Thursday, March 30, 2023

Sunflower Joy

A blonde girl in a field of sunflowers. Sunflowerr petals cover most of her face.
Who doesn’t like sunflowers? Sunflowers belong to the small group of plants that everyone seems to like and can identify, but they are much more than a pretty face. The sunflower plant  has given people joy for tens of thousands of years, by virtue of its beauty but also for all the cool things it gives us. At this point in spring, it's time to plant sunflowers, so let’s dig into them a bit before planting them.

Sunflower seeds in a flat straw basket and grilled sunflower heads in a black bowl.
Sunflowers (Helianthus spp) were once just a pretty wildflower native to North America. But as early as 5,000 years ago, Indigenous people in modern-day New Mexico and Arizona were cultivating them. These ancient people didn’t just domesticate the sunflower plant, they selectively cultivated it to produce certain colors and specific amounts of flowers and seeds. Across the tribes, sunflowers had a great many uses beyond their value as a food source. Sunflower oil was used in cooking and to soothe skin and smooth hair, the flowers made great dyes for textiles and body applications, and their stalks could be used as building materials. Sunflowers were also used for ceremonial purposes and had extensive medicinal applications - they were used to treat snake bites, chest problems, wound treatments and much, much more. Read more about all this here

A brunette woman in a blue dress standing in a sunflower field. She is facing away from the camera an is wearing a blue dress and holding up a Ukranian flag.
The Spaniards, and other colonists, took the sunflower to Europe beginning in the early 1500s. It was treated as an ornamental with tasty seeds until the 1700s when the Russian Tsar, Peter the Great, recognized its value as a food and oil crop and initiated it’s commercial cultivation. Russia is still a leading producer of sunflowers, but the top producer is Ukraine. In 2021 it provided a 47% share of global sunflower oil exports. Since the Russian’s war on Ukraine, production of this vital crop has been disrupted, which has led to shortages. The sunflower is the national flower of Ukraine and it’s bright yellow is part of their flag. In the early days after the Russian invasion, a video got out of a Ukrainian woman giving sunflower seeds to Russian soldiers. As she handed them out she was telling the soldiers to put the seeds in their pockets so that when they die the flowers would grow on Ukrainian soil (watch it here). Since that remarkable act, sunflowers have become a symbol of peace, solidarity with Ukraine, and resistance. 

A collage of 16 different species of sunflowers.

The original wildflower would have looked very different from the sunflower we know today. Over the centuries since the Indigenous botanists first made changes to the plant, many growers have done the same. There are about 70 species in the Helianthus genus today and they range from little-bitty ones of about 1-2 feet to majestic, towering ones (the tallest was 30'1"). There are numerous versions of the familiar cheery yellow flower, but there are also terra-cotta, orange, white, purple and pink varieties. Here are some of them.

A sunflower facing towards the sun. Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.With all the choices at hand, picking just one variety could be a bit difficult, but once you do it is essential that you pick the spot to plant your sunflowers carefully. These are sunflowers after all, so you’ll want to make sure that they have sun all day (at least 6-8 hours). As they grow you will be able to watch them exhibit a behavior known as heliotropism. This is when the buds and small blossoms face east in the morning and move with the sun throughout the day to maximize their light intake. As the plants mature, when the stems thicken and the heads become heavy with seeds, this behavior ends. 

Another reason to pick your planting spot carefully is that sunflowers are allelopathic. Plants that are allelopathic emit chemicals that can inhibit the growth of (or kill out-right) other plants. For sunflowers, this means that they will eliminate resource-competitors to give their seeds the best chance to germinate and grow. This doesn’t mean that sunflowers have to be grown alone, it just means that you should do a little research before you decide what to plant around them as some plants are more at-risk than others. Here are some helpful guidelines.

A group of sunflowers grown to form a sunflower house. There is a red wheelbarrow and wagon in front.
If you have children, you may want to consider growing a sunflower house in your garden. This is simply a bower in the garden created by closely planted sunflowers. You can either leave the sunflowers to grow as they want or train them to grow over to form a “roof” for the sunflower house. Here are some super-simple instructions.

A chipmunk eating a sunflower headIn case you need another reason to plant sunflowers, consider the fact that sunflowers can remediate soil. They  remove toxins and heavy metals and have even been used to absorb radiation around Fukushima and Chernobyl after the nuclear disasters there. Your yard may not have been the site of a disaster, but all soil could use a little freshening up and after growing sunflowers you'll have better soil for the next growing cycle. Here’s the story of  a young scholar who is working out ways to best utilize this awesome sunflower trait. 

Sunflower lovers have no shortage of sunflower-related stuff they can surround themselves with (check out this Amazon search), but the best way to love them is to plant them and watch them grow. Which will also let pollinators and other creatures show their love.

