Ready to plant sunflower seeds? Find out the best time to sow the seeds, how much sun they need, the best soil conditions, the deal on companion plants, plus care and harvest tips for growing these annual flowers.
If you specifically want to grow really tall sunflowers or sunflowers with giant flower heads, see 12 Tips for Growing Giant Sunflowers.
Sunflowers are easy to grow and often the only challenge is keeping wildlife away. Lots of animals including birds and mice love the seedlings, and, at harvest time, squirrels join in to eat the seeds in the flowerheads.
Once the plant is past the seedling stage, sunflowers are good, sun-tolerant plants that require minimal care.
Because they are annuals, you will need to sow new seeds each year. Some may self-seed as well—whether they come from your own plants or fall from birdfeeders. Don’t be surprised if the blooms are a bit different than the parent they came from: that’s normal for hybrid seeds.
If you want to save the tips, you can save them using the link in the Resources section.
First, let’s go over the basics and what to expect.
- Full sun: 6 to 8 hours a day is ideal in a location protected from the wind.
- Soil: rich, well-drained soil. This shows how to test your soil for drainage.
- Sow seeds: after risk of frost has passed.
- Okay soil temperature: 55°F (13°C) or warmer.
- Ideal soil temperature: 70° to 75°F (21° to 25°C).
- Sowing instructions: check your seed packet.
- Usually 1-inch deep, spacing seeds 6 to 36 inches, depending on variety. Flower farmers report that the closer you plant together, the more compact the flowerheads may be.
- Germination: 2 to 10 days.
- Days to maturity: 80 to 120 days. Some varieties are day neutral meaning they should continue maturing as the days shorten toward fall.
- Container growing: yes, best for smaller, dwarf varieties.
- Fertilizer: amend soil with good compost. Can also use granular, slow-release fertilizer as directed on product label.
- Growing zones: Sunflowers are native to North America and can be grown as annuals everywhere from Alaska to Mexico.
- Also grow in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and other sunny areas.
With over 70 species and lots of varieties, there are many choices!
Sunflowers range in height from just one-foot tall to the “giant” varieties which can reach 15-feet (4.5 m) or more.
- Sizes range from dwarf types (1 to 2-feet tall) to mammoths (8 to 15 feet). The world record for sunflower height is currently 30 feet!
- Flower sizes can be a few inches and up to 20-inches in diameter.
- Flower colors: white, pale yellow, yellow, bright yellow, orange, bronze, rust, dark red, and bi-colored varieties.
- Appearance and texture: long petals, short petals, fluffy, elongated….
- Formation: single flower heads, multi-flower heads.
- Cut flowers: there are pollen-free types intended for cut flowers.
- Seeds: check the seed packet to know whether the plant will produce seeds and if they can be saved for sowing. Some hybrids are sterile.
If you live in a cold climate, choose varieties that grow from seed to maturity in the number of days available between last frost in spring and first frost in fall.
Most take between 50 and 120 days, but there are exceptions.
Find Your Frost Dates & Hardiness Zone
Average Frost Dates | Use this calculator at Almanac.com. Enter your city and state or province to find your first and last frost dates and number of frost-free days.
Ecoregion | Learn about the native plant and animal species and environmental conditions specific to your region to better understand why your garden choices matter.
Learn More: Understanding Frosts & Freezing For Gardeners
Sunflower Seed Buying Tips
Here are some sunflowers seeds at Botanical Interests (US Shipping).
Every type of sunflower is different and not all sunflowers produce edible seeds. Sunflowers may be bred for specific colors, heights, flower sizes, types of seed (for birds or humans), to be pollen-free, and more. Check your seed packets to see what yours has to offer.
If you want large sunflowers, watch for the words ‘mammoth’, ‘giant’, ‘titan’, ‘monster’, or ‘tall’ in the names or descriptions.
I have a long list of recommended seeds for growing giant sunflowers here.
Sometimes these adjectives mean the plant will grow tall, sometimes it means the flower head will be very large but the plant may not be particularly tall.
‘Sunzillas’ produce massive heads. Mammoths grow 12-feet tall. There are many other hybrids developed to grow taller.
These are the ones that grow nicely in containers because they do not need the root space that larger ones do.
I’ve listed suggested varieties in the section on growing sunflowers in containers.
SHOP FOR SUNFLOWER SEEDS HERE
Look for interesting varieties including dwarf, tall, massive, and colorful ones.
3When to Plant
With seeds selected that you know have time to go from seed to harvest in your growing season, you can sow the seeds as soon as the risk of frost has passed for the season.
If you have time, you will get the best germination rates if you wait until soil temperatures are consistently 70° to 75°F (21° to 25°C).
