Bee and sunflower

Growing sunflowers for bees, birds and other wildlife

Spring is the time to sow and plant sunflowers – and the bees, birds and other wildlife will love you for it.
  Published:  02 Apr 2018    |      3 minute read

Sunflowers are fascinating plants, and a valuable food source for birds, bees and insects. They're also very easy to grow, so give them a try and enjoy a little extra dose of nature in your life.

Did you know?

Sunflowers can grow to astounding heights – the world record for the tallest stands at a staggering 30 feet.

There are over 70 different varieties of sunflower including the Russian mammoth, the elf, the teddy bear and the moulin rouge.

Sunflowers have many uses. The seeds provide food for us and wild birds, under-threat British bees love the pollen and nectar - and sunflower oil is extracted for cooking and use in beauty products. Native Americans used certain types of sunflower medicinally for respiratory ailments.

Are the wildlife facts you thought you knew true?

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

Girl and sunflowers

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 fun, great value and the wildlife will love you for it.

Early sowing indoors

  • Grow indoors in small pots of peat-free compost from early April onwards.
  • Sow 2 seeds together, about 1.5 cm deep, and water well. Grow on a windowsill, where it's sunny and warm, and keep moist.
  • The seedlings should appear after 14-21 days.
  • Transfer seedlings to a larger container, which you can move outside when the risk of frost is over – usually late May onwards. If you plant more than one seedlings per pot, leave 45 cm between them .
  • 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 too windy.
  • Prepare the soil 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 5 cm deep. Sow two seeds together and cover with 1.5 cm of soil. Firm gently and water.
  • Leave 45 cm between seeds. Seedlings should show within 14-21 days.
  • Thin seedlings, leaving 45 cm between them.
  • Protect the seedlings from slugs and snails by cutting the top off a plastic bottle and placing it over your seedlings.
  • As your sunflower begins to grow taller, you will need to support the stem. Firm a cane into the soil, near the stem, and loosely tie it to the plant with string.
  • Watch your sunflower grow!
Greenfinches fighting over sunflower seeds
Greenfinches fighting over sunflower seeds
Credit: iStock

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.

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

Are the wildlife facts you thought you knew true?

7 top tips for growing sunflowers

  1. You don’t need a garden Sunflowers will grow in pots but need space, as well as - yep, you guessed it - plenty of sun.
  2. Try growing different varieties Different bees like different sunflower varieties, so try out a few different ones. Take a look at Alys Fowler's favourite sunflowers. Red sunflowers aren't thought to be so attractive to bees.
  3. 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.
  4. Try pollinator-friendly varieties Two varieties recommended by the Royal Horticultural Society’s Perfect for Pollinators plant list are the common sunflower (Helianthus annuus) and the cucumber leaf sunflower (Helianthus debilis).
  5. Consider flowering times Bees need food all year round. Early sunflowers, generally dwarf varieties, come out in late June. Others, like the perennial sunflower, bloom later in September and October.
  6. Leave flowers to turn to seeds in autumn and winter Let the birds feast on them.
  7. Cut and dry the stems Use the stems to create a bee hotel once flowering is over. And leaving the roots in will return nutrients to the soil.

Goldfinch eating sunflower seeds
Goldfinch eating sunflower seeds
Credit: iStock