While often admired as ornamentals, sunflowers have an amazing variety of uses. They make a good fodder for poultry and livestock, dyes come from the petals, and paper can be made from the stalk pith. Its seeds and seed meal feed countless people, animals, and birds; sunflower seed-oil is used in cooking and in soaps and cosmetics. In the garden, you can grow sunflowers as windbreaks, privacy screens, or living supports for pole beans.
Sunflowers also come in a wide assortment of sizes. Some cultivars grow as tall as 15', and the flower heads can be as big as 1' across; dwarf types, however, are only 1'- 2' tall. There are also early, medium-height sunflowers that stand 5'-6' tall but have heads that are 8"-10" across. Some cultivars produce a single large flower; others form several heads.
Planting: If possible, choose a site in full sun on the north side of the garden, so the tall plants won't shade your other vegetables. Sunflowers aren't fussy about soil.
Seedlings are cold-resistant, so short-season growers may want to get a head start by planting several weeks before the last frost. In most areas, though, it's best to wait until the soil is warmer, around the last frost date. Sow seeds 1" deep and 6" apart. Thin large types to 1 1/2' apart and dwarf or medium-sized cultivars to 1' apart. Water well after planting.
Apply a 3"-4" layer of mulch to conserve moisture and keep down weeds. Sunflowers are drought-resistant, but they'll grow better if you water regurlarly from the time the flowers begin to develop until they're mature.
Sunflowers are remarkably trouble-free. Rotate crop if leaf mottle, a soil fungus that produces dead areas along leaf veins, becomes a problem. An early autumn may interfere with pollination and cause the plant to form empty seeds; plant earlier the next year. To protect seeds from birds, cover flowers with mesh bags, cheesecloth, old pantyhose, or perforated plastic bags.
Harvest as soon as seeds start to turn brown or the backs of the seed heads turn yellow. The heads usually droop at this time. Cut them along with 2' of stem and hand upside down in a dry, well-ventilated place, such as a garage or attic, until fully dry; store in plastic bags for birds and animal food. To eat, soak overnight in water (or strong salt water, if a salty flavor is desired), drain, spread on a shallow baking sheet, and roast for 3 hours at 200°F or until crisp.