Sunny Faces

You can't help but smile at the sight of a field of sunflowers. Buy or pick a bouquet and find inspiration for your garden.

Don’t mess with sunflower grower Gretel Adams, co-owner of Sunny Meadows Flower Farm in Columbus. You figure that out pretty quickly when she demonstrates how to harvest a fully grown sunflower.

Adams holds an imaginary bloom just below its head with her left hand. In her right hand is a real knife with a five–inch blade called a broccoli knife, used to cut through that vegetable’s tough stalk. She slices through the pretend sunflower’s thick stem, knife blade shining in the sunlight. The “sunflower” is beheaded.

“In the heat of the summer, we handpick and cut about 1,000 sunflowers a day. It takes about four or five people. We direct sow about 10,000 seeds a week and harvest about 8,000 plants a week,” says Gretel’s husband and business partner, Steve Adams. “We start planting by April 15 and then plant again once a week. We can usually pick as early as the Fourth of July and continue until the frost.”

Sunflowers are harvested when the petals start to curl and open so they are fresh for buyers. Sunflowers are “really picky about when they get picked,” says Steve, and sometimes workers have to walk the fields twice a day, facing the sunflowers’ faces to know the optimum time.

Most of the farm’s sunflower varieties are single-flower that grow to 5- to 6-feet tall and have heads about 6- to 8-inches in diameter. If a particular sunflower can’t measure up to its big brothers, it becomes part of a mixed bouquet. 

Gretel inherited her 10-acre property, but it had not been farmed for years before the couple began their commercial operation in 2006. Today, they grow 75 varieties of flowers in fields and four greenhouses. They sell at farmers markets and Whole Foods grocery stores and to florists.

The sunflower, which has become an international symbol of peace, is king of their soil. The Adamses’ mentor and teacher is Steve Anderson, owner of Anderson Orchard in Pickerington, whom they call “the Original Sunflower Guy.”

Sunny Meadows Flower Farm, open to the public two times a year, has gained a reputation for its organic growing practices. The Adamses are committed to educating Ohioans about the benefits of buying locally grown flowers. Gretel says many imported flowers, including sunflowers, are grown or treated with chemicals that can be potentially harmful. (Brides should be cautious when ordering wedding cakes decorated with real flower petals, she says, because toxins can possibly transfer.) The couple also grows mostly pollenless sunflowers, which work well in bouquets and decorations.

“You could put our sunflowers into your mouth any time,” says Steve.

The thought of eating petals isn’t the main reason people love sunflowers, of course. Steve says the flowers “just remind people of summer.” Gretel calls sunflowers “bright and cheery” and says “when people see them in mass, they are just drawn to them.”

Few flowers command as much attention as thousands of sunflowers growing in a field. Sunflowers practice heliotropism (following the sun’s rays). While budding, their heads face east in morning and west in the late afternoon. Once the flower blooms, however, it seeks the eastern view only. 
Common sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) can be grown easily in a backyard garden. There is still time to plant in early July if a dwarf variety is chosen.

Sunflowers range from tiny potted desk-size flowers to the giants that are entered every year at county fairs and city festivals. The range of colors is also amazing and includes pink. Sunflowers fall into two categories: the confectionery type used for nut meats and the oil type for cooking oil and livestock feed.

The Adamses suggest planting “more than you want because squirrels and chipmunks will eat the seeds.”

Plant seeds about 1 to 2 inches deep in a sandy to clay soil texture. Sunflowers should have at least six hours of sunlight a day, otherwise weak plants will result. Water them regularly, but avoid getting leaves wet to prevent diseases.

Fertilizer isn’t usually necessary unless the soil is very poor. Too much can actually cause bushy, weak plants with few flowers. Steve likes to use garden waste as compost for his flowers. Bat guano or a 5-10-10 fertilizer formula is also sometimes recommended. 

But the most important tip is Gretel’s: plant sunflowers where they face you most of the time and not your neighbors if you really want to enjoy your happy blooms.

Ohio is also home to wild perennial sunflowers. Native Americans domesticated the flower into a single-headed plant and used its seeds for food, as well as dye, building material and even a snakebite remedy, according to the National Sunflower Association. 

Perennial sunflowers native to Ohio cannot be grown as easily in the back yard as the annual Common sunflower found in seed packets, according to John Blakeman, president of the Ohio Prairie Association ( Native sunflowers need a specific habitat and “can be grown from seed, but seldom produce flowers until the second or third year of growth,” says Blakeman.

Those with backyard prairie gardens can try Ohio’s five natives: Giant sunflower (Helianthus giganteus), Sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus), Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximilian), Ashy sunflower (Helianthus mollis) and Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus). The first four sunflower seeds are available from the Ohio Prairie Nursery in Hiram ( Jerusalem artichoke is sold by Companion Plants ( in Athens.

A number of Ohio’s parks have restored or established prairies where sunflowers grow. John Watts, resource manager for the Columbus and Franklin County Metro Parks (, says 1,500 acres of restored prairie can be seen in the Prairie Oaks and Battelle Darby Creek Metro Parks. Look for Giant sunflower and Ashy sunflower, a state threatened plant. The sunflowers peak in mid-July.


International Sunflower Festival
Aug. 31–Sept. 1. Frankfort Village 45628, Contests for biggest, smallest, most blooms, most original sunflowers; crafts, kids’ games, car show.

Sunny Meadows Flower Farm Festival and Tour
July 28. 3555 Watkins Rd., Columbus 43232, 614/361-5102, Tour a cut flower farm, view sunflower fields, farmers market.

Sunflower Festival at Gorman Heritage Farm
Oct. 5–6. 10052 Reading Rd., Cincinnati 45241, 513/563-6663, Walk trails through four  acres of flowers for viewing, photographing and picking.

Sunflower Seed Blondies
Courtesy of Home Economist Jane Rogers | Makes 16 2-inch squares

1/3 cup butter
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 cup flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
¾ cup roasted, salted and
hulled sunflower seeds
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon additional
sunflower seeds

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease 8-by-8-inch baking pan. Melt butter in medium saucepan over low heat and add brown sugar. Stir constantly until melted and smooth. Cool slightly.

Mix flour, baking powder, baking soda and ¾ cup sunflower seeds in large mixing bowl. Add egg and vanilla to brown sugar mixture and stir. Combine egg and flour mixtures. Spread batter evenly into the greased pan using a spatula. Sprinkle reserved sunflowers on top.

Bake 10 minutes on center oven rack; rotate pan from front to back for even baking. Bake five to eight more minutes until inserted toothpick comes out clean. Cool pan on wire rack. Cut into bars while still warm.