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Sunny-side up

Ah, sweet May. Nights are finally in the 60s, and the houseplants can be scooted outside to make more room inside. Tomatoes can safely spread their roots without fear that someone is going to throw a cover over their head.

In Wichita, it's a gardening weekend of rare proportions: Herb Day and Mother's Day are both being celebrated, and temperatures are forecast to reach the upper 80s.

OK, I think we skipped spring again.

Oh well. This is not the time to complain, only to revel. And to recall that this is the Sunflower State's 150th birthday, and we might want to celebrate by planting, well, sunflowers.

For some people, every summer is a sunflower summer. Out of anything she could grow, sunflowers are Teri Athey's favorite.

"I love the color. It's one of my favorite colors. I love that they're big and bright and cheerful-looking flowers," Teri told me this week. She grows a different variety every year.

Sunflowers are easy to grow. If you've ever pulled seedlings out from under your birdfeeders, you know that they're too easy. In fact, that's how Susan Hund-Milne grows hers. She grabs a handful of black oil sunflower seeds, the ones in the shells that are fed to birds, and "I throw them out in the yard in the sunlight. They come up. I just love them because they're just so bodacious. They're huge and it's hard to imagine that a flower is that big and bright. And to watch all the insects on them — the harlequin bees — is fun, too."

See a theme here?

The sunflowers' nectar feeds the bees, and their seeds feed birds. Their sunny disposition feeds our souls.

The sunflower in bud follows the sun, moving from east to west as the day goes on and returning to the east at night. When the heads are full of seeds, they stay facing east, perhaps to protect the seeds from being scorched by the afternoon sun.

Roy Jones of Goddard transplanted some seedlings from his alley into the yard last year, and one grew over 16 feet tall. Roy measured it after he chopped it down. Another of the sunflowers fell and actually damaged his fence.

"It was a little difficult. The wind would whip 'em so bad," Roy said, even though he tied the sunflower stalks to the fence to prevent their falling.

This year he's planted seeds that Project Beauty gave out at the Wichita Garden Show.

Evelyn Neier, who gave out sunflower seed packs as favors at her Kansas sesquicentennial party in January, is pulling out all the sunflower stops at her house this summer.

"I have big Mammoth ones and then mixed-color ones and some tall ones and some short ones, and I'm trying some for cut-flower use that don't have the pollen so I can enjoy them inside," Evelyn said. "I've had the wild sunflowers come up, and I love them, too. It's the mainstay that has a ton of flowers."

Her growing advice: "Try different heights so you get more bang for your buck in terms of your space." Plant them just under the soil so they don't have to use all their energy to poke their way through.

"It's a real easy project for young kids because the seeds are big enough so they can handle them," Evelyn said.

Katie Gould grew sunflowers last year with her 5-year-old son, Max, and they plan to try it again this year. (Perhaps they should try Maximillions.)

"They were massive," Katie said. "He loved the sunflowers."

Keep sunflowers watered and weeded, then "keep an eye on them every day," Rhonda Newberry of Wellington advises. Bees and butterflies visit constantly, making for great photo opportunities.

"I always try to find something different," Rhonda said, "instead of the same old yellow. You'd be amazed at the range of color — dark maroon, almost black, to pale yellow that's almost white. And they are 2 inches in diameter to giants — heck, their heads will be between 12 and 15 inches."

Rhonda plants her sunflowers in a 15-foot row against a steel building, and many people plant them at the back of the yard because of their height. If you want to make them more a part of a concerted garden, Martha Stewart's website recommends planting tall Lemon Queen sunflowers, for example, with love-lies-bleeding, Bright Lights cosmos, morning glories, Mexican sunflowers and zinnias. They can be mass-planted as a dramatic backdrop or peppered throughout a border, Martha says.

Rhonda's sunflowers this year are already 6 inches high, but the window for growing sunflowers is as wide as a blue Kansas sky. Their traditional symbolism is of bright hope.

If Kansas' motto is "To the stars through difficulties," its state flower must translate as "To the sun with no worries."

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