Gardening: Why sunflowers are ideal for children and beginners

Last year's choice, Pastiche.
Last year's choice, Pastiche.

Sunflowers are one of my all-time favourites, so I’m growing three varieties this year for a long season of colour.

They’re very easy to grow, and come in all shapes and sizes, from knee-high to house-size giants.

Velvet Queen, Valentine and Dwarf Yellow Spray packets.

Velvet Queen, Valentine and Dwarf Yellow Spray packets.

If you want to get the children interested in gardening, or want something easy to have a go with if you’re a beginner, you couldn’t choose a better flower.

Sunflowers are suitable for borders, beds and pots, especially when combined with other easy annuals such as Cosmos, Nasturtium or cornflowers.

They are long-lasting whether used in the garden or as cut flowers and attract beneficial insects. Their spent heads can be left on to feed birds throughout winter.

As the name suggests, they need full sun and the flower heads will track the sun, so be careful where you plant them or your neighbours may get the benefit if they look over the fence.

Seeds sown on the heat mat.

Seeds sown on the heat mat.

Here are this year’s choices – last year I chose multi-headed mix Pastiche, which was excellent:

Velvet Queen

A stunning mix in shades of red to dark claret, with a chocolate centre. Height 180cm, Mr Fothergill’s, approximately 30 seeds, £2.29.

Valentine

Bright lemon yellow, 15cm flowers with a black disc. Cut flowers last up to 18 days. Height 1.5m, Thompson & Morgan, approximately 18 seeds, £2.99.

Dwarf Yellow Spray

The neat, dwarf habit can be used to create an unusual hedge. Height 45-60cm, Thompson & Morgan, approximately 30 seeds, £2.99.

Sow seeds indoors from now until the end of May, 1.5cm deep, individually in small pots of compost (I use recycled yoghurt/rice pots) at about 20C in a windowsill or propagator. Once germination takes place, give seedlings as much light as possible and grow on in cooler conditions (an unheated greenhouse, cold frame or sunny porch is ideal).

At the end of May, gradually accustom plants to the outside conditions before then planting out 45cm apart.

You can also sow direct outdoors where they are to flower, in May/early June. Sow two seeds together every 45cm and remove the weaker plant, which can be transplanted.

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JOBS TO DO THIS WEEK

As climbing roses send out shoots, pull them down to the horizontal. This will encourage flowering shoots to emerge all along the stem.

The soil is still pretty cold after a terrible winter, so delay seed sowing outdoors until you can see weeds growing strongly – a good sign that things are starting to warm up at last.

As weeds start to emerge and flourish, hoe regularly to stop them becoming a problem. Remember to check under cloches too. Weeds grow particularly well in the warm conditions. Get to know what vegetable seedlings look like, so you don’t hoe them off by mistake.

Dig in overwintered green manures three to four weeks before you want to use the ground. Using a sharp spade, turn the plants back into the soil, chopping them up as you go.

Pot on dahlia and begonia tubers and pinch out tips of fuchsias and other half-hardy plants.

Sow perennials in modules or small pots. Prick out once leaves are large enough to handle. Plant out when well-established. Some perennials may flower this year, others will take longer.

Plant up hanging baskets. This gives them plenty of time to bulk up. If you use fuchsias, remember that they prefer shadier conditions, so sit them under the staging out of direct sunlight.

Pest populations usually start to increase dramatically now. Be vigilant and don’t allow infestations to build up. Use organic treatments, such as insecticidal soap, to control problems until the temperatures are warm enough for biological controls to be introduced.

Once it’s warm enough, introduce biological controls in the greenhouse. Use the predatory mite Phytoselius to control red spider mite, the tiny wasp Aphidius for aphids and the predatory mite Hypoaspis for control of sciarid fly.

If your lawn is filled with moss, now’s the time to address the situation, as it’s a symptom of an underlying problem. Compaction, too-close mowing, acid conditions, heavy shade and damp conditions will trigger moss development. Identify the problem, then resolve it.

Hard-prune shrubby herbs such as sage, cotton lavender (Santolina), bay and rue. This will encourage vigorous new growth and side-shoots. Trim old stems from marjoram and savory, if not already done.

Prune lavender into shape, taking care not to cut into the old wood. Offcuts can be used as softwood cuttings. Old, woody plants are best removed.