But, for many of us, we need to sow sooner, and you can get by with soil temperatures of 55°F (13°C) or warmer—just be sure to protect them from critters and cover them if temperatures drop.
I’ve had late frosts after sowing but the sunflower seeds survived fine because they had not sprouted yet. If you expect a frost after sowing, cover the soil with a frost cloth for the night (and don’t forget to remove it in the morning).
You can also start sunflower seeds indoor in small containers for transplanting outdoors, although it is preferable to sow them directly outdoors if possible because they don’t like their roots disturbed. If you are transplanting, wait until your young plants have at least two sets of true leaves and a sturdy stem before transplanting. The stronger the young plant, the better your odds.
How late you can plant sunflowers depends on which type you are growing and where you are in the growing season.
Step one is to look up how many days you have between now and your average first frost in fall. You can look this up using the link below.
If, for example, there are 100 days until first frost, you may still have time plant a sunflower that matures in under that number of days—preferably with a buffer of a few weeks.
For the 100 day example, a variety that shows “days to maturity” around 75 days should do fine. This would allow a buffer period in case your weather is not optimal and allow for slower growth as the days shorten as we head into fall.
4Where to Plant
- Pick a full-sun location: 6 to 8 hours a day is ideal in a location protected from the wind.
- Provide fertile, well-drained soil amended with good compost. You can also add a granular, slow-release fertilizer.
- Sunflowers have large taproots that can grow deep in the soil.
- If something blocks the roots, the plant will not grow to its full potential size. This is why it’s best to only grow dwarf varieties in containers.
No, you should not start sunflower seeds in grass because the grass lawn will likely out-compete the seedlings. A workaround is to remove a section of lawn before sowing or planting. Allow at least one to two square feet of growing space per sunflower plant. After sowing or planting, cover any bare earth with an inch or two of organic mulch to help retain moisture.
5How to Plant
When you are ready, read your seed packet for specific instructions on how to plant sunflower seeds: different varieties have different needs.
Sunflower seeds average a germination rate of 75% so 3 out of every 4 should sprout.
- Generally, sunflower seeds are sown 1-inch deep, spacing the seeds 6 to 36-inches apart, depending on the variety.
- You can also sow several seeds close together and remove the weaker ones after a few weeks. This is called ‘thinning out’.
Related: How to Read Seed Packets
- In general, a mammoth (tall, giant) sunflower does best in good quality soil with no other plants within 24-inches (two feet) in any direction (a four-foot diameter circle of growing space).
- Smaller varieties of sunflowers are more forgiving and can do fine with just 6-inches of growing space (in all directions). But more is better. The better the resources, the larger the plant can grow.
Protect Your Seeds
- After sowing, cover the soil with 1-2 inches of mulch on top of the garden soil to help keep moisture in.
- Protect newly planted seeds with cloches, dollar store mesh waste baskets, or anything that will keep birds, squirrels and mice from digging up the seeds or slugs from eating the seedlings.
If you do cover your seeds/seedlings, be sure to check on them so they have water, air flow, and light (after germinating).
What do sunflower seedlings look like?
This image shows sunflower seedlings:
If you plant your sunflower seeds individually, they will resemble the image (above). You may also find clusters of seedlings in your garden where chipmunks or squirrels buried a bunch of seeds.
Sometimes sunflowers also grow with the seed shell sitting on the seedling as shown in the image inset. It will eventually fall off and it’s just funny, not harmful in any way.
Sunflowers & Sun
A plant’s tendency to turn toward the sun is known as heliotropism.
During vegetative growth up until bud formation, sunflower stems track the sun.
This movement stops after the bud stage, leaving the flowers in an east-facing position.
Read More: How Sunflowers Track the Sun
A sunflower may grow between one to 12 inches per week, depending on the variety and growing conditions.
If conditions are optimal, a sunflower that will be 6-feet tall at maturity in 85 days (12 weeks) would average 6-inches of growth a week. In reality, there will be slower and faster weeks depending on conditions and the growth phase.
A smaller variety of sunflower may grow just an inch or two a week.
A giant or mammoth variety may grow a foot per week.
Whether or not a sunflower plant needs support depends on which type you are growing. If you are growing average size sunflowers (up to approximately 6-feet tall) in a sheltered area, supports should not be needed.
If you are growing tall (mammoth) varieties or ones with giant (heavy) flowerheads, you may need some support. I grow the larger ones near a fence so I can secure the stems with ties (strips of torn up cotton t-shirts work well).
Without supports, the stems may break or the base may uproot in windy or stormy conditions.
6Sunflower Companion Planting
Before we jump into this topic, keep in mind that much that is said about companion planting in the gardening world is folklore and anecdotal with little or no science to support it.
