Growing sunflowers for bees, birds and other wildlife

Paul de Zylva

06 April 2016

Spring is the time to sow and plant sunflowers - and the bees, birds and other wildlife will love you for it.

They are fascinating things, sunflowers.

They can grow to astounding heights - the world record for the tallest sunflower currently stands at a staggering 30 feet. 

There are over 70 different varieties of sunflower including the giant, the smooth, the hairy and the swamp.

They have many uses. Sunflower seeds provide food for us and for wildlife - and sunflower oil is extracted for cooking and for use in beauty products.

Traditionally, native Americans used certain types of sunflower medicinally for respiratory ailments too. 

Sunflowers are also easy to grow and many are brilliant for bees, birds and other wildlife

Growing sunflowers makes a great children's activity - why not give it a go this spring?

bee flying towards a sunflower
Help bees by growing sunflowers

Join the generation that
saves our bees

Growing sunflowers from seed

Vincent Van Gogh's most famous painting, Sunflowers, is worth millions. Fortunately, you can get your own sunflowers for a more down-to-earth price. 

Growing sunflowers from seed is great value and the wildlife will love you for it.

Early sowing in pots

  • Grow indoors in small pots of peat-free compost from early April onwards, to avoid frosts.
  • Sow 2 seeds together, push them into the compost and cover with about 1.5cm of compost. Water well and keep moist.
  • The seedlings should appear after 14-21 days.
  • If planting more than one sunflower in a larger container which they will stay in when you move them outside, leave about 45cm between each seed/seedling.
  • If planting in the ground, wait until the risk of frost is over – usually late May onwards. Acclimatise the plants by leaving them outside in their pots for a few days.
  • Choose a sunny spot and one that’s not exposed to high winds.
  • Prepare the soil where they will grow by removing weeds and adding peat-free compost.
  • Plant and water well.

Later sowing outside

  • When the risk of frost is over, you can sow seeds straight into the ground or into large pots and containers - follow the same guidance as above.
  • Dig 5cm deep. Sow two seeds together and cover over with 1.5cm of soil. Firm gently and water.
  • Leave 45cm between each seed position. Seedlings should show within 14-21 days.
  • Remove one of the seedlings, leaving one per position. Re-plant the ones you remove elsewhere leaving a 45cm gap.
     

Greenfinches (Chloris chloris) fighting over a sunflower
Greenfinches fighting over sunflower seeds
 

Plant sunflowers and attract wildlife

The brightly coloured petals shout "Oi! Over here!" to bees and other pollinators like hoverflies, directing them to the central spirals of the sunflower. 

These are formed of many hundreds of small tubular flowers, packed with nectar and pollen.

Honey bee covered in sunflower pollen
Honey bee covered in sunflower pollen

The insects get covered in pollen as they feed. Pollination by wild bumblebees and bee species with longer tongues especially helps the plant produce more quality seed.

7 top tips for growing sunflowers

  • You don’t need a garden. Sunflowers will grow in pots but need space, as well as - yep, you guessed it - plenty of sun.
     
  • Try growing different varieties. Different bees like certain types of sunflower, so it's a good idea to try out a few different ones. Take a look at Alys Fowler's favourite sunflowers. Red sunflowers aren't thought to be as attractive to bees.
     
  • Keep a sunflower diary with your children. You could include notes, drawings, paintings and photos. How much has your sunflower grown this week? Which bees like your sunflower the best? This makes a fun activity at home or at school.
     
  • Two varieties recommended by the Royal Horticultural Society’s Perfect for Pollinators plant list are Helianthus annuus (Common sunflower) and Helianthus debilis (Cucumber leaf sunflower).
     
  • Consider flowering times, as bees need food all year round. Early sunflowers, generally dwarf varieties, come out in late June. Others like the perennial sunflower bloom in September and October.
     
  • Leave flowers to turn to seeds in autumn and winter and let the birds feast on them.
     
  • Cut off the stems and dry them to create a bee hotel once flowering is over. Leaving the roots in will return nutrients to the soil.
European goldfinch Carduelis carduelis
Goldfinch eating sunflower seeds

Join the generation that
saves our bees

Paul De Zylva is Senior Campaigner on Nature at Friends of the Earth

Bee with sunflower smiling