For bloom or for food, sunflowers are versatile garden plants that just happen to be a favorite for our bird friends, too.

Of the almost 500 bird species that have been identified in Oregon, many of those who prefer seed-producing flowers enjoy sunflowers.

Sunflowers do best in areas with full sun. Seeds should be sown during April and May, although that window might be pushed open into June for North Coast gardeners, as a soil temperature of 65 to 75 degrees is optimal. Sunflowers take one to two weeks to germinate. I know it's hard, but don't be afraid to thin your plants. The strongest sunflowers really do produce best. Water deeply but infrequently, so the roots grow deep and the stems strong. Fertilizer in spring is enough - too much nitrogen and the plants end up foliage-heavy and bloom-weak.

Cutworms and weevils seem to present the most challenge to plants in the spring. Try to avoid overhead watering in cool weather - sunflowers are also susceptible to rust. Weeding around sunflowers will pay off, since weeds compete with young sunflowers for nutrients. Birds are naturally attracted to a sunflower in full seed. You might consider either planting enough plants, such as 'Giganteus,' to feed your family's seed need and that of the birds, or covering the plants with netting. The smaller, ornamental sunflowers such as 'Soraya' don't offer as much seed head as 'Kong' or 'Mammoth.' Birds do love 'Sunseed.'

Whether you plan to eat the sunflower seeds or display the sunflowers in a vase, harvest is simple.

To harvest seeds for eating, cut the sunflower heads when the plant's small leaves around the head are beginning to shrivel and the head is starting to nod down. Hang the heads upside down in a warm, dry place. For salting, rub the seeds of the heads and soak them overnight in a gallon of water to a cup of salt (or to your liking). Drain, dry and place the seeds on a baking sheet in a 300 degree oven for an hour or so, or until golden brown, stirring occasionally. Store in an airtight container.

For cutting, keep in mind that flowers cut early in the morning tend to perform better in the vase than plants stressed by the afternoon sun. Sunflowers can last up to a week in a vase, depending upon the condition of the flower when you cut it. Also, cut young flowers and choose ones that are just beginning to open. Once you cut them, keep the stems wet by placing them in a bucket of water. Once indoors, recut the stems at an angle to increase the amount of stem that can take up water and remove all but the top several leaves.

There are several types of sunflowers that make good cutting plants - single-stem and multiflowering. Single-stem plants produce one "main" or significant flower, followed by lesser flowers. Multiple flowering plants produce bunches of flowers. For cut flowers, it's good to plant a succession of single-stem plants for continuous bloom. Multiflowering plants will offer you lots of flowers for a longer time, but the foliage tends to get raggedy. If it's pretty foliage you're after, you might want to consider planting several crops of multiple flowering sunflower plants, and pulling the oldest when the leaves look shabby.

As for varieties, here are some that you might want to try:

• 'Italian White' features creamy white blossoms and a dark brown center. Thought to be an heirloom variety brought to the United States from Europe, 'Italian White' also has been observed in our Southwestern deserts. The multiflowering plant bears 4-inch flowers on 4-foot-tall plants.

• Besides the great name, the single-stem 'Ring Of Fire' boasts bicolored petals that are dark red in the center and golden yellow outside. The 5- to 6-inch diameter flowers grow on long, strong stems, making them perfect for tall arrangements.

• The single-stem 'Jade' has been heralded as the first lime green sunflower. The pollenless, 3- to 4-inch flowers have lime green petals and a green center. The long stems work well for cutting and arranging. 'Jade,' like 'Ring of Fire,' is four feet tall.

• 'The Joker' is a mix of semi-double and double flowers in red, orange, brown and gold. This multi-branched variety grows to about six feet and is pollen-free, making it an excellent cut flower candidate. 'The Joker' is one of the earliest blooming sunflowers.

• Like 'The Joker,' 'Prado Red' is one of the first sunflowers to bloom. Each plant produces 15 to 20 deep red flowers. The multiflowering 'Prado Red' is sensitive to cold temperatures, so wait well beyond the danger of frost to plant.

• The multiflowering sunflower 'Autumn Mix' is a favorite for finches. The 5- to 6-inch-wide flowers are yellow and rust and the plants usually grow more than six feet tall.

• The single-stem 'Teddy Bear' can be best described as cuddly - this is the little sunflower with full, doubled yellow flowers that look like puffy pincushions. The plants are about 18 inches to two feet tall and hold up well in floral arrangements. 'Teddy Bear' is a good candidate for container planting. Another dwarf variety, the single-stem 'Music Box' works well in containers, too. It's available in yellow and cream and a patch of both colors is quite lovely.

• 'Kong,' on the other hand, is a really, really big sunflower that can reach 12 feet tall. The bright yellow blooms are 4 to 6 inches across on this single-stem plant. For a forest effect, plant a stand of 'Kong.'

Cathy Peterson belongs to the Clatsop County Master Gardener Association. "In the Garden" runs weekly in Coast Weekend. Send comments and gardening news to "In the Garden," The Daily Astorian, P.O. Box 210, Astoria, OR 97103 or online at peterson@pacifer.com

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