On quiet winter evenings spent studying seed catalogs, and even when popping perky sunflower seeds into the ground in spring, visions of cheery yellow, orange and even red sunflowers dance in people's heads. Hardly anyone dreams about the sober, hardworking trunk-like stems that support and nourish sunflowers, or wonders what will become of them. As it turns out, sunflower stalks can be put to many practical uses.
Teepees and Trellises
Use dried sunflower stalks to build circular pole bean teepees in the garden to support your pole beans. You can also grow living sunflower supports in a circular pattern, and plant beans around them. Or build rustic ladder-style garden trellises. At summer's end, cut spent stalks off at the ground and then dry for several days in a cool, dark, well-ventilated place. For each trellis, select two large, strong stalks as the vertical supports and lay them down on the ground. Cut smaller stalk sections to use as cross members (ladder steps). Tie these in place—very tightly—using baling wire or strong fishing line, allow trellises to fully dry, then brush or spray them with water seal.
For the Birds
Leaving the mature sunflower seed head attached, saw several stalks off near the base and dry the entire plant in your shed or garage. Come winter when songbirds are hungry, move it out near your bird feeder and plant it in the ground (supported with wires as needed).
Compost and Kindling
Some people stomp fibrous stalks flat to use them as a base for their compost pile, and also poke them into active piles to help introduce oxygen. (You can also grind them up to compost directly.) Others cut or break stalks into foot-long sections, dry them and use as kindling in their wood stoves.
Grow some playtime privacy in an open, otherwise sunny spot by growing a children's playhouse from sunflowers—using every size for maximum effect. As the stalks begin to shoot up, also plant a vigorous annual vine such as morning glory, which will weave around the stalks to help fill in the walls. When it's time to harvest the seed heads, carefully climb a ladder to do so but leave the vertical stalks undisturbed. Create post-harvest shade and privacy by adding a sunflower stalk ceiling to the playhouse.
Privacy and Shade
String sunflower stalks together with thin but sturdy wire to make a tall bamboo-style privacy screen or windbreak. That same section of sunflower-stalk screen can be tacked atop a simple structural frame to shade a patio, garden sitting area or children's summer playhouse.
To really keep the kids busy over the summer, challenge them to make flutes out of sunflower stalks, a Native American art.
Kim Joyce has been a journalist for more than 20 years, specializing in healthy foods and environmental health. She also served as communications director for the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges and production editor for Scholars Press. Joyce holds a B.A. in environmental studies and analysis, as well as an M.F.A. in creative writing from California State University, Chico.