Take CareSunflowers moving in the wind under a blue sky. There is a bee buzzing around.

Submitted by Pam

Friday, March 10, 2023

What The Best Dressed Yards Are Wearing

A dark-haired woman in a black lace dress leanimg on a balcony looking out at the backyard.
Many people, perhaps even most, tend to make a backyard plan and stick to it year after year. But, just as you would update a kitchen or bathroom, yards need a refresh every now and then. Unless the home is an historically accurate structure, no one wants a yard that looks like it was decorated decades ago. So, while you are waiting for the last of the winter to melt way, consider some of these 2023 trends:

A house and small patio on left with flowers and grasses around it.
Matrix Gardening (aka Meadowscaping) – This gardening style is the inevitable answer to an increased awareness of sustainability and climate change. Matrix gardening was developed in Germany as a way to revive urban landscapes after World War II and the concept has changed little since then. The idea is to populate areas (large or small) with plants that thrive synergistically to form a cohesive ecosystem that conserves water, naturally discourages weeds and requires minimal upkeep. In a backyard garden, instead of filling your planters and flower beds with annuals from the big box store, you’d choose plants and flowers that are native or at least compatible to your area. This concept can create a beautiful yard year-round. And since you’d be free from the limited supply at your local store, you’d be free to experiment with a wide variety of new-to-you plants. 
A Monarch butterfly on an echinacea flower.

Close-up of a bee in flight.Pollinator-Friendly and Allergen-Free Planting - As an extension of the above ideas, planting with intention beyond the eco-friendly is gaining popularity. Many people want to consider bees and other pollinators when planning a garden, while others want to reduce seasonal allergy suffering by not growing plants that create allergens. A word of caution before deciding on plants: Sometimes the plants you may think are the problem allergies-wise are the same plants that pollinators love. Always research your area to make the proper decisions before planting or removing plants. Here is an interactive pollen map of the U.S. that can help. For additional information on pollinator-planting, here’s a blog I wrote on the subject. By the way, Martha Stewart recommends this bee-friendly plant.

Green plants in black pots hanging on a wall.
Vertical Gardening – In our increasingly cramped and expensive world, this is a trend that’s here to stay. Vertical gardening is a way for small-space dwellers to stretch their gardening space upwards to grow pretty much anything they want. For others, this is an exceptional way to delineate spaces in a garden or to jazz up an otherwise-boring privacy fence. Some vertical gardens are so beautiful and elaborate that they’re works of art, but the simple and not-fancy versions are just as cool and can be surprisingly easy – check these out. This type of growing can also make gardening accessible to many disabled people.   

A path leading through a doorway and into a garden.
Garden Paths -  Once you know what plants you want in your yard, don’t forget the path. It doesn't matter iwhat it's made of, there are few things more inviting than a garden path. Paths can lead to intriguing or relaxing nooks and crannies or they can make a big ol' circle. They can be intentionally directive or deceptively rustic and you get extra points if you can make a path that goes from indoors all the way out into the yard. This creates an illusion of a larger space, is eye-appealing and is very much on trend.

White Picket Fences – It seems the more forward-thinking and tech-y our world becomes, the more nostalgic people become. The “good old days” may not have been as good as people think, but there are some vintage garden elements that have undeniable appeal. Case in point: the white picket fence. Replacing your current fence with a new one may not be feasible, but these types of fences make excellent accent pieces and look great with vining flowers all over them. Add a few feet somewhere and feel the hominess of it all. 

A Golden Retriever sitting in front of flowers and a white picket fence. There is a red tricycle to the left of the dog.

Antique Pots – This is another old-timey thing that has come back to be on trend. Instead of using regular plastic or terracotta pots, you could rummage around in antique and thrift stores and look for something that your grandmother or great-mother would have had in her yard. If that's not your thing, there are lots of pots to be had that are faux antique. Here’s a quick google search to give you an idea of the virtually endless options.

A stone urn and pavers in a garden behind a white house with black trellis. Photo by Ben Ashby on Unsplash.
Statues, Arbors &  Fountains – These design elements have never really gone out of style and this year they’re especially hot. In the midst of your meadowscape, add eye-catching piece, or set a pair of statues at an entrance (pairs always look good). An arbor is almost-irresistible invitation to enter, and what a delight it would be to find a fountain at the end of that garden path.

A series of arbors covering a cement walkway.

Whatever you choose to do with your outside space, try to keep in mind that the ultimate goal is to simply enjoy it. Spend less money and effort fixing it up and more time just sitting in it.

Submitted by Pam

A section of lawn moving back to expose a pool underneath.

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