Spring is on its way and Sue Bradley is taking inspiration from the sunflower fields of southern France
Sue Bradley explains what to do in the garden this month, plus an Open Garden in Dordogne
Fields of sunflowers are a sure sign of summer in the south of France; an eye-catching sea of yellow captured in countless photographs. This member of the Asteraceae, or daisy, family is native to the Americas and arrived in Europe during the 16th century, although it wasn’t until the 1970s that farmers in warmer regions such as Provence started growing it as a crop, with seeds going on to be crushed for oils and the associated meal used for feeding animals.
The French name for sunflower is tournesol, meaning ‘turn to the sun’, a reference to the way in which the heads of younger plants begin the day facing east before gradually turning to the west, although by the time they’re fully grown their positions are fixed.
Farmers select the best cultivars for oil production when they’re buying their seeds, but for gardeners there is a much wider choice.
Yellow may be the best known colour for sunflowers, but their blooms can be red, orange, green and even cream.
They come in a range of sizes, from the lofty ‘Russian Giant’, ‘Tall Timbers’ and ‘Giraffe’ to shorter specimens such as ‘Big Smile’ and ‘Waooh!’ for the front of a border or even a pot.
Some, such as ‘Helios Flame’ and ‘Solar Flare’, produce several heads on single stems, which makes them ideal for cutting to display in vases.
Many gardeners save vitamin E-rich sunflower seeds for eating, although ‘Tasty Treat’ also produces edible leaves, flower buds and petals.
And while most people treat sunflowers as annual plants, which means they need to be sown every spring, it’s possible to grow perennial types such as ‘Year on Year’.
Sunflowers not only look great but are beneficial to wildlife too. Seeds, especially those with soft black shells, provide a useful source of food for birds, while nectar-rich blooms are frequently visited by bees.
These sunny blooms are also easy to grow, which makes them a great choice for children.
Plant sunflowers under cover from April, bringing them on in pots of compost and transferring them outside once the ground has warmed up sufficiently in late May or early June. Alternatively wait until the threat of frosts has passed and sow them direct outside.
Sunflowers can be grown in a wide range of soils, although well-drained types that warm up quickly in spring give the best results.
Use stakes or something similar to support especially tall sunflowers and prevent them from toppling over, and use some form of slug deterrent to protect young plants.