In the Garden: Reasons to worship the sunflower...

One of the best fillers for late summer in the garden and really easy to grow from seed is the annual sunflower, says Olive Ryan in her weekly gardening column
In the Garden: Reasons to worship the sunflower...

YELLOW DELIGHT: John and Sally Bates in their field of sunflowers inWexford

THERE is a different mood in the garden since the departure of the heatwave, plants have been grateful for the rain that arrived and it has helped them to recover from the stress of high temperatures and soil moisture deficit that they had to contend with.

The heat has hastened the departure of the first flush of flowers for alchemilla, catmint and some herbaceous geraniums and they will benefit from a cutting back to encourage a second flush of flowers. Deadheading is an important job right now to ensure continuous flowering where possible.

There are more yellows, oranges and reds beginning to appear in the garden, giving hints of autumnal hues. Crocosmias, rudbeckias and heleniums have begun to colour up and create a different atmosphere as early flowering plants like lupins, honesty and foxgloves fade away.

Planning the garden to provide continuity of colour through spring, summer, into autumn and winter is a constant work in progress and we always remain on the look-out for long flowering plants for different times of the year. 

One of the best fillers for late summer in the garden and really easy to grow from seed is the annual sunflower, with its bright and cheery flowers bringing a smile to everyone’s face.

They can grow to over 6ft depending on the cultivar grown (there are over 70 cultivars to choose from) and their stems are quite sturdy, but may need some staking depending on how much shelter they have.

They grow fields of these noble giants in Italy and other warmer European countries to process for sunflower oil and seeds. It is becoming more prevalent here in recent years to see large swathes of these sun worshippers grown on a field scale to sell the flowers and create a unique family experience.

Swan’s Sunflower Farm on the outskirts of Carlow town has a 1km track cut through the flowers so you can be immersed in these beauties. There is a small fee for entry and the flowers can be picked as you walk.

Down in the sunny south-east, local farmer John Bates has grown a half acre of sunflowers near Kilmore Quay in an effort to raise money for Wexford Hospice Homecare and the Irish Cancer Society. Bunches of the flowers are available to buy along the quayside. It’s lovely to see a field of these colourful giants being grown on our doorstep, creating a unique photo opportunity and also raising vital funds for worthy causes.

They are easy to grow from seed and it is possible to save your own seed also. 

They are a great plant to include in the garden for biodiversity also as birds love the seed heads and will pick away over winter months if they are left in situ.

Helianthus annuus is an annual sunflower which does best in full sun and a free draining soil that warms up quickly in spring. There are also perennial sunflowers which are a great addition to the garden, providing late summer colour. Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’ is a perennial sunflower which can get to over 6ft tall and has pale yellow flowers from August until October.

Tropical plants really enjoyed the recent warm spell and it has spurred on their growth and flowers, which will provide a good display right into the autumn.

Using tropical plants in the garden has become increasingly popular with tree ferns, tetrapanax, gingers, banana plants, canna lillies, colocasia and alocasias all lending their foliage and flower effects to create an other- worldly feel to gardens. They really benefit from higher temperatures and generally look their best heading into the autumn if we have had a reasonable summer.

Providing lots of large foliaged plants grouped together can have a cooling effect on the garden, which is a welcome element on sunny days. Add crazy colours into that foliage mix, and a very interesting, vibrant garden is the result. Annual fillers like Coreopsis tinctoria with its hot yellow and black flowers provide some thrilling interest and when creating a tropical effect, the more thrilling and wacky the plant, the better, so there is plenty of room for creativity and experimenting with combinations.

It is also interesting to observe what will make it through the winter outdoors and this will vary depending on where your garden is located.

Looking at where the sunflower fields are located in the country, it is generally further inland and toward the east coast where summertime temperatures get highest — the hottest temperature recorded on the island of Ireland two weeks ago was 31.3C in Castlederg, County Tyrone.

Interestingly, the highest ever temperature recorded in Ireland was 33.3C and that was in 1887 at Kilkenny Castle.

Gardens situated further inland can get more severe winter temperatures, and so tropical plants often do better nearer the coast, where many can be overwintered outside as the risk of severe frost is less.

All factors to consider when deciding what garden style to adopt in your own garden. Happy Gardening!

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