Growing sunflowers

by Kate Bradbury

We're challenging you to grow the world's tallest sunflower. The current world record for the tallest flower stands at 8.03m, and is held by German flight attendant Hans Peter Schiffer...

Sunflowers The April 2011 issue of Gardeners' World magazine comes with two packets of free seeds: sweet peas and sunflowers. The sunflower variety, 'Russian Giant' promises to reach a height of around 2m, but we think it can do a little better than that.

We're challenging you to grow the world's tallest sunflower. The current world record stands at 8.03m, and is held by German flight attendant Hans Peter Schiffer. He took the record in 2009, but it's not been held by a Brit since 1976 (that was Frank Kelland, from Exeter, who fed his plants using liquid manure and water from his washing up bowl due to the drought). Wouldn't it be lovely if we brought the record back home?

We're all joining in at Gardeners' World magazine, and I'm keen to beat the likes of Adam Pasco and David Hurrion. I'll be growing my plants organically, and - for an extra challenge - the plants will be grown in my garden, which gets just two hours of direct sunlight a day. Although they're supposed to be grown in full sun, I'm not worried - there's a theory that the lack of light 'forces' sunflowers to grow taller, and some would-be record-breakers place upturned plant pots over their sunflowers to achieve the same effect. Last year I grew a sunflower to a height of about about 2.5m without trying, only for the autumn winds to blow its head off two days after it flowered (I'll need to work on avoiding that this year).

So how does one set about growing a record-breaking sunflower? Well, sow the seeds for a start. You can sow direct in the soil or raise them in pots indoors to transplant later. Sowing direct is generally the preferred method, as the sunflowers don't suffer a 'check' in growth when transplanted. However the young plants are at risk of being eaten by slugs and birds, so I'll be raising mine indoors in a peat-free sowing compost.

After that, I don't really know. In the past I've just planted them out and given them a good water when they've needed it. I've never fed a sunflower (I don't feed flowers, as a rule). A record breaking flower will need more attention though. Hans suggests daily watering and regular feeding, and swears by growing the plants in a cocktail of home-made compost and chopped raw potatoes, plus wood chips and bark. (For more of his tips, download the growing instructions from the magazine.)

Conveniently, there's a bucket of sludge sat in my garden at the moment, which I haven't got around to doing something with. Partially decomposed kitchen waste, I removed it from the overflowing compost bin to make space for a winter's worth of scraps. It's too moist to sieve and too chunky to spread around the garden. But it will be transformed into something nicer soon as it's full of worms (if Sid the blackbird, who's doing a good job of spreading the compost around the patio looking for worms, doesn't eat them all). I think I'll grow one plant in the bucket sludge. Moist and rich, it's bound to produce me a winner.

More sunflowers will be grown against the south-facing wall in the border in regular garden soil, with a generous mulch of compost. Despite getting such little sun, the wall warms up quickly, so should keep plants warm at night, aiding growth. All plants will be given a weekly nitrogen-rich nettle feed to encourage stem and leaf growth. I'll stake them from the start and rig up some sort of protection from the wind (I'll blog about this when I've worked out what I'll do).

I'll also be hatching plans to sabotage the efforts of Adam and David, while paying more attention to Sid, who seems determined to sabotage mine. So, with a bucket of sludge, a blackbird prone to removing seedlings to reach worms and two hours of sunlight a day, nothing could possibly go wrong.

Will you be taking part in our challenge to grow a record-breaking sunflower? If so, send photos of your progress by email. Find out how to enter here.

May the best grower win.

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Talkback: Growing sunflowers
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Gardeners' World Web User 25/03/2011 at 11:14

Well Kate, you can only do your best, but whether that will be enough to grow a sunflower taller than David and I only time will tell. And I think we'll have some competition out there too. As all our readers will be getting a free packet of sunflower seeds with their April issue, thousands are set to be sown over the coming weeks. Let's hope there's a Record Breaker among them! Good luck everyone.

Gardeners' World Web User 25/03/2011 at 14:35

Based on this inside information I am now well armed to beat you in the sunflower stakes, Ms Bradbury. My plans now include improving the soil with elephant dung, fixing up a 24hr sun lamp and planting my seedlings at the base of a 4m length of rainwater downpipe (to force them to grow up in search of the light!). Seriously though Kate, my last efforts at growing giant sunflowers were scuppered by marauding molluscs... I may come round and tip some over your wall if the competition gets serious!

Gardeners' World Web User 26/03/2011 at 21:16

Can't wait to get my seeds and start sowing. I don't envy your lack of sun, Kate. I've got a great spot at the side of my garage which gets sun for most of the day. Not sure if 8m is achievable, but there's only one way to find out.. Happy growing everyone, let the battle commence!

Gardeners' World Web User 27/03/2011 at 11:00

Got my seeds, when can I so direct?

Gardeners' World Web User 27/03/2011 at 20:21

if i dont want to grow a giant,then what varieties can i sow that will produce those smaller types that are now commonly seen as cut flowers?

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