– Sunflower folly

This is what hope looks like.

Seeds in hand
During a spring semester clouded by the recession and my own economic downturn, I forced myself to take on tasks that were both optimistic and doable. I tended to my students and their work; I cultivated ties to colleagues and friends; I hoed the already neat rows of my resume; and I scattered queries for teaching jobs.

And I planted sunflowers, a huge patch of them. A “folly,” it’s called. In the midst of the sober and the sensible, I had to do something dramatic, quirky, and above all possible. I mean, sunflowers I can grow. (So can you.)

Along with my helpers Grace, Jimmy, and George, I stuck those seeds in the dirt only 10 days ago, on May 10th. It’s too soon to tell whether the folly will be a success. Amazingly, however, there has been an unexpected bounty on the teaching front: I’ve been rehired, as funding to the MIT writing program has been restored for the coming year.

And I am so… HAPPY! I feel the way I expect those sunflowers to make me feel when they bloom in August.

There’s still time for you to plant your own sunflower folly, according to the tutorial that starts below. The original concept can be found in Katherine Whiteside’s The Way We Garden Now (an excellent, unfussy, and imaginative garden project book, by the way). Variations are by me.

Overview: A garden folly, according to Katherine Whiteside, is “a whimsical structure characterized by over-the-top eccentricity.” It might be “a small-scale castle” or a “nonsensical Asian temple” — something decorative and unexpected that adds “a touch of nuttiness” to the garden. A sunflower folly — a big, variegated patch in an unplanted or shabby part of the yard — will provide a diverse and sunny spectacle of big flowers and not be permanent or expensive.

Supplies (you can get the last 5 items on this list at your local Lowe’s):

  • a good-sized, bare patch in your yard that gets some sun. (Mine is a 10 x 10 spot on the front lawn that has never really sustained grass. Whiteside gave over a 35 x 35 square on a “boring dry slope of lawn” that she “tired of mowing.”)
  • sunflower seed packets (I needed 13 for my 10 x 10 spot. These should be in varieties of different heights and colors. See below for details.)
  • landscaper’s cloth, enough to cover your seed bed
  • landscaper’s cloth pins, 25 to 50 of them
  • clothespins, 20 or so
  • clothesline rope or cord, 150 feet
  • plant markers, 1 per seed packet, and pen


  • tiller (Jimmy rented one from Taylor Rental, and it made quick work of turning over the hard-packed dirt and existing grass. You could use a spade, but that might take all day.)
  • bow rake


  • time — 3 hours advance work (renting the tiller, buying the seeds and supplies), and about 10 hours prep and planting, over two days (about 5 hours each day), or 13 hours total
  • money — $70 (not including tiller rental, which is another $30 or so for a day)
  • recovery — 2 days of KILLER hamstring pain, and a few doses of Advil

Seeds I used (I bought these from Burpee, Gurney’s, and my local Allandale Farm), from smallest to tallest:

  • Double Dandy Hybrid (B) — red, 18-24″ high
  • Sunspot (G) — yellow, 2′ high
  • Teddy Bear (A) — yellow gold, 2-3′ high
  • Tithonia Fiesta del Sol (G) — orange, 28-30″ high
  • Tithonia Sundance (G) — scarlet orange, 3′ high
  • Tangina (B) — golden orange with dark centers, 3.25′ high
  • Florists’ Favorite (A) — mix, from pale to vivid yellow, 4-5′ high
  • Baby Bear (B) — golden yellow petals and dark centers, 4.5-5.5′ high
  • Lemon Queen (G) — pale lemon and dark centers, 5′ high
  • Vanilla Ice (B) — creamy lemon yellow, 5-6′ high
  • Velvet Queen (G) — red, 6′ high
  • Cappuccino Hybrid (B) — orange rust over yellow petals, 6-7′ high
  • Mammoth Gray Stripe (G) — yellow, 9-12′ high


1. Prepare the bed for your folly. Till the soil to a depth of at least 6″, and remove potato-sized rocks, but don’t worry about strawberry-sized stones or smaller pebbles. Rake evenly.



2. Cut cord into 10′ or so lengths and tie ends so you have a loop. Drape the first piece into a small, uneven pod- or pie-shaped swath on the dirt to indicate where you’ll plant seeds from one packet.

Purple cord

Cord on dirt

3. Using a stick or your index finger, press seeds into the ground about 6″ apart and to the depth specified on the seed packet. (I noticed that big seeds, like the Mammoth Gray, get planted to a depth of 1″, while the little ones only .25″.) Use a plant marker to identify the seeds planted in that roped-off area. (In photo, notice how Grace and I floated some old pieces of MDF on the dirt to kneel on as we planted. Otherwise, we would have pitted the bed with deep knee or foot prints.)



