Blooming Beauty

by http://a%20href=#molongui-disabled-linkHarold%20Schrock/a | Aug 1, 2023 | 0 comments

sunflower field and old barn
Sunflowers. Photo © Erin Cogswell/Dreamstime.com.

One amazing aspect of God’s creation is the system he designed for the reproduction of plants. For many plants, seed production starts with a colorful bloom. Every single bloom is an interesting work of art in its own right. Clover blossoms are very common, but one of the most beautiful photos I’ve ever seen was a dew-laden red clover blossom. Many of the blooming plants we use for food are not planted for the beauty of their flowers, but the next time you see a small bloom on a tomato, pepper, pea or strawberry, stop and take a closer look.

Although I appreciate their beauty, I am not an avid flower gardener. My interests are mostly in producing quality food. I do want to point you to a few flowers that deserve to be grown for their beauty but also because they enhance food production.

The first is a plant that I have long admired and grown. If I recall correctly, sunflower seeds were among the first things I planted as a young child. I soon learned that to enjoy their beauty, sunflowers need to be planted west of the observation point such as a front porch or living room window. If you observe sunflowers growing, you will see their heads follow the sun throughout the day. When they reach a certain point of maturity and the heads get too heavy to rotate, the mature blooms face due east.

While I greatly enjoy growing the tall regal mammoth type of sunflower, if your goal is seed production for harvest, a more moderate-sized sunflower will give better results. Sunflowers bred for high production are usually 4-6 feet (1-2 m) tall with heads 6”-8” (15-20 cm) across.

The problem with the mammoth type with wide heads greater than 12 inches (30 cm) is that the seed maturity varies a great deal across the head. In humid climates, the top of the sunflower head will pool water and often rot before the seed is completely mature. This can be prevented by harvesting the heads and hanging them under a roof to finish maturing, but is typically not necessary for varieties bred for seed production.

Beyond the giants and commercial seed producers, there are many other varieties of sunflowers to enjoy. Sunflowers are widely used in the cut flower trade and can be the basis for many a beautiful bouquet. If this is your primary purpose for growing sunflowers, you should try some female-only sunflower seeds. Plants with only female characteristics are largely free of pollen so are less apt to contribute to allergies and will last longer in a vase.

The classic sunflowers have a fringe of oval petals around a large seed-producing interior. But for the cut flower trade there are some varieties available with much smaller centers combined with thousands of smaller petals, creating a soft, fluffy appearance.

Regardless of the variety grown, sunflowers have benefit beyond the production of seeds and blossoms. Most sunflowers produce copious amounts of pollen and nectar for foraging pollinator insects. Plant a few different varieties to spread out the pollen flow through a longer period of time. Sunflowers are also known for the soil conditioning effect of their roots. They are known to produce large root systems and have fewer nutrient needs for the mass produced than a grass plant such as corn, making them excellent additions to many cover crop plans.

An acquaintance of mine made unique use of sunflowers to irrigate raised beds. He was gardening in an area with heavy soil that often held too much moisture for sensitive crops such as peppers and cucumbers. When he built raised beds, he found that the tops of the beds were often too dry for young plants, and he did not have a source of water for irrigation. One year he had an idea. He mowed off a couple rows of sunflowers about 8 inches high. Then, using a rotary power plow, he covered them with soil from both sides.

The results were impressive. The following spring he was able to plant earlier in the drier raised beds. Then, when the weather turned dry, the sunflower stems acted as wicks pulling moisture from the lower regions to water the plants. This is now a routine on his farm, and he grows acres of sunflowers in rotation with vegetable crops. In this system, he spaces sunflower rows about 6 feet (2 m) apart and maintains a solid mat of low-growing clover between the rows.

After the growing season is over, sunflower stalks are rather tough and slow to break down. This can be used to advantage, as noted above. They can also be tied in bunches and used for aeration channels in static compost piles.

Marigolds are another flower with substantial benefits in a garden beyond their obvious beauty. Many pest insects have an aversion to marigold. Interspersing marigolds throughout a garden may reduce the attraction for insects such as cucumber beetles that are attracted to even healthy plants. Marigolds are usually inexpensive to buy and easy to grow, so why not pop a few plants in between the vegetables.

Zinnia is another annual flower that I routinely grow in my garden—this one mostly for looks. While they do attract butterflies and other pollinators, I don’t know that they provide ecosystem benefits as significant as do the sunflower and marigold. Zinnias are just an easy-to-grow annual that produce an outsized amount of color. They do have a weakness for powdery mildew, so benefit from routine foliar feeding to boost health and disease resistance. In my experience, zinnias will grow well without any extra care but may succumb to powdery mildew well before frost. Spraying a 10% solution of sour milk, kefir, or yogurt can slow down the progression of powdery mildew.

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