Sunflowers are easy, and inexpensive to grow, and yes, everyone can do it! The days of sunflowers being contained to the vegetable garden are over. There are now varieties that can be grown in large pots and containers, as well as corners of your yard or garden. Children of all ages love sunflowers and can participate in choosing the variety, planting and harvesting.

The Basics

These are the basic technical tips you need to know about Sunflowers, or Helianthus Annus (their official name).

*Plant in full sun, where they will not shade other plants.

*Be sure to plant after the last frost in your area.

*The seeds should be 1 inch deep and 6 inches apart when planted.

*When the seedlings pop up, thin them to 1 1/2 foot apart or one foot for the dwarf varieties. (In containers you can squeeze them closer) We planted seeds in our porch box of the drawf varieties and thinned to 8 plants in a 3 foot long planter.

*Water well after planting and keep fairly moist until the seeds sprout.

Choosing Your Sunflowers

Children can be involved in every aspect of your sunflower garden. You can guide them in choosing the seeds. These are just a few of the options you will have.

Planting Your Seeds

Using the tips above, plant your seeds after the last frost. The children can easily do this with a ruler, and a gardening spade or large spoon. Any soil will work, but a well drained soil with peat added is a better choice. Have the kids dig a bag of peat (very inexpensive)into the area you will be planting in. For the giant sunflowers, a strip of soil, about 1 1/2 to 2 foot wide or wider is great, especially against a fence where they can be tied to protect against the wind.

Don't be afraid to experiment! If you have a spot that needs something cheerful, then use it! Another project for the kids, with your help, is drawing out the area you will planting in and laying out the steps involved. This can be done ahead of time to get them excited. Remember that you don't have to plant the entire packet of seeds, or limit yourself to one large area. Using several small corners or strips of soil works well.

Growing and Harvesting

Sunflowers will pop out of the ground in a week to two weeks, and will start out slowly. If you notice birds or other animals bothering the little seedlings you can tent a piece of chicken wire, a milk jug with the top and bottom cut off or something similar to protect them. They will pick up speed in their growing process, and the children can be responsible for watching them, watering them, and placing cut up leaves or another type of mulch carefully around the bottoms of each plant.

Many people harvest all of the sunflowers and don't allow the birds to feed. I think for children, a nice alternative is to cover some of the heads with cheesecloth, mesh bags or old pantyhose, so you can roast the seeds later, but leave the other flowers for the birds. The children can record which birds come to the plants and how many, as an extra project.

When the seed heads start to turn brown, they can be cut with 2 inches of the stem and hung to dry in a ventilated place such as a garage or attic. When they are dry, simply rub them together to loosen, soak over night in salted water and then drain. Spread them on baking sheets and roast for three hours at 200 degrees until dry. These can be stored in a container for eating. Be sure to save some seeds out before this process, place in envelopes and label for planting next year. Store them in a dry cool place until spring.

Growing sunflowers can be a unique, family project. So much can be learned about nature and the growing process, as well as teaching children patience. The end result will be something they will always remember and treasure.