Sunflowers – A Litmus Test

Last month I mentioned that I’d been over-optimistic about growing flowers in my backyard. As it has turned out, the sunflowers have provided the evidence for precisely what kind of conditions prevail across my patch during the course of a spring to autumn flowering season. I grew two varieties, Black Magic and Evening Sun, from seed and planted all the seedlings out at the same time in two different aspects.

There were seven seedlings planted at the end of the yard in a bed facing south-east and another seven grown in a narrow strip against the south-west facing fence.

Both varieties were supposed to grow to the top of the fence, about six feet tall, providing blooms that would be easy to cut. The plants in the back bed were weedy and only four made it to flowering, rather disappointing, and it has confirmed my suspicions that the soil in that bed is markedly impoverished. Yet both varieties in the south-west facing strip grew and grew and grew, and it became clear that they were obviously well fed, but was there more to it than that?

They all eventually flowered although the flowers at the top of these nearly 12 feet tall plants have not been easy to cut. Their unexpected height has been mostly due to a significantly richer soil in this bed. However, I can’t help but feel their height has also been as a response to the light shade that occurs during the couple of hours in the middle of the day courtesy of the neighbouring, fully grown eucalyptus tree.

Really, I should not moan as I have never had so many sunflowers all at once – almost enough to sell bunches from a bucket on my front steps!

As is often the way the yellower variety, Evening Sun, nearer to Mother Nature’s original, has grown and flowered more than my favourite the very dark red Black Magic.

Sunflowers ‘Black Magic’ with dahlia ‘Black Jack’

Growing sunflowers has been a useful litmus test indicating the quality of growing conditions across my garden. Additionally, it has also turned out that the handful of them planted in the front garden weren’t up to much, but then I had seen what the builders had ‘tipped’ onto that small patch! At least next year I will have a much better idea of what to expect. And, with a bit of luck and after my efforts during this coming winter to improve the soil, I will have a small crop of medium height sunflowers easy to harvest.

Not a bad selection for the beginning of October – sadly the pears are not homegrown.

Since I wrote this post on Monday the recent storm with high winds and heavy rain has brought down the tallest sunflower. That’s another pot needed then.

Sunflowers

sunflowers1There is something perennially charming about a jug of fading sunflowers. You can see why Vincent Van Gogh was so taken with them. Famously, he painted sunflowers many times including the seven ‘Sunflowers’ canvasses which were ‘nothing but sunflowers’.Sunflowers-detailOf the original seven sunflower paintings, five are now in museums around the world, one was destroyed in a fire during World War Two and one, amazingly, is still in a private collection. These paintings have been frequently reproduced and used to decorate all kinds of merchandise. I recently spotted these Vans on the Internet.Van-Gogh-Sunflowers-VansWhen I was younger I had a small print of this version below.

Van-Gogh-1888-Tyson-Philadelphia
‘Sunflowers’, Vincent Van Gogh. Arles 1888/1889. Oil on canvas. 92 × 72.5 cm Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, United States.

I copied these exuberant flowers onto a couple of metres of silk which I made into a top.

Nile-1992During the intervening 25 years, I, as well as the top have faded a wee bit, but here’s me earlier this year during the heatwave caught on camera mixing up some dyes wearing my old sunflower silk. It may have been very hot in Ipswich this summer, but nowhere the 45 degrees we had experienced in Egypt.

Me-working

Autumn Sunflowers – Late Arrivals at the Ball

helianthus annuusIt has been a very mild autumnal day here in East Anglia with the thermometer on my sheltered terrace reading 22°C (72°F) at lunchtime. This mild spell has saved my sunflowers (they were planted out too late – my fault, I forgot them) and they are only now just in full bloom. But what inspiration? We can all see why a certain amazing Dutchman worked so hard to capture their intense yet fleeting vibrancy.

I lived in Holland for a short while and when friends and relatives came to stay I used to love to take them to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. I was so inspired I even had a go at copying his sunflowers and made a summer top from the finished silk.

van gogh sunflowers
Sunflowers, Arles, 1888 – Van Gogh
Caroll S Tyson Collection, Philadelphia

Recently, I found the old top in a box in the loft and was struck by the change in my own style of working. But, I was also reminded of the admiration I had felt for Van Gogh as when you settle to copy a great work of art, even in a very small insignificant way, you notice more of the choices the master has made in creating the original work. Copying is a valuable tool for teaching.

It is not just the colour that is striking as even the sunflower’s outline is unmistakable.

sunflower shadow