Farmer on the Deck

Dwarf Sunflowers make terrific container plants. They are easy to grow. The immature buds, petals and mature seeds are edible. The flowers are gorgeous at a time of year when summer is winding down and the moody weather of fall is moving in.

And finally, because they are annuals, when they are done, you're done. There is no brooding over forlorn remnants or need to provide safe harbor over the winter.

Instead, you can gaily toss them and switch to blooming chrysanthemums, cheery fall pansies or colorful cabbages.

Plant seeds or buy plants
You can plant sunflower seeds in the spring, or later on pick up transplants, or you might even find ready-to-bloom containers this time of year. Most dwarf types bloom in 60 to 75 days from seed.

Follow the directions on the seed packet. Some varieties get too leggy if started early. But, typically in Puget Sound, start the large seeds indoors on heat mats two or three weeks before the last spring frost date (that is roughly around St. Patrick's Day in the warmer areas on the Sound, and Tax Day - April 15 - in the cooler inland areas).

Bringing them out under bright light will minimize leggy-ness. Dwarf sunflowers do best when planted into at least 12 inches of high-quality potting mix. This gives them enough soil mass to adequately retain water and provides room for a root system to anchor the heavy-bearing plants.

Even a child can do it
Sunflowers are easy to grow and a great choice for a novice gardener or a parent-child team. They are one of the few flowers that can tolerate missing a watering occasionally, although consistent care is more likely to produce optimal results, so fertilize and water regularly.

Water generously weekly, or more often, as needed in warm weather. A monthly solution of a 10-15-10 fertilizer containing a phosphorus booster (the middle number is higher) for the flowers is a good choice.

Powdery mildew can show up in late summer, especially here, as our damp weather cycles start back up while the temperature is still warm.

But this condition is seldom fatal. Cut off and dispose of the most severely affected leaves. If you feel compelled to intervene, spray the plants in the morning with a mixture of 1 teaspoon of baking soda dissolved in 1 quart of water in a protected location where rain won't wash the solution right off again.

Spraying not necessary
You may want to repeat the sprayings every few days for two weeks to keep the problem from spreading. Good air circulation and plant hygiene is the best preventative.

But letting nature takes its course is just fine, usually. Practicing good hygiene and doing nothing more is my preferred course of action.

Sunflowers are indigenous to the Americas. The newer dwarf cultivars are reminiscent of their giant ancestors, but these shorter progeny are imminently more practical in a container garden and are now available in a riot of toasty colors and forms.

They look good enough to eat
The flower heads are beautiful and long lasting in flower arrangements. The brightly colored petals are edible and pretty sprinkled as a garnish or tossed into salads.

If you can be patient long enough, wait until the seeds mature and put the dried flower heads out for the birds. Or, munch on them yourself; although I find the latter more ceremonial than practical, and some of the hybrids don't produce seeds. If seeds are important to you, check out which types produce seeds. Sunseed produces great seeds, but it can grow 5 feet tall.

Dwarf sunflowers are short; ranging from about 2 to 4 feet tall, depending on the cultivar. They have branching trunks and multiple flower heads. Some of my favorite container-suitable choices are Teddy Bear, Starburst Lemon Aura, Sunrich Lemon, Double Dandy, Junior and Pacino.

Gather up an assortment of these beauties and create a cheery display. They will greet you every day with smiles and few demands. Dwarf Sunflowers may easily become an annual mainstay on your deck garden![[In-content Ad]]