Sunshine and the city

[Today’s story comes from Philip. He has never grown sunflowers before *and* he lives several stories up in an apartment in Wellington! He shares his growing adventures below.]

The colourful envelope of sunflower seeds from Project Sunshine that arrived in my letterbox one blustery spring day brought with it the promise of summer.┬áThis was going to be like the pockets of cheery daffodils that had popped up on my street, but bigger and better. The next thing I needed was a bit of germination. Can’t be that hard, right?

I decided to try little peat pots inside my apartment, along with some rich seedling mix and my trusty spray bottle to keep them damp but not too wet. That’s when the performance anxiety started to kick in. After a few days my neighbour was already asking if the seeds had sprouted. Not yet, I said awkwardly. What say they didn’t? Why would they? Should I be doing it outside and not six floors up in an apartment building? After a week of germination angst I was rewarded with the first sprouts. They were the best and most beautiful sunflower shoots ever.

Seedlings in peat pots

Now most of the seeds I’ve planted have come up. A wise sunflower-growing friend suggested I get them to about 20 cms before planting them out. This will give them a better chance against greedy insects that love nothing more than to dine on tender sunflower shoots. At the rate they’re growing I might be planting them at Labour Weekend. I’ve scoped a few likely spots in the garden outside my building. Perhaps in among the daisies, or by the block wall out front which gets great sun. Or maybe on the bank by the tagged garages next door?

Garden

Block wall

Garages

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Plant straight in the ground? Or in a pot?

You have your packet of beautiful Giant Russian sunflower seeds in your hand. Do you plant them straight in the ground, or should you first sow some seeds in pots?

At Project Sunshine, we do both planting methods, to make sure that we get the best sunflowery results!

Sowing directly in the ground
It’s pretty easy to sow your seeds directly in the ground. Before you plant, you need to make sure you’ve picked a good spot: sunflowers need at least 6 hours of sunshine a day. Once you’ve chosen a good spot, use a trowel and dig a small hole about 3cm deep, and then drop in a seed. Cover the hole again with a blanket of soil and then give it a drink of water.

Sunflowers are like people: they like to be in families and planted close together. Plant your seeds about 20cm apart. Water your seeds regularly, to make sure they don’t dry out – if the soil is kept damp, they should germinate in about 5-10 days.

Something else to bear in mind is that slugs and snails love to nibble on brand new sunflower leaves and stalks, and can quickly wipe out baby sunflower seedlings. To keep snails and slugs at bay you can place snail bait around your seeds (make sure you keep it well away from little people and pets) – otherwise you can always go out at night with a bucket and torch collect any snails that look like they’re heading towards your precious seedlings.

Planting seeds in pots
To ensure a good sunflower harvest, it is also a good idea to plant some seeds into pots. The seedlings can be transferred into the ground later on when they reach about 20cm high. There are several different pots you can choose to use and we’ve listed a few different examples below to give you an idea of the sorts of pots/containers to use. Just make sure that whatever pot you do use is fairly deep, as sunflowers send out a deep tap root. Something like an egg carton would be too shallow, for example, so go for a pot/container that has enough room to allow the sunflower to send down a good, strong root.

Make sure you use potting mix or seed-raising mix as your soil. The soil in pots needs to be light and airy for the plants to grow well. Dirt straight from the garden is too heavy and will clump down in pots. You can buy potting mix fairly cheaply from supermarkets and hardware stores. You can always make your own if you’re interested – here’s a good potting mix recipe.

Plastic pots

Plastic pots are great to use for sowing seeds – and you can use them again and again. Make sure they are nice and clean on the inside before filling them with potting mix. If you have bigger pots then you can sow a couple of seeds to each one. When the plants are big enough (about 20cm high), you’ll need to gently lift them and all of the soil out of the pots, and then plant them in the ground (Don’t plant your plastic pot in the ground!)

Take-away coffee cups

Take-away coffee cups are the perfect size for growing sunflower seedlings. Make sure your coffee cup is nice and clean, and make a small hole in the bottom for drainage (you don’t want your little pot to stay too damp, otherwise the roots will get mouldy). Then fill it with potting mix or seed-raising mix and add your seeds.

If you have a ‘bio’ or ‘eco-friendly’ coffee cup, which is designed to completely break down, then you can plant it straight into the ground when the plant is big enough, as the cardboard will disintegrate and the roots will push through the cardboard. Only do this if your coffee cup is an eco-friendly one though, as many take-away coffee cups have plastic in them, which will not break down in soil.

Peat pots
Peat pots

You can buy peat pots from gardening/hardware stores. I bought 16 from Mitre 10 for $8.00. They’re great because once your seedling is big enough, you can plant it straight in the ground along with the pot. Just make sure you don’t let the soil in them dry out.

Toilet rolls

Toilet rolls are also an inexpensive type of ‘seed starter’. By cutting four slots in a toilet roll, you can fold the flaps on the bottom – as you can see in the photo above. When you have enough toilet rolls, you can place them inside a plastic container, like an icecream container, and then fill each one with potting mix.

Be careful not to over-water the toilet roll planters, as they can get mouldy if they get too wet (update: half the ones I just planted got very mouldy on the outside, so great care needs to be taken when watering them). Because the rolls are made of cardboard, they can also be planted directly into the ground when the plants are big enough as the cardboard will quickly break down.

Folded newspaper containers

You can also make your own inexpensive seed starting containers by folding sheets of newspaper. By googling ‘how to make newspaper seedling pots’, you can find lots of different folding methods. We quite like the method shown in the youtube video below, as it is simple – all you need is a sheet of newspaper and a tall glass (you might need an adult to help you if you’re younger).

When the seedlings are big enough, the newspaper container can also be planted directly into the ground with the seedling, as the newspaper will break down quickly in the soil.