Sunflowers Drooping

Last year I grew some sunflowers from seed.  They were the only plants that grew so large in the pot that I moved them to the ground.  I had let the three sunflowers get pretty large in the pot, so I couldn’t easily seperate them when I moved them to the ground.  When they started to get big in the ground, my wife leaned them against a chair.  That worked fine until the heads got big and then those flopped over a little.  I didn’t do anything with them and the birds and squirrels had a field day with them.

This year I planted a few in small pots seperately and then moved five of them to the ground once they got to be a few inches tall.  I probably should have waited longer as rabbits got to two of them within the first week:

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One of the sunflowers that didn’t survive the rabbits.
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A sunflower planted at the same time as above which did survive. This was its size on the day the other sunflower disappeared.

Rabbit damage is off the topic here, but I’ll address that in another post soon.  Anyway, after the sunflowers I planted this year got to be about 4 feet tall, my wife suggested that I stake them so they don’t droop or fall over.  As I typically do, I did some research online and found multiple posts saying you don’t need to stake sunflowers because they have such strong stems that are almost like a trunk.  They said the most likely time you may need to stake them is when the head gets big and heavy.  As my three remaining sunflowers appeared to have nice healthy stems, I figured I was okay and I told my wife this, glad that I didn’t have to go through the effort of staking them (it wasn’t much effort, but it seemed like it would take some work and in my case, research, to make sure I do it properly).

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Sunflower one day before it drooped when it was about four feet tall.

The very next day after this discussion, my largest sunflower looked like a giant unside down U.  The top was hovering on the ground, and it hasn’t even started forming a flower head yet.  Irritated that I was wrong and had gotten bad advice for my particular case, I did some research.  The suggestion was to stake the sunflower with a stake about half the ultimate height of the plant.  I remember the sunflower seed packages I had said these should grow to be about 6 feet.  I happened to have some 3 foot bamboo rods my wife used for staking some small plants last year.  I read that you should use something soft to tie the plant so as not to injure it, such as a nylon stocking.  I didn’t have any handy, so I resorted to twine – something they say may damage the plant.  The 3 foot bamboo rod was useless.  It bent right over, next to the sunflower.  That wasn’t going to work.

I went to Home Depot to get a variety of items and they sold some giant plastic rods for staking plants.  The come in sizes from a few feet up to about 10 feet or maybe even bigger.  I bought three of the 6 foot rods at $3 each.  I remembered I had some plant twist ties left over from another project which I decided to use to tie the plants.  It took me about 30 seconds to hammer each rod into the ground and another 1-2 minutes to attach 2-3 twist ties per plant. Many sites did advise to be very careful when placing the stake as it could damage the roots.  Ideally, a stake would have been placed when planting the plant.  I’m not sure I could ever be optimistic enough to put a giant 6 foot stake in next to a plant smaller than a foot.  Before staking, my bent over plant had started to shape itself into a capital N, picking the top up towards the sun, so it was a little scoliotic when I tied it to the stake.

Overall staking the sunflowers was a modest investment of money (I had no idea how expensive gardening would be relative to the price of seeds!) and time.  Hopefully the plants will be good to go for the rest of the summer!  Perhaps I’ll need to use some bird netting once the heads form, but that is the most I think I should need.

Here’s how they looked right after being staked:

Staked sunflowers
Two of the three surviving sunflowers, right after being staked.

Update 7/3/16: Here’s an updated picture from today. You can see they’ve gotten quite large as those are 6 foot stakes in the ground about 6 inches. I didn’t tether them to the stake again, so they really are only attached to the stakes at about half their height. The problem is getting a stake strong enough to stay straight at at least half the sunflower’s ultimate height. The one on the left looks like the head is just starting to form. The one on the right is hard to tell. Unfortunately, as they’ve outgrown the stakes, I’ll have to see how they do once the heads have fully formed.

Sunflowers as of 7/3/16.
Sunflowers as of 7/3/16.

Update 7/11/16:
I was all excited with how tall the sunflowers were getting and how well they were doing.  On 7/9 I noticed the left most sunflower was leaning more and more to the left and the rightmost sunflower was leaning forward quite a bit.  I decided to restake the sunflowers to try to straighten them more.  The middle sunflower has done the best and was already pretty straight so I left it alone. It measures about 8 feet at this point. Here’s a picture of how the three sunflowers looked before I restaked them:

Three sunflowers that were staked but two are starting to tilt.
Three sunflowers that were staked but two are starting to tilt.

