The Volunteer Sunflower in Your Garden

by Geoffrey Ives

Photo by Barbi Ives

It’s March and my seed order has arrived. I didn’t go quite as crazy ordering seeds this year. I refrained from ordering sunflowers altogether. Sunflowers volunteer in my garden. Why buy seeds when you have volunteers? But garden volunteers present decision making challenges to certified mediocre gardeners, like me.

As the spring garden warms, the garden volunteers start sprouting. These annual volunteers behave like weeds. In fact, many volunteers are described as weeds by the general gardening community. Many weeds are simply annuals we don’t deliberately plant, like beautiful Black-eyed Susans. I’ve never planted a Black-eyed Susan seed, but they abound in our back yard and around Maine.

If you do want to purchase Black-eyed Susan seeds, try the Wild Seed Project. I notice they call them Black-eyed Coneflower. My apologies to Susan, wherever you are.

Black-eyed Susan or Coneflower

Volunteers Spice it Up

Some plants that I initially planted from seed packages later became weed-like in our garden. Dill, Cilantro, and Poppies are good examples. I found out later that once introduced, these guys grow on their own just fine. They have become garden volunteers.

Dill is often referred to as Dill Weed and it grows like a weed. In June, dill is an abundant volunteer. It’s aromatic leaves and seeds are used in kitchens as a pickling spice or a baked fish enhancement.

Cilantro, yet another unpaid garden worker, is similarly applied to salsa and other dishes. I was thrilled to realize cilantro (also called coriander) returns annually in spades. I think cilantro plants are lovely and the younger plants freeze well for use in off-season salsa. A couple of times a summer I head out to the garden with a zip-lock bag and pick gobs of cilantro for the freezer. It’s so easy with cilantro — just stuff that zip-lock bag and freeze it. I do this with parsley and lemon grass too, but they don’t volunteer. Dill doesn’t like freezing. It wants to be dried; maybe when I retire I’ll dry some freaking dill.
The Regal Sunflower

Sunflower volunteers present more of a challenge to the mediocre gardener than spice plants. Where dill and cilantro carry relatively low garden profiles, a full grown sunflower could stand twelve feet high. Their knotted root system creates a heavy and thick root ball, designed by Mother Nature to anchor the large plant through heavy winds. So letting a sunflower volunteer develop means you’re dedicating precious garden space to a somewhat vagrant giant plant.

I like the look of an organized vegetable garden with random sunflowers throughout. I used to purchase sunflower seeds and plant sunflowers only along north sides of the garden, to discourage shading. Each year birds and rodents would leave sunflower seeds in odd places. In spring they would propagate. Once a volunteer plant gets established a liberal gardener has to consider, “Do I pull this guy, or let him live another week?” Over the years, I’ve found myself leaving sunflowers to do their thing without my editing hand.

My mother-in-law taught me that volunteers could be an additional source of food for man or beast, an interesting splash of green or color, and that the garden volunteer might provide further benefit for your garden — like shade, wind break, or adding nutrients to your soil.

So volunteers for me moved from the weed-them-out category to the this-could-be-interesting category.

Now this laissez-faire approach to gardening can bring consequences. On the one hand, people visiting the house may be stunned by your creative gardening approach. “I just love how you manage your sunflowers,” while I glance knowingly at the local chipmunk. And it does look nice, especially in July. But what looks great on July 15th can look like the day after Woodstock on August 25th, especially if a tropical storm blows through.

As I mentioned, sunflowers will shade other plants. I used to plant to avoid this, but then I realized plants like Basil require shade for optimum growth. And basil pesto is a must have garden resource for this mediocre gardener. My family is half vegetarian and one quarter vegan. Pesto can be easily split between the vegans and the veggies, while us meat-eaters simply eat what’s left because we’re easy going people. Cough.

By mid-August five to ten shading sunflowers can turn a section of my garden into a mini black forest. Last summer one garden area became so shaded by sunflowers that my egg plants and a few squash plants just stopped thriving. So carefully consider your volunteer allowance, like your kids, what’s cute at age six could be a deal killer at sixteen.

The Black Forest

Another benefit to a sunflower canopy pertains to our short seasons in Maine. A canopy will protect delicate plants during a light frost that might otherwise be deadly. First frost usually occurs in late September but it might not be a killing frost. Tarps are often thrown over garden beds to protect susceptible plants. The sunflowers can act as tent poles holding up sheets in a pinch. You might get another week or two out of the garden that year — maybe more — by getting tarp creative with sunflowers.
And sunflowers provide food for so many species. We don’t eat the seeds, but if Governor LePage decided to shut down all grocery stores in Maine because they looked at him funny, we could. In high summer the bees love sunflowers. Birds eat sunflower seeds from late August into the fall.

The down side here is if you’re an outdoor napper, like me, and you have a plethora of Blue Jays feeding on your volunteer sunflowers, like I do; well just be prepared when you’re drifting off, for that uber-decibel, high-pitched Blue Jay death-scream to jolt you awake; you warding off that final blow that must accompany such a devil yell. Maybe wear rubber pants for your garden nap?