Beware of simple soundbites like ‘carrots love tomatoes’ because that really doesn’t tell us anything (and it’s not really accurate).
The most important thing for successful plant growing is to provide the basics: good soil and nutrition, adequate light, water, air, and root space. What we often think is a companion planting conflict is more likely just competition for resources. Spread plants out and treat them right and suddenly there’s no problem at all.
What is allelopathy?
Allelopathy is a common biological phenomenon by which one organism produces biochemicals that influence the growth, survival, development, and reproduction of other organisms.
Plants are sensitive to their surroundings. Not just the soil quality, amount of sun, and moisture levels, but which other plants are growing nearby. In some cases, plants send out biochemicals to try and thwart other plants. This is known as allelopathy, which, like a game of broken telephone, is misconstrued in the gardening world and presented as “companion planting.”
From a scientific perspective, allelopathy is difficult to prove in home garden settings since to study something, we generally have to isolate it under controlled conditions.
With sunflowers, the thought is that they produce compounds that inhibit growth in some other plants, stopping seed germination and growth.
You may suspect this is happening when sunflower seed hulls (the shells of the seeds) accumulate below bird feeders, causing the grass lawn to die. The hulls are otherwise harmless, though, and gradually decompose.
What not to grow with sunflowers
The two plants suspected to be negatively affected by sunflowers are:
- pole beans (that climb like vines)
Both may struggle if planted too close to sunflowers.
Good companion plants according to other gardeners
Plants said to benefit from sunflowers growing nearby are:
But, as said, there does not seem to be solid evidence of this and it’s best to focus on good plant spacing and providing suitable growing conditions. Every plant needs adequate root space to grow, and sunflowers are big resource hogs. If we focus on providing each plant with the required growing conditions, the rest sorts itself out.
Science-Based Companion Planting Strategies
by Jessica Walliser
Minimize disease * Reduce pests * Improve soil fertility * Support pollination
7Growing in Containers
Because larger sunflowers grow deep, tuberous roots, it’s best to only plant smaller varieties in containers.
I grow mine in 12-inch wide by 14-inch deep pots and they do ok. They’re not as large as the same varieties grown in the ground, but they still flower just fine.
As with most container growing, you will need to add fertilizer to provide sufficient nutrients. I use organic, slow-release fertilizers.
Here’s some examples of sunflowers that grow well in containers:
- Big Smile
- Sundance Kid
- Teddy Bear
8Pests and Diseases
Seeds and Seedling Stage
I always have to protect my sunflowers after sowing or they will be stolen by the wild things!
Birds, squirrels, mice, chipmunks, and anything else with a beating heart may try to dig up or eat the seeds and seedlings.
I use glass cloches, wire waste baskets from the Dollar Store, old soda bottles, or whatever I can find to cover the seeds and keep them protected. The mesh waste baskets are my favorites while the plant is under 12-inches tall. You may need to secure the basket to the ground with a clip or tent peg.
If you do this, you do have to be mindful that the soil stays watered, and—if using a glass cloche—to be sure the inside does not overheat.
If voles or other tunnelling animals are the issue, consider growing in large pots instead of the ground.
Once the seedlings are a few inches tall, the mammals and birds tend to back off until seed harvest time.
If you have slugs and snails in your garden, they too may come looking for dinner. This discusses eco-friendly ways to deal with slugs and snails.
Deer too will also eat sunflowers if they notice them. This has tips on deterring deer.
Flowering and Seeding
The flowering phase is the next one to attract wildlife. That’s when the birds and squirrels and all their friends return, hoping to nosh on the seeds.
You can put net or organza bags over the flower heads to deter them. The old school way is to tie large paper bags around them. I find mesh gift bags definitely slows the critters down.
There are several insects that attack sunflowers including sunflower moths, thrips, whiteflies, and various caterpillars.
Mildew and More
Sunflowers are susceptible to a number of fungal diseases including mildews and rusts, white mold, and Verticillium wilt. It’s the combination of humid days and cooler nights that tends to cause the most trouble.
Because sunflowers are annuals, it’s probably not worth dealing with it. If it’s bad, remove the plant to prevent spreading and sow your seeds in a different location the following year.
I regard sunflowers as low-maintenance plants. Once I’ve got them past the seedling stage, I usually do nothing other than watering any in containers and making sure they have adequate support.
Some growers like to add fertilizer when the flower heads are blooming (I do not), which generally takes place over a period of 5 to 10 days. This can also be a time where the plant takes up a lot of water and may need additional watering.
10 Harvesting Sunflowers
If you check your sunflowers during the main growth phase, you’ll notice that the stalks are green, unless there is drought or disease.
