeria were added to our cut flower program and besides roses, these beautiful flowers will find their way to the residents’ homes. A few years ago, we added another player to our cut flower program, SUNFLOWERS! That are a big hit and easier to grow than roses. They also last longer in a vase. All our sunflowers are sown and placed in the greenhouse by our residents. They do this along side of the children in our garden club that meets the first and third Thursday of every month in our “Seed to Table” program. This is a great volunteer activity for the kids to perform with their “Grandmas and Grandpas’ and seeding once a month from February to October, insures a consistent supply of beautiful sunflowers for all the houses. The seeds are easy to sow due to their size and the residents and kids can watch them grow in the greenhouse, help plant them outside in the gardens and eventually cut a variety of colorful, large and beautiful sunflowers. This is the only cut flower in our program that everyone can assist in growing from start to finish.

The sunflower (Helianthus annuus) is an annual plant native to the Americas. What is usually called the “flower” on a mature sunflower is actually a “flower head” (also known as a “composite flower”) of numerous florets crowded together. The outer petal-bearing florets are sterile florets and can be yellow, orange, red or other colors. The florets inside the circular head are called disc florets, which mature into seeds.

The flower petals within the sunflower’s cluster are usually in a spiral pattern. Generally, each floret is oriented toward the next by approximately the “golden angle “of 137.5 degrees. This produces a pattern of interconnecting spirals, where the number of left spirals and the number of right spirals are successive Fibonacci numbers. Typically there are 34 spirals in one direction and 55 in the other. On a very large sunflower like the Russian Mammoth, there could be 89 one way and 144 in the other. This pattern produces the most efficient packing of seeds within the flower head. Gotta love the beauty of math in nature, huh?

There is a common misconception that sunflowers track the sun across the sky. This is an old wives tale. The heads are actually pointing in a fixed direction (East) all day long. Keep this in mind when selecting a site for your sunflower garden.

Germination of sunflower seeds takes from 7-14 days at 70-75 degrees F. They love full sun and light well-drained soil. You can plant them from 9-24”. Tighter spacings will give you flowers of smaller size.

Sunflowers grow best in areas with 6 to 8 hrs of sunlight a day, and love long hot summers like we have in Poway, CA.

You need to work the soil well due to the fact that sunflowers have a long tap root and are heavy feeders. The soil needs to be nutrient-rich with organic matter or composted manure. Granular fertilizer should be added to feed them properly. We prepare our sunflowers rows just as we do with our vegetable crops with composted chicken manure, organic compost, worm castings and organic pre-plant fertilizer.

We seed a combination of branching- type sunflowers and the solitary single bloomers. This adds to the diversity in the arrangement of the flowers in vases performed by our residents. Branching varieties produce more plentiful blooms over a longer period of time. The single stem varieties give you that huge eye-grabbing solitary large bloom.

The best tip for harvesting your sunflowers is to cut them when the petals are just lifting off the face of the flower. Leaves should be stripped prior to cutting. Make your cut 2-3 ft down from the head and they should be transported in clean water from the garden to you arrangement area.

There are many branching, commercial single stem and dwarf types. They also come in hundreds of colors and combination of colors. So pull out your Johnny’s Selected Seed catalog and order your seed for the season and plant right after the threat of frost has passed.

Here are some of the favorite varieties we have tried at Sunshine Care in past years. We will continue to try different ones each year to mix up the color combinations. All of these were big hits in previous years.

STRAWBERRY BLONDE- The ruby-red flowers of this variety, hold their petals very well. The petals have lemony tips and dark centers. This is a branching variety as opposed to a single stem variety. The side stems are long and great for cutting. It is pollenless and grows 5’-6’ tall and blooms in about 55 days. Packs of 50 seeds are $3.95.

RING OF FIRE- For all you Johnny Cash fans, this variety has a unique bicolor flower pattern, set on fire with autumn colors. It is a branching variety and an AAS winner with 5”-6”blooms that pop in about 70 days. Plants will grow to 40”-50”. A pack of 50 seeds goes for $3.95.

FIRECRACKER- This dwarf, branching variety is loaded with red and gold flowers. It also works well in containers, producing a mass of bright bicolored flowers. Plants will grow 2’-3’ tall and bloom in about 55 days. Packs of 50 seeds go for $3.95.

MOULIN ROUGE- This variety is a big hit with exquisite, deep burgundy petals surrounding an ebony center. It is pollenless, branching and blooms between 65 and 80 days. The side branches can get to be 30” long and the plant will grow to 60”-80”. Mix this variety in with other contrasting colors for super eye appeal. A pack of 50 seeds runs $3.95.

JOHNNY’S PRO CUT SERIES- These sunflowers are tall with strong single stems. The flowers are pollenless and bloom in 50-60 days. Plants will grow 5’-6’ tall and come in 7 different colors or color combinations. Check them out for sure!   A pack of 50 seeds costs $3.95.

So add sunflowers to your edible landscape for their beauty in the garden and in your homes!

If you wish to tour our greenhouse and gardens, please contact me, Roy Wilburn, Horticulture Manager at Sunshine Care, A Community of Assisted Living Homes- (858) 472-6059 or

Check out our website, , for our free monthly garden lectures with great speakers on timely topics held on the third Saturday of the month at 10:30 am. All lectures include door prizes, refreshments and tours of the gardens and greenhouse.

Happy gardening!!

Categories: Horticulture

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