It's the middle of May and time to plant sunflowers! There are many beautiful varieties to choose from, and they are easy to grow — just work up a spot in the soil, poke some holes with your fingers, and toss the seeds inside. Generally, the more space you leave between them, the larger the sunflowers will grow. My favorite varieties are the Tarahumara heirlooms, with their giant white-seeded flowers and multi-headed, long-living plants.
If you have kids, try growing a living playhouse out of sunflowers and scarlet runner beans. Even if you don't have kids, this is a great way to create a shady seasonal hideout for gardeners of all ages. It's easy: All you need is about 25 square feet of garden space and four types of seeds: sunflower, amaranth, scarlet runners and white clover.
1. Till or sheet mulch the area you plan to use for the playhouse. This can be round or square, 5 to 8 feet across.
2. Around the perimeter, scratch out a furrow 3 inches deep and place your sunflower seeds in the bottom, about 10 inches apart. Spacing is important because there needs to be enough room for the stalks to get big and strong to form the "walls" of the playhouse. Choose a variety that grows at least 60 inches tall, such as Giant Sungold, Holiday or Soraya (all available through Johnny's Seeds) Be sure to leave a 2-foot gap to create your door.
3. Plant one scarlet runner bean on each side of every sunflower seed, about 3 inches away. These will grow up the stalks of the sunflowers, enclose the playhouse in brilliant orange flowers, and eventually, the trailing vines will cross over the top.
4. In the space between the scarlet runner beans, sprinkle a few amaranth seeds. These will fill in the mid-high zone with bright color.
5. Carefully go around the perimeter and close up the furrows, covering the seeds with soil without disturbing their position.
6. In the middle of the area, inside the sunflower walls, broadcast a generous amount of subterranean white clover and chop it into the soil with a metal garden rake.
7. Pay special attention to the babies as they sprout, and keep the whole area well watered and weeded so the sunnies and beans can get as big as possible and so that the clover in the middle can grow fast and form a soft, luxurious floor for your playhouse.
8. When the sunflower stalks are about 3 feet high, train the runner beans to climb the sunflowers. When the bean vines start to grow longer than the sunflowers are tall, train them towards the center of the playhouse and eventually, hook vines together across the top to create your "roof."
That's it! By midsummer you will have a beautiful and edible secret garden hideout that should continue to bloom and thrive until late fall. This plant combination can also be used to create a privacy screen across the front of your lawn, or if you want to get really creative, build an intricate labyrinth across a large area.
Heather Jo Flores is the author of Food Not Lawns, How to Turn Your Yard into a Garden and Your Neighborhood into a Community. Join her and share your own stories with a global network of gardeners in the Official Food Not Lawns discussion group on Facebook: www.facebook.com/groups/foodnotlawns.official.