Garden Gossip with Ted Smith

Those of you who frequent the Gypsy Family Farm booth at the local farmers’ market are likely quite aware that cut flowers are one of the products we often have available for sale. As nice as it would be to sell out of flowers every week, the truth is that it’s quite common for a few leftover bunches of flowers to make the trip home with us. These flowers invariably spend the next week gracing the kitchen table and putting a smile on our face every time we look at them. While admiring this week’s bouquet it came to me that while we talk quite a bit about gardening, food and ornamentals in this column, we really never talk about bringing the fruits of our labours into the house for decorative purposes. With that in mind it’s time to take a look at the side of gardening that provides a little food for the soul.

Perhaps the best place to start this quest is with the very flowers that gave rise to the idea. Maximilian sunflowers are a spectacular North American native perennial that should absolutely be in every single area garden. The Maximilian sunflowers in my garden start to bloom in early September and continue right through until they experience a hard freeze. The only real problem I’ve had with Maximilian sunflowers is their height. These plants can get well over two meters in height and by late fall each stalk can be topped by as much as a couple dozen flower heads. This is a poor combination for a plant being grown in a high wind area. I have read that if you pinch out the plant’s tip at about a meter in height the plant will branch out and flower even more prolifically. It’s hard to imagine even more flowers than we already get on a plant but I’m going to try hard to remember and try this next year. One of the special aspects of this plant is that it is a terrific food source for so many creatures at a time of year when most other plants are in the process of shutting down. While in bloom, the Maximilian sunflower draws all sorts of butterflies, bees and other pollinators. In fact, the Maximilian sunflower is said by experts to have significant “special value” to native bees. This alone is enough reason to make it an important flower to plant. After the flowers are spent, the seeds ripen and draw goldfinches from far and wide. Many other small song birds also line up to take advantage of this late season bonanza. Of course, we can’t leave all the flowers to feed the wild creatures. The point of this article is to explore plants that excel in vases and Maximilian sunflowers may indeed be one of the best. With the flowers growing in clusters atop long stems, Maximilian sunflowers appear to be made for cutting. Thin strap-like leaves provide just enough foliage to keep things interesting without overpowering your arrangement. The stems themselves are mildly twisted and arched, adding an air of structure to things. Even the butter yellow petals twist and curl as if they were grown just to stimulate our senses.

Getting started with Maximilian sunflowers is pretty easy. Seeds and potted plants are both widely available. Alternatively, if you have a garden friend with an established clump it’s very easy to dig up a couple of rooted stems and transplant them. Careful watering while the new plants are getting established is important but after this you will find Maximilians to be very drought tolerant. They do like to grow in moist clay soils but are capable of thriving in just about anything you throw at them. The one chore you may want to tackle with your Maximilian sunflower effort is the addition of sturdy stakes or fencing to help keep the heavy stalks upright. So far I’ve allowed my Maximilians to sprawl and spread at will but one day perhaps I’ll get a little control over things out there.

If you plan to start your Maximilian sunflowers from seed, you’ll find that it’s not very difficult. Seed germination may be somewhat sporadic but most seed packets contain more than enough to guarantee several plants. Really, all you need is one and from there you’ll find it easy to divide and multiply. Seeds purchased from a reputable seed supplier should come already stratified but if you are saving seeds from a locally grown plant (assuming you’ve outsmarted the local goldfinches) you will need to ensure that the seeds are exposed to at least six weeks of cold before planting them. Placing the seeds in a Ziplock bag with a small amount of damp sand or peat and refrigerating them should do the trick. In March your seeds can be planted in seedling trays and kept warm and humid until germination occurs. From here they can be grown out under lights and transplanted into the garden after all danger of frost has passed. Most Maximilian sunflowers will actually bloom the first year.

The most important thing to remember when growing Maximilian sunflowers is to be sure and bring fresh bouquets into the house where they can be fully enjoyed by everyone!