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Get free 'Autumn Beauty' sunflower seeds at Harvest Day

Sunflowers can be planted in late summer for autumn blooms

'Autumn Beauty' sunflowers are often multicolored in shades of bright yellow, dark gold and rich bronze.

'Autumn Beauty' sunflowers are often multicolored in shades of bright yellow, dark gold and rich bronze. Kathy Morrison

What can you plant in August that will add wow to your autumn table – and make birds very happy? Fast-growing, sun-loving sunflowers.

Sunflowers aren’t just for summer in Sacramento. In fact, this sunny annual can produce two crops: One planted in late winter or early spring for June flowers and July seeds, plus a second round planted in late summer or early fall for late fall or winter harvest. Quick-maturing varieties can be planted as late as October in Sacramento to produce blooms by New Year’s Day. (Their only limitation: They can’t take hard frost.)

See for yourself with free sunflower seeds offered by Sacramento Digs Gardening. The SDG seeds are part of the goody bags available free (while supply lasts) to anyone who turns out for Saturday’s Harvest Day at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center in Fair Oaks Park. Gates open at 8 a.m. (There will be lots of other great stuff in those bags, too.)

We Sacramentans love sunflowers, probably because sunflowers love Sacramento and the Central Valley. Yolo County produces much of the nation’s hybrid sunflower seed – not to eat, but to grow (often just for their flowers).

When planted in late summer, sunflower seeds sprout rapidly in warm soil. Plant seeds about 1 inch deep and keep evenly moist; the better the soil, the faster they’ll grow.

Most sunflowers mature in under 100 days; that’s not the time to produce flowers, but to form dried seed. A seed-packed sunflower head is ready to cut when the back of the flower head turns yellow to brown, the petals shrivel and the head droops forward, due to the heavy seeds.

You also can tell they’re ready to pick by the increased bird activity around your sunflowers. To keep the seeds for yourself to eat (or to plant next year), place a large paper grocery bag over the ripe head and secure it with string around the stem. Then, cut the stem and let the flower head dry inside the bag in a cool dark place. The seeds will drop into the bottom of the bag for easy collection.

As a cut flower, sunflowers offer a quick return on any time or effort. Sunflower blooms often appear in 50 to 60 days and branching varieties keep producing more flowers for at least another month, depending on the variety. Planted now, your sunflowers will provide bouquets in time for Halloween.

For our Harvest Day giveaway, we chose ‘Autumn Beauty’ sunflowers, which live up to their name. Growing 4 to 6 feet tall, this branching variety matures in 70 to 80 days with flowers in six to seven weeks. An excellent cut flower with strong stems, the large blooms are often bicolor in shades of bright yellow, dark gold and rich bronze.

Hosted by the Sacramento County master gardeners, Harvest Day is the Sacramento region’s largest free garden education event. Fair Oaks Hort Center is located at 11549 Fair Oaks Blvd., Fair Oaks.

Details: https://sacmg.ucanr.edu/Harvest_Day/.

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Garden Checklist for week of April 14

It's still not warm enough to transplant tomatoes directly in the ground, but we’re getting there.

* April is the last chance to plant citrus trees such as dwarf orange, lemon and kumquat. These trees also look good in landscaping and provide fresh fruit in winter.

* Smell orange blossoms? Feed citrus trees with a low dose of balanced fertilizer (such as 10-10-10) during bloom to help set fruit. Keep an eye out for ants.

* Apply slow-release fertilizer to the lawn.

* Thoroughly clean debris from the bottom of outdoor ponds or fountains.

* Spring brings a flush of rapid growth, and that means your garden needs nutrients. Fertilize shrubs and trees with a slow-release fertilizer. Or mulch with a 1-inch layer of compost.

* Azaleas and camellias looking a little yellow? If leaves are turning yellow between the veins, give them a boost with chelated iron.

* Trim dead flowers but not leaves from spring-flowering bulbs such as daffodils and tulips. Those leaves gather energy to create next year's flowers. Also, give the bulbs a fertilizer boost after bloom.

* Pinch chrysanthemums back to 12 inches for fall flowers. Cut old stems to the ground.

* Mulch around plants to conserve moisture and control weeds.

* From seed, plant beans, beets, cantaloupes, carrots, corn, cucumbers, melons, radishes and squash.

* Plant onion sets.

* In the flower garden, plant seeds for asters, cosmos, celosia, marigolds, salvia, sunflowers and zinnias.

* Transplant petunias, zinnias, geraniums and other summer bloomers.

* Plant perennials and dahlia tubers for summer bloom.

* Mid to late April is about the last chance to plant summer bulbs, such as gladiolus and tuberous begonias.

* Transplant lettuce seedlings. Choose varieties that mature quickly such as loose leaf.

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