Once the plant starts working on seed production, the stalks start turning yellow.
When the seeds are ready for harvesting, the stalks are brown.
Not all varieties produce seeds so check before you sow if this is important to you.
You’ll also notice that as the plant matures, the flower head starts facing down toward the ground. That’s when all those seeds (up to 1400 on one flower head) start forming behind the little floret petals.
If you want to save the seeds, you will need to cover the flower heads, either with netting, organza, or a paper bag, to keep the critters from eating everything. Even then, I have a few squirrels who will suck on the seeds right through the netting!
It is also possible to harvest the flower heads earlier and hang them up to dry—again, somewhere where the critters can’t get them, and remove the seeds later.
All seeds should be cleaned and dried before storing, otherwise they get moldy. Some instructions advice gently boiling them in salted water before consumption.
The alternative is to simply leave your sunflowers in the garden. As winter sets in, those wild things living in your garden will appreciate the fuel.
You can collect and roast them just like pumpkin or squash seeds (instructions here).
11Frequently Asked Questions
The ideal time to plant sunflowers is after the risk of frost has passed and soil temperatures are 70° to 75°F (21° to 25°C).
You can also sow the seeds when the soil is consistently 55°F (13°C) or warmer. This just means germination will be slower.
For many cold climate gardeners, June is the month to sow sunflower seeds directly outside. This is after last frost when the soil is warming up. Faster growing sunflowers may still have time to mature when planted in July.
No, sunflowers are annuals not perennials and do not regrow each year. As annuals, they complete their entire lifecycle in a single growing season. If seeds fall to the ground, they may survive the winter and sprout next year. Otherwise you need to sow fresh seeds each year.
Yes, sunflowers are sun lovers and like 6 to 8 hours of full sun each day.
How late you can plant sunflowers depends on the variety you are growing and the date of your average first frost. Most sunflowers need between 50 and 120 days (3 to 4 months) from seed to maturity. Count how many days you have available before frosts set in and choose a variety that fits that timeline.
No, sunflowers are generally not difficult to grow. The main challenge is preventing wildlife from stealing the freshly sown seeds and eating the seedlings. From there, the main growing phase is low maintenance, where you may just need to water if conditions are dry, and fertilizer if soil is depleted. Once seeds start forming in the flower heads, you may need to cover the flowers to keep animals from eating all the seeds, unless you’re like me and that’s why you’re growing them.
Sunflowers are not fond of transplanting but it can be done with care early on. The seedlings transplant okay, but, once the plant is larger, the roots are deep and quite sensitive. And because they have taproots, if the taproot breaks during transplanting, it’s game over. So, transplanting after seedling stage is at your own risk.
Some of the larger sunflower varieties can send roots down as deep as four feet. It all depends on the size of the sunflower and if the soil allows the roots to grow freely. Coincidentally, the farther the roots can go, the taller the sunflower can grow (for the big types).
Sunflowers stop growing when the flowers begin turning to seed. During this phase, the stalks turn from green to yellow and then brown, and the flower heads start facing the ground instead of east.
Yes, some varieties of sunflowers do fine in containers. Choose dwarf varieties with smaller roots for best results.
Growing tall sunflowers and/or sunflowers with giant flowerheads starts with the right seeds. Look for specific species with those traits. From there, you need the right growing conditions including adequate fertilizer.
No, you cannot grow sunflowers from cuttings. The only way to grow sunflowers is from seeds. They cannot be propagated from cuttings.
Yes, bird seed mixes that include sunflower seeds can produce sunflowers. If the seeds fall to the ground and have the right growing conditions, they can sprout and grow into sunflowers. Sometimes animals also carry the sunflower seeds from the feeders and hide them. If you notice sunflowers popping up in your garden, an animal likely buried the seed at just the right depth and location for germination.
Some varieties of sunflowers produce few or no seeds. Those that do produce seeds will require pollination to do so. If your sunflowers did not produce seeds, check which variety they are and consider whether bees and other pollinators were present during flowering.
Empress of Dirt
FREE TIP SHEET
Sunflower Growing Tips
To save the file, please provide your email address for this purpose only.
We do not spam.
Sunflower Podcast Episodes
NEW! Click play to listen:
Watch How to Grow Sunflowers
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛
Seed Starting for Beginners
Sow Inside Grow Outside
by Melissa J. Will
NEW EDITION | Everything you need to get started with indoor seed starting for indoor and outdoor plants. Grow what you want—any time of year!
This ebook is a digital file (PDF format) you save to your device. It is not a physical product.
PayPal, Credit Card, Apple Pay
Digital products are not available in EU, UK, and Northern Ireland due to tax regulations.