4. Repeat step 3 until all the seed packets are planted. Some thoughts on a scheme: Make the pie- or pod-shapes irregular, “to prevent straight rows of sunflowers” and so that, when blooming, the folly will “undulate with waves of color,” according to Whiteside. Think about where you want the tallest sunflowers to appear, in relation to the shortest. I planted the tallest in the center; I put some medium tall ones along the side closest to the house; I planted medium ones along the the sides perpendicular to the house; and I planted the shortest ones along the side nearest the sidewalk.  (What’s my rationale for this scheme? When I look out my dining room window onto the folly in bloom, I want to see only sunflowers and I’d like my view of the street to be obscured. Conversely, from the sidewalk, I’d like passers-by to see a graduated display of sunflowers — from shortest to tallest, buttressed on sides by mediums.)


5. When done with the planting and marking, wet the soil with your garden hose on “shower” for about 10 minutes.


Note: As you can see in this picture, at some point I ran out of purple cord (100 feet, which is all I had purchased, is not enough), so I started using sticks from a bag of kindling to mark off seed sections.

6. Cover the bed loosely and evenly with landscaper’s cloth. Overlap rows slightly. Pin down the cloth along the four sides with the landscaper’s cloth pins. Use clothespins here and there to keep the rows of fabric attached to each other. I had to tiptoe among rows to do this — it was like playing a version of Twister. (This important step is to prevent crows, or, in my neighborhood, squirrels, from eating all the seeds you just planted!)





7. Lightly water the area again. And thank your helpers for all their hard work!

Water again

8. Every two or three days, if it hasn’t rained, lightly water the bed again, for 5 minutes.

9. In a week to 10 days, you should see what Whiteside calls “some under-the-covers action.” And, indeed, when I peeked yesterday, I noticed that I’ve got some good sunflower sprouts under there!

10. When sprouts are 3″ tall, remove landscaper’s cloth, pins, and clothespins.

11. If you have deer, now would be a good time to install a deer fence, according to Whiteside, who says not to worry about crows, which won’t eat the seedlings.

12. Maintenance demands of sunflowers are low. Water during dry periods (July). Weed or don’t. Whiteside says that, as the sunflowers take off, they will crowd out the weeds.

13. Look forward to August, when there should be riot!, a party!, a celebration of sunflowers in your garden.


Thanks to Jimmy for all the photographs.

16 thoughts on “– Sunflower folly

  1. Wow! That is an ambitious undertaking, Jane! I can’t wait to see pictures when it’s in full bloom. It looks like it’s going to make a gorgeous screen from the street, too.

  2. Pingback: Pages tagged "grass"

  3. I am so impressed–I know how much work this takes, but the results are truly rewarding. Please post growth photos throughout the season.

  4. Thanks, all.

    And, Em, I *could* purchase fox urine to keep the squirrels and rabbits away (is that true also for deer?), but I don’t want to be the kind of obsessive gardener who would purchase urine.

    I’ve heard that a mixture of cayenne pepper and water, sprayed on the leaves and repeated throughout the summer, also works. And… I might just be the kind of, er, attentive gardener who would do that. 🙂

  5. Congrats on being re-hired — YAY! That is incredible news. It makes me hopeful as well.

    The rest of this post is amazing — so ambitious, both through the actual undertaking and the documentation of it.

  6. Pingback: - Sprouts « Leaf – Stitch – Word

  7. Pingback: - First sunflower « Leaf – Stitch – Word

  8. Pingback: - Habitat « Leaf – Stitch – Word

  9. Pingback: - Harvest begins. « Leaf – Stitch – Word

  10. Pingback: - Harvest « Leaf – Stitch – Word

  11. Hey, I was excited to see that someone else took Katherine Whiteside’s lovely idea of a sunflower folly to heart. I absolutely adore the concept and have constructed one of my own! I used some old split rail fencing around it and am collecting old metal watering cans to hang on the fence posts. It is a fun and uplifting project. They bring smiles and joy to those who see it. I have only planted it about ten days ago and am anxiously waiting for blooms!

    • Connie, that’s great! Thanks for stopping by and letting me know. Yours sounds quite artistic — I’ll keep that old fencing idea in mind for future gardening.

      I had great luck with my folly. The only variation to Whiteside’s plan is that I did do a little weeding and thinning about a month after the seeds sprouted.

  12. Pingback: Last-ditch attempt to solve the unsolveable | leaf – stitch – word

  13. Pingback: Return of the sunflower folly, with modifications | leaf – stitch – word

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s