I restaked the sunflowers on the ends, removing the 6 foot plastic rod, and hammering it back in straighter.  The rods have some flex to them and the sunflower stems are pretty rigid.  I have heard you have to be careful hammering in the stakes, so as not to damage the roots.  These rods are pretty thin, and the plants are pretty big.  I figure the chances of hurting the roots was pretty small.  Hopefully restaking didn’t cause any problems.  Here’s a photo of the three right after I restaked them:

The same three sunflowers right after being restaked on July 9.
The same three sunflowers right after being restaked on July 9. The one on the right is difficult to appreciate as the bend is mostly out towards where I was standing when I took the picture.

I watered the sunflowers pretty well right after this and then the next morning, July 10, I noticed the left and center sunflowers had the heads drooping over.  Here are some photos:

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The left and center sunflowers starting to have the heads droop. The left most one is pointing AWAY from the sun and the center one is pointing towards me taking the photo.
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The left sunflower with the head pointing towards the left, away from the morning sun.
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The center sunflower from the side, highlighted so you can see the sharp bend towards the right.

The heads seem like they are only starting to form and they don’t seem like they should be too heavy and cause the heads to droop. I don’t think it is from lack of water, as I have been watering them almost daily recently and had just watered them the previous day.  I sometimes worry about overwatering, but I think that is very unlikely.  I then wondered if perhaps when I restaked the plant on the left I had injured some roots for these two sunflowers and caused them to droop.  I doubt that is how it was present, but I guess it is possible.  I did speak to someone who does more regular gardening and was told that the heads will naturally droop to prepare for their growth, so as to protect the seeds from falling rain.  I was hoping that was the case. But then today, I noticed they seem to be straightening back out again!  No clue what is going on, but here are pictures from today July 11:

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Left most sunflower with head pointing to the right whereas yesterday it was pointing away from the sun towards the left in the morning. The photo was taken shortly after noon, so the sun is now slightly to the left of the stem.
sunflower-head-stem-scoliotic-2-7-11
Center sunflower with the head pointing upwards again, but now with a curvature to the stem.

So at this point I am left scratching my head.  Perhaps the heads droop at times to prepare for the incoming seeds to protect them from the rain. I’m not sure why they would then straighten the next day though.  Perhaps the heads drooped after I restaked because I hit some roots.  Perhaps something else I just don’t understand (likely).  I would also like to note that the stems are very thick and I think getting a very tall stake would be unlikely to help straighten the head much.  I can add some tension to the stem, but if I try to pull it to straighten it, I am guessing the stem would crack before it would straighten.

The next step is figuring out if I should cover the heads with some kind of netting to protect them from birds.  I’ll hopefully have time for more updates.

Update July 24:

One of the sunflowers has formed a nice head and it is now drooped over. As it was forming, it was at a 90 degree bend and gradually drooped over to be pointing mostly downward. The birds must be getting to the top a bit as the yellow petals have fallen off and some of the center looks removed.

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I decided to try to protect the seeds by covering it with cheese cloth. The cloth we had is about 1 foot by 3 feet which makes it a little small to fit width wise, but I did my best. From what I’ve read, you can tell the head is ready to be removed when the back loses most of its green color and is mostly yellowish. Also, the petals will be mostly shriveled or have fallen off. One other suggestion was to remove a seed and it should have a stripe on it when ready. I did remove one seed and it was a pretty solid gray. I’m not sure if these are dark sunflower seeds if they will get a stripe like others, but I see no harm in letting it mature a little longer on the plant.

Sunflower after adding cheese cloth, but you can see the top where some petals came off and a few seeds look to have been eaten by birds.
Sunflower after adding cheese cloth, but you can see the top where some petals came off and a few seeds look to have been eaten by birds.

I’ll also note that the other two sunflowers are still growing taller with what looks like a head starting to form, but they are taking their time to get bigger and open. I’m starting to wonder if they won’t form a head. These are about 10 feet tall now.

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