The (Un)Secrets of a 15-Foot Sunflower

Reader Contribution by Steven Mcfadden and Chiron Communications
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The only thing special about my sunflower is the way it turned out. Otherwise, this is an ordinary garden tale. There are no secrets to reveal, no pro tips, no insider information available to those who will invest a lot of money on miracle amendments, dig holes reaching toward the earth’s core, or run themselves ragged with sprays and incantations trying to produce a similar result. 

My sunflower is an altogether ordinary sunflower. It just somehow shot up toward the sky, and then kept on going, like Jack’s famous beanstalk. Wow. That’s all I can say.

The seeds came from a display near the cash register at my local chain grocery store. I planted a bunch of them, hither and thither. About a dozen sprouted, but only one survived. Oddly, it was the sprout in a wee, shallow plot, hard up on the west side of our house near downtown Lincoln, Nebraska, against the unforgiving concrete foundation of our house.

It was kind of a spindly, pathetic specimen, in danger of being crowded out early on by a cherry tomato plant and a zucchini. I gave some thought to yanking it out to give the edible plants more space.

Since this wee bed is on the west side of the house, sunlight comes only after noon, and then get filtered by tall trees in the late afternoon. Not a promising set up. But all the same, early in July the Mighty Forces of Something Or Other took hold and the sunflower took off for the sky.

Perhaps this is the mystery factor: I applied a normal amount of compost when planting in May, and then gave all my vegetables and flowers a drink of compost tea in late June. Of note, it’s excellent compost: all-natural biodynamic compost from our friends Evrett Lundquist and Ruth Chantry at Common Good Farm in Raymond, Nebraska. They know what they are doing. The manure for their compost piles comes from their uncommonly contented cows, and is nurtured with the legendary biodynamic compost preparations.

I’ve grown many a sunflower over the years, but the specimen in this photograph, taken August 10, 2020, is by far the tallest. I reckon it’s perhaps 15-16 feet tall, give or take. I’m not inclined to buy a ladder so I can get up there and measure. That detail matters not at all to me. What matters is the WOW my wife Liz Wolf and I experience every time we step out into the backyard. Liz gets credit for the photo.

Since our county fair didn’t happen as per usual this year, I took the liberty of awarding myself a “blue ribbon,” fashioned from a blue T-shirt and a red tomato as you can see in the photo. One old friend, Pattie D. of Minnesota, has over the years won dozens of blue ribbons at her county fair. After checking out the photo, she told me that my stupendous sunflower merits a Grand Champion ribbon. OK. I’m not inclined to argue the point.

Independent journalist Steven McFadden is rooted in cyberspace at Information about his wider work and all of his nonfiction books is available at You can read all of Steven’s Mother Earth News blog postshere.

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