How to Grow Sunflowers: The Complete Guide

a field of sunflowers with the heads of the yellow flowers with brown centers facing the sun
Photo Credit
Botanical Name
Helianthus annuus
Plant Type
Sun Exposure
Bloom Time
Flower Color

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Planting, Growing, and Caring for Sunflowers

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With bright blooms that go all summer, sunflowers are heat-tolerant, resistant to pests, and attractive to pollinators. Harvest the seeds in late summer and fall for a healthy snack, or feed them to the birds! Learn how to plant, grow, and care for sunflowers.

About Sunflowers

The sunflower (Helianthus annuus) is an annual plant with a sizeable daisy-like flower face. Its scientific name comes from the Greek words helios (“sun”) and anthos (“flower”). The flowers come in many colors (yellow, red, orange, maroon, brown), but they are commonly bright yellow with brown centers that ripen into heavy heads filled with seeds.  Sunflowers make excellent cut flowers, and many attract bees, birds, and butterflies.

Sunflowers are heliotropic, which means that they turn their flowers to follow the movement of the Sun across the sky from east to west and then return at night to face the east, ready again for the morning sun. Heliotropism happens during the earlier stages before the flower grows heavy with seeds.

There are tons of varieties of sunflowers available today, so there’s bound to be one that fits your garden. Choose between those with branching stems or single stems, those that produce ample pollen for pollinators or are pollen-free (best for bouquets), those that stay small or tower above the rest of the garden, or those that produce edible seeds!  Learn why you should start growing these happy flowers in your garden.

Here and yonder, high and low, 
Goldenrod and sunflowers glow. 
–Robert Kelley Weeks (1840–76)

How Long Do Sunflowers Take to Bloom?

A reasonably fast-growing flower for its size, most sunflower varieties mature in only 70 to 95 days. The largest sunflower varieties grow to over 16 feet tall, while smaller varieties have been developed for small spaces and containers and rarely grow larger than a foot tall! The flower heads can reach over 12 inches in diameter within the large seeded varieties.


First and foremost, find a sunny spot! Sunflowers grow best in locations with direct sunlight (6 to 8 hours per day); they require long, warm summers to flower well. Shelter from strong winds—for example, along a fence or near a building—helps as they mature. Larger varieties may become top-heavy, and a strong wind can topple them.

Choose a location with well-draining soil. The planting spot shouldn’t pool with water after it rains. Otherwise, sunflowers aren’t too picky about soil, but the soil shouldn’t be too compacted for the best results. They have long tap roots that need to stretch out; in preparing a bed, dig down or till 2 feet in depth and about 3 feet across. They’re not too fussy when it comes to soil pH, either. Sunflowers thrive in slightly acidic to somewhat alkaline soil (pH 6.0 to 7.5).

Sunflowers are heavy feeders, so the soil needs to be nutrient-rich with organic matter or composted (aged) manure. Or, work in a slow-release granular fertilizer 8 inches deep into your soil.

Plant sunflowers in a spot sheltered from strong winds, perhaps along a fence or building. Larger varieties may become top-heavy, and a strong wind can be devastating.

Before choosing a planting site, decide whether or not you want to grow a sunflower tower—a fun project for kids!

When to Plant Sunflowers

  • It’s best to sow sunflower seeds directly into the garden (or outdoor containers) after the danger of spring frost has passed, anytime after soils have warmed to at least 50°F (10°C).
  • In the northern half of the U.S. and in Canada, this will fall between April and mid-June. In the South, this will probably occur in mid-March or early April. 
  • Sunflowers dislike having their roots disturbed, so we recommend direct sowing instead of transplanting.

field of Sunflowers

Planting Sunflower Seeds

  • Sunflowers should be planted 1 to 1½ inches deep and about 6 inches apart after the soil has thoroughly warmed. If you wish, you can plant multiple seeds and thin them to the strongest contenders when the plants are six inches tall. 
  • Give plants plenty of room, especially for low-growing varieties that will branch out. Make rows about 30 inches apart. (For very small varieties, plant closer together.)
  • A light application of fertilizer mixed in at planting time will encourage strong root growth to protect them from blowing over in the wind.
  • Experiment with plantings staggered over 5 to 6 weeks to keep enjoying continuous blooms.
  • If you see birds scratching around for the seeds, spread netting over the planted area until the seeds germinate. See more ways to keep birds away from your garden.

