Hi, Ashley from Vail Family Farm here. When I started my flower farm last year, I placed sunflowers at the top of my list for cut flowers. Sunflowers got the top spot on my growing list because they grow so quickly, they come in a variety of colors, and they are easy to start both indoors and directly in the ground.
Sunflowers are hardy and perfect for the beginning grower. They also happen to be the state flower for Kansas, where our farm is located, and they are a flower that just about everyone can appreciate. I've never seen anybody that didn't grin after being handed a bouquet of sunshine in a mason jar, and that is exactly what sunflowers are!
Which sunflowers are best for cut flowers?
When I first decided to plant sunflowers, I wanted every color and variety available for cut flowers. I quickly learned that many varieties just weren't a good fit for what I was trying to accomplish; bouquets of flowers sold directly to customers.
Branching sunflowers vs. Non-branching sunflowers for cut flowers
There are two types of sunflowers and those are branching and non-branching. Branching varieties require a minimum of 18 inches of spacing, so they aren't an ideal fit for our farm as we are limited on space.
However, many growers and flower farmers use branching sunflower varieties on their farms. An advantage to branching varieties is that they produce more blooms per plant. We purchased a trial packet of Buttercream for 2022, which is a pollen-less, branching variety that we are excited to test.
Which sunflowers are best for cut flowers?
After researching what would be a good fit for my customers, I quickly settled on the ProCut sunflower series. ProCut sunflowers are non-branching and produce a single bloom. Because they produce a single bloom, do not pinch! The ProCut series was specifically developed for cut flower production.
This series comes in a variety of colors and grows at a rapid pace going from seed to bloom in just 50-60 days! The ProCut series is also pollenless, which was a very important consideration depending on your purpose for growing. The last thing we wanted to do was deliver a bouquet to a customer that would end up dumping pollen on grandma's best tablecloth!
There are four varieties of ProCut sunflowers that we grow at Vail Family Farm,
1. ProCut Orange - a classic sunflower with dark, orange, saturated petals and a dark brown center
2. ProCut Plum - has muted purple petals that softly transition to a pale cream tip. We have found that this flower works well when paired with softer toned varieties, and it also made for a great transition to the fall season
3. ProCut White Nite - one of our best-selling varieties. The centers are dark brown, and the petals of this flower are a pale yellow that was so soft it often looked white
4. ProCut Red/Lemon Bicolor - produces large flower heads with a dark brown center and petals that start red and quickly change to lemon-colored tips. This variety paired well with zinnias and just about every filler flower in the field. This variety was also excellent to use as we transitioned to fall.
Succession Planting Sunflowers from Seed
Because the ProCut series and other non-branching varieties only produce single stem and bloom, seeds must be started in succession for a continual harvest. At Vail Family Farm, we plant a round of sunflowers every week to ensure that we have blooms every week for our farmer's market customers.
Every Sunday, starting two weeks before the last frost in our growing zone 6b, four trays or 288 seeds are started in trays. Seeds are continually sown weekly until the first or second week of August.
Remember, seeds take 50-60 days to produce a bloom, so we stop in August because our first frost happens around the middle of October in our growing zone. Sunflowers are a heat-loving plant, and they will not tolerate frost.
Wherever you are, you can count back roughly two months to determine the last date to plant your seeds. If you feel like taking a chance, sunflowers are easy to grow and start. You can even push the boundaries of your zone and start some near the end of the growing season. Our first frost ended up being much later than anticipated!
For the 2021 season, we planted our sunflowers in raised beds. Most other flowers in our fields are spaced 9 inches apart, but that will not work for sunflowers going into bouquets. You can control the size of your sunflower single stem blooms based on how far apart they are spaced.
Sunflowers grown 9 inches apart would result in gorgeous, HUGE sunflower heads. While they would be pretty, they would not work for our purpose. We grow our sunflowers spaced 6 inches apart on center. This plant spacing results in 2-6 inch flower heads with perfect-sized stems for bouquet use.
Another advantage to growing ProCut sunflowers is that they grow so quickly they often outgrow the weeds and prevent the sun from allowing the weeds to thrive. We have found we only need to weed once before the seedlings take off. Sowing indoors using cell trays also gives the seedlings a head start on weed pressure.
Harvesting Single Stem Sunflowers for Cut Flowers
When it comes time to harvest, cut towards the base of the flower but leave enough stem in the ground to pull the root ball and remove it for replanting in the same place. Stems will be long, but more stem length can be cut off when arranging.
Take care when harvesting the White Nite variety, as their blooms are more fragile than their ProCut counterparts.
Sunflowers should be harvested as soon as the petals start to lift from the center disc. If the sunflower is fully open, the vase life will be drastically shortened, and the petals may fall from the disc a short time after harvest. Make sure to use a sharp pair of pruners or snips to cut the stems. Remove the bottom three-fourths of leaves from the stem and place them in a clean bucket.
Sunflowers can be stored in a cool room but not in a cooler. We store our sunflowers in our basement out of direct sunlight until market time. We generally harvest within 24-48 hours of the farmer's market or before delivering to customers. The yellow petals that have not yet lifted will open within the next day after cutting.
Arranging Bouquets with Sunflowers
We have found that sunflowers pair well with zinnias, celosia, and all types of amaranth. We also use 2-3 sunflowers in our mixed bouquets. We primarily use them as the focal flowers in our mixed bouquets for the farmer's market, but we also plan to sell them in straight bunches for the 2022 season.
We rarely have to market the sunflowers; they do a great job selling themselves! Our customers gravitate towards the plum and bi-color varieties. We will plant more red shades toward the end of the season as they make a striking statement and usher in the fall season.
Growing sunflowers as cut flowers
Sunflowers are an excellent option for cut flower growers or as part of a cutting garden, especially during the shoulder seasons when not much else in the field is blooming.
We use our sunflowers to carry us through June, as that month here in Kansas is when all other crops are still small. Sunflowers are steady, reliable, and a true workhorse for any cut flower garden. We wish you all the luck with your sunflowers this coming season. Happy growing!