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Growing Sunflowers and Planting Window Boxes

How to grow sunflowers
What better way to welcome the spring than by planting some sunflower seeds? And what better way to celebrate Barbie’s brand new DVD Barbie Thumbelina than to ask TV presenter and ecology and wildlife expert Ellie Harrison the best way to grow them?

Sunflowers grow fast and tall, and are a great way to attract wildlife to your garden – kids of all ages will love this gardening activity, and they can help every step of the way!

Sunflowers - Free wallpaper (c) ScenicBritain.co.uk

Gardening tips for sunflowers
Choose a spot
in the part of your garden which gets the most sun (6 – 8 hours a day is perfect), sheltered from strong winds and make sure there’s something nearby (like a fence) to tie the stem to. You don’t have to stick to one area of your garden: spread the colour!

Choose a variety of sunflower seed. Growing giants like American Giant, Russian Mammoth or Kong Hybrid (this one is multi-headed) will require special attention. Dwarf varieties like Music Box and Teddy Bear are ideal for patio pots or large window boxes.

Wait until a week or two after the last frost has thawed, and soak your seeds the night before planting in a little warm water.

Dig some holes. Check the back of your seed packet, but as a rule of thumb the holes should be 5cm deep and 15cm apart.

Plant, water and protect the sunflower plants. After about 2 weeks you should start to see some shoots coming through. If there’s someone munching on these, a plastic cup with the bottom cut off or a milk carton chopped in half are some quick and easy ways to make little protective tents around the baby plants. Make the kids responsible for watering them regularly in the evenings. If the sunflowers begin to bend over, get the kids to help tie them up – one of their old t-shirts or a ripped up plastic bag are perfect for this job.

Watch and learn about sunflowers. Make a little book or chart of the sunflowers, help the kids notice

·        Which plants grow tallest – take their picture next to the sunflowers so they can relate to the growth.

·        Which head grows biggest – great practise at using a ruler and adding on centimetres!

·        How a flowering heads track the sun - a good way to discover more about sunrise and sunset.

·        What wildlife is attracted to the flowers and to the seeds, help them see which birds like them. If it looks like the heads are going to be very popular with your garden friends, cover a couple of them up with thin muslin, so the children have some seeds left over to plant the following year.

Harvesting sunflower seeds
Growing sunflowers really is the perfect family project, as the fun doesn’t end when the summer does. Wait until the sunflower heads have gone completely brown on the plant, then chop them off with enough stem to hang them up to dry out for a couple of weeks. Once they’re dry, rub the heads together to loosen the seeds. Put 50 or so seeds aside in a marked envelope to use next year. Then split the rest in half. With the first half, make a tasty snack for the wildlife in your garden, like a lard seedcake, or just sprinkle them out to be eaten. Soak the second half in salty water overnight then roast them in a hot oven on some greaseproof paper for a tasty kiddie snack!

Thanks to your children, your garden has looked great and been a good source of food to all sorts of birds and animals which live around them. So, you see, even the smallest person really can make a big difference!

How to grow a Barbie Thumbelina window box
We’ve teamed up with TV presenter and ecology and wildlife expert Ellie Harrison to bring your windowsills to life this spring with a fun, fairy-filled window box that will attract the prettiest of butterflies and insects. Your children can help every step of the way with our how-to guide to installing a window box with the right type of flowers. Plus you can download exclusive Barbie Thumbelina fairy cut-outs to flit around your box and add a bit of fairy magic!

Getting started with a window box
Choose the right window sill
for your box to sit on. Ideally, it should be in quite a sunny spot (don’t worry if you can only find a shady one.  It should be wide enough for a standard window box to fit safely on.

Get the right window box from your garden centre, one which fits to within 5 cm of the frame of your window, either side. If you can’t find the perfect match, why not get your kids to help you make and weatherproof a basic wooden window box?

Think about what plants you need for your window box. Will your kids choose some trailing plants and some with upright flowers, go for a wildflower riot or just have a box of daisies? Here are a few helpers to steer them along the right paths:

  • If it’s shady go for Impatiens, Pansies or Fuchsias (go or a sweet-smelling variety of the latter for a heady evening scent!).
  • If you’re away a lot choose plants which can withstand some time without water, like  trailing Lobelias, upright French Marigolds or Geraniums. Herbs like Rosemary and Oregano also don’t mind some time untended.
  • For wonderful scents choose climbing sweet peas or trailing sweet alyssum.
  • If you like it wild, go for a whole box of Ox Eye Daisies, Cornflowers, Poppies or delicious-smelling Lavender. These might also help attract birds and insects to your garden.
  • Try some dwarf sunflowers

How to prepare a window box
Line the box with a thin gauze like muslin or some dried moss, then put a thin layer of small stones down. Fill the box with pure potting mix, if you don’t have a garden, or a mixture of potting mix and earth from your garden. Make sure the box always has something under it to catch hold the water.

Check the back of your packet, but you can start most of these plants outside from the end of April. If there have been frosts or you’re keen for success, start your window box off indoors, then slowly start leaving it out once the plants are through – first during the daytime, then at night too. Ellie Harrison

Let the fairies fly in!
Download the Barbie Thumbelina fairies and get the kids to colour them in using wax crayons, so the colour doesn’t run (unless you have access to a sneaky laminator at work, in which case use felt tip and cover them in plastic!). Go to town with glitter or left-over tinsel so they really catch the sun. Cut them out and mount the fairies on bendy straws or kebab sticks. Then firmly stick your fairies in the window box so the new plants grow around them.

Looking after your window box
Make sure the kids water the box once a day, at least when it isn’t raining, and preferably in the evening. See if they can notice – and even draw and label – plants which do well and those which aren’t quite so happy.  

Find out more about Sunflowers, flowers and Barbie Thumbelina
Check out the magical Barbie Thumbelina trailer, or find out more about Barbie Thumbelina on her website. [
www.barbie.co.uk/promotions]. The DVD, released March 16th, comes with a free pack of sunflower seeds so you and your little ones can get started making a difference right away!

The RSPB has a great mini collection pack of wildlife attracting seeds which includes sunflowers and flowers for window boxes.

The Eden Project does two great packs of Big Tall Sunflower Seeds (American Giants) and Patio Sunflower Seeds (Big Smile).

Really Wild Flowers has some great advice on buying the right type of wildflower seeds as well as a shop so you can grow your own.


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