Here comes the sun (flowers)

Sunflowers are a big part of both Farmer Bear’s garden and my own.

When I first started growing a garden, it was all business — vegetables. I wanted to grow the things I loved to eat or that I knew other people liked that I could give away. But there was one exception — sunflowers.

I’m someone who wants to plant everything, but there is never enough room so I have to pick and choose what’s most important. Even so, I always find a spot for a long row of sunflowers. I just love them so much.

The most obvious appeal about sunflowers is their size. There’s something so cool about a flower that is taller than me, even though it was planted from that little seed just a few months earlier. And we’re not talking slightly taller than me — 11, 12 feet is easily possible. In just one year I can have these plants that tower over me and everything. They always attract attention, too. The first several years I always had a plot in community gardens, so it was kind of my signature — I was the guy with the big sunflowers.

And like I said, they had to be big. I’d look through the seeds at the store to make sure I got the biggest variety available. Both in height and the size of the head, I wanted them to be huge. Just like some people enjoy growing 1,000-pound pumpkins, I want the biggest sunflowers I can get.

Those big sunflowers give the garden some character and add some cheer. The bees love them at first, then the birds and (less welcome) the squirrels. I’ve had squirrels make off with entire heads. As cheerful as a sunflower in its full glory is, a decapitated stalk is rather depressing.

Last year I tried to cook some of the seeds, and they turned out OK, but for the most part I’m content to let the birds eat them. I just plant them to look at them.

Sunflowers are a big part of Farmer Bear’s Garden. Like with my own gardens, they are the only non-vegetable that we see the bears planting, and they later share the seeds with their bird friends. The opening title spread shows a row of sunflowers growing progressively higher across the page, and they’re also prominently featured on the front cover.

My illustrator and I both enjoy sunflowers, so that was one reason to include them. Not only do they attract attention, but something about them just highlights the wonders of nature. In gardening it’s easy to get caught up in all the problems with the weather, bugs, plant diseases and other frustrations, but sunflowers remind us to just sit back and relax and take it all in sometimes.

This year, like Farmer Bear does in the book, I tried to get my 3-year-old son interested in planting the garden. We started seeds together in trays and planted them once they sprouted. He likes to water and look for weeds, and he helped us pick the tomatoes, strawberries and beans all summer. But throughout one of the things he was most interested in was “his sunflower” — the one flower from the first set of seeds we started that didn’t get eaten by rabbits or birds and ended up growing. As the sunflowers got taller and taller, he’d always walk up to that one and say, “Is this my sunflower? Is it the tallest one?” He was so excited to touch it, see how big around it was, and to finally see it open.

This week he finally got his wish. We watched every day as a few of the other ones opened and the head on his got bigger and bigger, but wasn’t quite open. I’d tell him, “Maybe tomorrow,” and then the next day it still wasn’t there. Today finally it opened and he got to see it at last.

Each day now we can look out the window in the morning and it’s like a bunch of little suns are rising outside the window. I’m glad we all get a chance to enjoy one of nature’s marvels. They provide an exclamation point at the end of summer.

My son’s sunflower, on the left, finally opened today.

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