Annual Sunflowers in Perennial Borders

As Christmas nears, visions of annual sunflowers are dancing in my head. I’m thinking about what I want to change in my main flower border along the driveway.

Sunflower 'Italian White'
Sunflower ‘Italian White’.  Photo: California Horticultural Society

I’ve grown native perennial sunflowers, but they have been a disappointment. Surprisingly, western sunflower (Helianthus occidentalus) has been unable to compete with the other border plants, and has almost disappeared. Downy sunflower (Helianthus mollis) has grown to monstrous height, but the quantity and quality of flowers has been unimpressive.

So I’m thinking annual sunflowers. Specifically, I’m thinking of ‘Italian White’ a cream-colored, multi-branched annual that grows to 5-6′. I grew ‘Italian White’ at the house we lived in before temporarily moving to Wisconsin. It grew just in front of a south-facing picture window, which enabled us to watch the goldfinches up close as they fed on the seeds. That was in the first year of a new bed. Unfortunately, in the second year ‘Italian White’ did not grow well. While it self-sowed, the seedlings were shaded by the early perennials to the point that the stems were falling over.

Sunflowers at Giverney.Photo:
Sunflowers at Giverney.

But there must be a way to successfully include annual sunflowers in a perennial border without the sunflower seedlings getting excessive shade. I am inspired by how Money included sunflowers in his borders at Giverney. The only solution I can think of is starting the seeds indoors so that they get a head start on their perennial competition.

Have you tried growing annual sunflowers with perennials in your garden? How did you ensure the young plants got enough sun, and how did it work out?


14 Comments on “Annual Sunflowers in Perennial Borders”

  1. We had sunflowers everywhere this spring, on the paths, in the gardens, in the shady beds…couldn’t figure it out. But it was the birds, and the squirrels that did it. Amazing that the sunflowers did the best of all the plants. I have grown Italian White, loved it.

    I noticed that the sunflowers that grew in the beds did fine, they were just there as a seed, but I would think if you had starter plants they might do better.


  2. I have heard that it is better to plant seeds directly in the ground, not start them indoors and then plant them. I have no idea if that really matters. I usually just stick seeds in the ground, right in the perennial border, and they grow without any problem until the rabbits eat the seedlings and that’s the end of that. Shading out has not been a problem for me but of course our climates are so different. Good luck! I have found the giant annual sunflowers just to big for my space but the dwarf ones are fantastic.

  3. Sunflower is one which thrives a wider range of temperatures, as we have them here too. But we sow them before the dry season begins to make use of soil moisture while it is growing, when it is planted later the mildews will get them first. Jason, it looks like you are not in deep winter yet!

  4. Hi Jason, I grew some really interesting dark sunflowers in with my peas a couple of years back. They were called Earth Walker. I thought I had sown those directly into the ground, but thinking back I did actually sow them indoors first and planted them in with the peas when they were quite big, around 6 inches. I think some sunflowers are just easier to grow than others. I’ve had them magically appear from birdseed too, so you could always sprinkle some of those seeds into your borders and see what happens? I have also grown them by sowing directly into the ground and have covered them with cloches made from plastic drink bottles while they were still small. That might help them get the space and warmth they need while they are growing in your borders? The ones at Giverney look beautiful. I am going to work on my wildflower border in 2013 year and I think I’ll give it a try. Thanks for the inspiration!

  5. I planted short sunflowers (about 5 feet high) in the weedy meadow behind us, where the grasses and asters and other meadow plants outcompete them. So I started them indoors first, then planted them as seedlings. I had to cage them with tomato cages wrapped in netting so the rabbits would not mow them down. A lot of work for a casual looking plant supposedly “naturalizing” an untended meadow! I might try Anna B’s approach of direct sowing under a plastic drink cloche. That seems like it might be easier. Your Italian white sunflower is intriguing.

  6. I start growing sunflowers in seedling pots in early summer and they get away quickly. I plant them out in the less crowded parts of the garden if available. The sunflowers that do well are those that grow in more open areas of soil (newly planted/dug borders) or where the perennials are limited in height so the sunflower can grow and tower above them (low shrubs etc).

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