I’ve been sowing vegetables in the greenhouse this week, going by my usual method at times of high intensity sowing, which is to say: one thing at a time. I concentrated on sowing five different courgettes on Monday, put in a second lot of peas on Tuesday, sowed some radishes in a quick tea break on Wednesday, and so on. When there isn’t time to devote a whole day to it, I find this is the way to slowly but surely work through my list. All this sowing of wholesome future greenery is of course a lovely and exciting thing to do, but in my mind a little warning has been sounding: what good is an allotment without sunflowers? Because this time last year I sowed all of my vegetables but forgot to sow sunflowers. I had a reasonable harvest – some things were brilliant, some things failures, some not bad: the usual – but it really felt like something was lacking.
Sunflowers have always seemed to me the ultimate allotment flower. There is something distinctly urban about a sunflower; it isn’t a thing that you generally find in a country house border. It is too bold and brassy to merge and blend, its natural backdrop is bricks walls and sheds that have been knocked together from skip raids, not mellow and honeyed country stone or carefully pruned yew hedges. No, a sunflower is a flower that is most at home in the city, and best of all on an allotment, king of the flowers among the cabbages and peas.
Having said all that, it is no longer the giant yellow sunflowers such as ‘Russian Giant’ that I grow. I may throw a few in so that the kids can pour their competitive instincts briefly into something horticultural, but my sunflowers of choice have grown decidedly less brash as the years have gone on. This year I am sowing three: ‘Valentine’, which has a big flower but pale lemon yellow petals around the chocolate brown centre; ‘Earthwalker’, a tall-growing, medium flowered type with a beautiful range of petal colour from chocolate brown to yellow, via deep red and bronze; and ‘Vanilla Ice’, short and multi-branched with small palest yellow petals around a small deep brown centre. If I manage to nurture enough plants through to planting out size then I will have a bank of them at the front of the plot with which to impress the neighbours – a bank of sunflowers is a fabulous thing – and then plant the others around and about and between the kale and courgettes.
Growing sunflowers is pretty easy as long as you don’t start too early: they are fast growing plants and very tender, so sown too early indoors they will get leggy, and in the greenhouse they will get too cold. Now they should be OK in the greenhouse, but if you are worried that temperatures are still too low do start yours indoors on the windowsill and you can transfer them out to the greenhouse in a couple of weeks time. I always sow mine straight into pots rather than seed trays, otherwise they very quickly need re-potting, and at this time of year any corners cut are worth taking. I sow two seeds to a small pot, and then pull out the smaller or later germinating of the two. Pot on at least once so that the plant has a good chance to grow sturdy and strong, and then plant out when all danger of frosts has passed. Water and feed and you will have a stunning bank of flowers to impress your allotment neighbours, or to prove me wrong in your herbaceous border.