Check out this video to learn how to plant sunflowers:


  • While the plant is small, water around the roots, about 3 to 4 inches from the plant. To protect the plant, it may help to put snail or slug bait around the stem.
  • Once the plant is established, water deeply, though infrequently, to encourage deep rooting. Unless the weather is exceptionally wet or dry, water once a week with several gallons of water.
  • Feed plants only sparingly; overfertilization can cause stems to break in the fall. You can add diluted fertilizer into the water, though avoid getting the fertilizer near the plant’s base; it may help to build a moat in a circle around the plant about 18 inches out.
  • Tall species and cultivars require support. Bamboo stakes are a good choice for any plant that has a strong, single stem and needs support for a short period of time.
Red sunflower. Photo by Chris Burnett
Photo Credit: Chris Burnett


Cutting Sunflowers for Bouquets

  • For indoor bouquets, cut the main stem just before its flower bud has a chance to open to encourage side blooms.
  • Cut stems early in the morning. Harvesting flowers during the middle of the day may lead to flower wilting.
  • Strip stems of all leaves except for those closest to the flower head. Recut bottoms of stems at a 45-degree angle.
  • Handle sunflowers gently. The flowers should last at least a week in water at room temperature.
  • Arrange sunflowers in tall containers that provide good support for their heavy heads, and change the water every day to keep them fresh.

Dried sunflower heads ready to harvest the sunflower seeds

Harvesting Sunflower Seeds

At the end of the season, harvest sunflower seeds for a tasty snack and or to replant or to feed the birds in the winter! 

  • Let the flower dry on or off the stem until the back of the head turns brown, the foliage turns yellow, the petals die down, and the seeds look plump and somewhat loose.
  • With sharp scissors or pruners, cut the head off the plant (about 6 inches below the flower head). Place in a container to catch loose seeds.
  • Lie the sunflower head on a flat, clean surface and grab a bowl to hold the seeds.
  • To remove the seeds, rub your hand over the seeded area and pull them off the plant or you can use a fork. Another way to remove them is to rub the head of the sunflower across an old washboard or something similar. Just grip the head and rub it across the board as if you were washing clothes.
  • If you are going to harvest the seeds for roasting, you can cover the flowers with a light fabric (such as cheesecloth) and a rubber band to protect the heads from the birds.
  • Alternatively, you can cut the flower head early and hang the heads upside down until the seeds are dry; hang indoors or in a place that’s safe from birds and mice.
  • Rinse sunflower seeds before laying out to dry for several hours or overnight. 
  • If you’re saving seeds to replant, store them in an airtight container in a cool, dry place until you are ready to plant. 

Read our complete article on harvesting sunflower seeds here.

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Wit and Wisdom

  • Some people call sunflowers the “fourth sister,” in reference to the Three Sisters: corn, beans, and squash.
  • Some cultures see sunflowers as a symbol of courage.
  • Sunflowers were not only used for cooking by Native Americans but also for healing (the oil was used to cure skin ailments) and making clothing (yellow dye was made from the flower petals and black or blue dye from the seeds).
  • Need a bird feeder? Save whole, dry sunflower heads and set them out in winter. Birds will gladly pick at the delicious seeds!
  • Save thick sunflower stems and dry them for winter kindling.
  • An anonymous buyer paid over $39 million in 1987 for Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers.
  • The tallest sunflower ever recorded was grown in Germany in 2014. It measured in at a stunning 30 feet and 1 inch tall!
  • Kansas is “The Sunflower State.”


  • Birds and squirrels will show interest in the seeds. If you plan to use the seeds, deter critters with barrier devices. As seed heads mature and flowers droop, you can cover each one with white polyspun garden fleece.
  • If you have deer, keep them at bay with a tall wire barrier. Curious deer may bite the heads off of young sunflowers.
  • Sunflowers are relatively insect-free. A small gray moth, known as sunflower moth, sometimes lays its eggs in the blossoms. Pick the worms from the plants.
  • Downy mildew, rust, fungal leaf spot, Sclerotinia mold, and powdery mildew can also affect the plants. If fungal diseases are spotted early, spray with a general garden fungicide.
  • Other diseases that occasionally affect sunflowers include Phoma black stem, Botrytis blight, viruses, and Verticillium wilt.

Cooking Notes

Just one ounce of sunflower seeds contains about 6 grams of protein and 14 grams of oils. The fats are almost entirely unsaturated with 9g of polyunsaturated and 3g of monounsaturated fats per ounce (NSA). The oil is high in linoleic acid and is a good source of vitamin E.

  • Some varieties produce small black seeds used in cooking oil, margarine, cosmetics, and animal feed; they are the best sunflower seeds for attracting the greatest variety of songbirds.
  • The bigger, striped seeds are grown for snacking and as an ingredient in bread and health foods. They, too, are used for feeding birds, especially larger species, such as jays and mourning doves.

How to Roast Sunflower Seeds

Re-soak seeds overnight in salted water. Run through a strainer and dry on a layer of paper towels.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes at 325 degrees on a baking sheet. Seeds should be spread out in a single layer.  Stir frequently during the baking and remove seeds when they look slightly browned. Don’t burn! 

That’s it!  You can add some olive oil, salt, and spices to your roasted seeds if you wish. 

Or, you can also make suet cakes for the winter birds! See how to make suet.

About The Author

Catherine Boeckmann

Catherine Boeckmann loves nature, stargazing, and gardening so it’s not surprising that she and The Old Farmer’s Almanac found each other. She leads digital content for the Almanac website, and is also a certified master gardener in the state of Indiana. Read More from Catherine Boeckmann

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