Saturday, 11 July 2009

Sunflowers in the Garden

by Kate
Living The Frugal Life

One of the few kinds of flowers I go out of my way to include in my garden each year is the sunflower. Irrepressibly cheerful, these sturdy plants shrug off aphid attacks and will struggle back from the most fatal looking damage to tiny seedlings. I love sunflowers for their visual appeal, but also for the many services they provide.

When in bloom, sunflowers offer nectar for honeybees, other bees, and other insects that pollinate my vegetables. Because the sunflowers are so attractive to aphids, these pests largely ignore my other plants. Paradoxically, the ready habitat for aphids means a better balance between predator insects and pests. Without plenty of food for predatory insects to munch on, they wouldn't spend much time in my garden.

The sturdy stalks of sunflowers can also support peas or beans that like to climb. I never seem to have enough trellis space for climbing plants, so this is much appreciated, particularly for late season peas.

Once the sunflowers have bloomed and the heads have slumped to face the ground, I know the seeds are mature. The fringe around the head also turns pale yellow at this point. That's when I cut the heads and let them dry in the garage. These seed heads provide food to those birds that winter over in our chilly climate. I place them just outside our living room window so that I can watch them during the housebound months. Free bird food when the feathered ones need it the most! I like feeling this intimate connection with nature in the depths of winter. Something that I grew and saved is helping keep these tiny and beautiful creatures alive. They also disperse the seeds all over my property so that there are plenty of volunteers in mid-spring. I rarely need to germinate seeds myself. If you leave the seed heads in place on the stalk, the squirrels will be happy to eat them too.

Sunflowers can of course produce food for humans. There are specific varieties bred to produce exceptionally large and oily seeds for cooking oil. I'm told that the fibers of the heavy stalk also make an excellent paper, for those of you who enjoy the papermaking craft. So far I haven't pursued these possibilities, but the papermaking is somewhat tempting.

These multiple uses of the sunflower illustrate the "stacking" principle I apply to candidate species for my garden. However pretty, a flower that I can't eat must give me a few good reasons to give it space in my garden. It's also a useful exercise to really examine all the "work" that any given plant can do. Even a non-edible plant may perform several essential functions that greatly enhance your garden. Knowing the many services that each plant provides is extremely satisfying to me too.

Important to bear in mind with sunflowers are their allelopathic qualities. Allelopathy is the ability of a plant to create chemicals which deter other plants from growing near them. These chemicals are most often deployed underground where they will affect the root systems of competing plants. Walnut trees and their close relatives are probably best known for this ability, but all plants use allelopathy to one degree or another. The allelopathic chemicals produced by sunflowers are nowhere near as potent as those of the walnut, but they're respectable enough to be taken into consideration.

Fortunately, a sunflower's tall habit means you will probably want to situate them at the poleward edge of your garden each year (e.g. north edge in the northern hemisphere, south edge in the southern hemisphere). The allelopathic chemicals which build up in this border area over the years will help to keep other plants from encroaching there. Even when a plant is unfriendly I can turn it to my advantage!

What non-edible plants have earned a place in your garden? And why?