Kids love sunflowers. The big seeds are easy for tiny fingers to plant, and the plants' amazing heights make them popular with the short set. Luckily, sunflowers are also easy to grow, so they're a terrific choice for a kid-friendly garden project. Once the flowers form, leave the seeds on the plants and watch birds come to visit, or harvest the seeds and roast them for a healthy snack.
Pick a place to plant the seeds. Sunflowers need lots of room and six to eight hours of full sun a day. If you put them along the edge of your vegetable garden, choose the north side of the vegetable garden so they don't shade other plants.
Prepare the soil by digging an area 60 cm (2 feet) wide and as long as you want the row of sunflowers to be. If you're growing several varieties, dig strips for each of them. Sunflowers require lots of nutrition, so add either compost or a slow-release fertiliser to the soil.
Plant seeds after the danger of frost has passed. Space seeds 2.5 cm (1 inch) deep and 15 cm (6 inches) apart, with two feet between rows. If your child is too young to read a ruler, mark 15 cm (6 inches) on a stick with paint or a marker so she can space the seeds correctly. Cover the area with chicken wire or screening to deter birds and other critters. Water after planting and give your child the job of keeping the soil moist while the seeds sprout.
Once the seedlings are 10 cm (4 inches) tall (in a week or two), have your child pluck out the smaller seedlings, leaving the sturdiest young plants spaced about 60 cm (2 feet) apart (more for giant varieties, less for dwarf varieties). Remove the protective screening.
Take a series of pictures -- perhaps once a week -- of your child standing next to one particular plant. It's fun to see the height increase dramatically over the course of the summer.
Tie each plant to a tall bamboo stake or to a fence or other support. As the plants get taller, they typically get top-heavy. Flowers will appear in about two and a half months.
Discuss with your child if she want to let the birds have the seeds to eat, or if she wants to harvest the seeds for roasting. If you want to save some seeds for yourselves, you'll need to protect the flower heads from marauding birds. Make a mesh "hood" for each plant. The bags that onions come in are ideal; you can also cut apart old pantyhose and use that. Don't use plastic bags, which trap moisture and cause the seeds to rot. Even if you're saving some seeds, leave other flower heads uncovered. Use a bird book to identify what kinds of birds arrive to enjoy the sunflower cafe.
Cut down the flower heads when the petals have completely shrivelled. Your child will have a great time removing the seeds from the heads by rubbing two heads together. Spread an old sheet on the ground to catch the seeds and have fun. Save a handful of seeds from each variety you grew, storing them in a sealed envelope that you label with the name of the variety and the year. Your child will love planting her own seeds next year.
Roast sunflower seeds by soaking them in salted water overnight then spreading on baking trays. Unless your child is old enough, you should take care of the roasting yourself -- three hours in a 93 degree C (200 degree F) oven. Cool, then store in airtight jars.
Sunflowers come in three size ranges. Regular sunflowers are 1.8 to 2 m (6 to 10 feet) tall; giant varieties are 3 to 6 m (10 to 20 feet) or more; dwarf varieties are 60 cm to 1.2 m (2 to 4 feet). You can also choose a variety of colours, from off-white through all shades of yellow and orange to deep red. Use a mix of sizes and colours for a dramatic display. You can grow dwarf varieties in containers, if the containers are big enough -- at least 60 cm (2 feet) across -- and if they get enough sun (six to eight hours a day). The flowers will face east when they're in bloom, so if you have more than one sunny spot, pick the one where you'll get a better view of the gorgeous flowers.