Sunflowers are prime flowers for companion planting. Companion planting is planting two or more different types of plants together to benefit one or both plants. Many gardeners believe companion planting can help improve the soil, ward off pests, and even increase crop yields.
Even if the practice doesn’t have much scientific proof behind it, companion planting is still an excellent way to add variety, save space, and keep all your favorite plants in one area.
I talk more about companion planting in this episode of my podcast, Organic Gardening For Beginners, if you’d like to dig a little deeper into the concept. It’s one of my favorite gardening methods to use.
Tall, cheery sunflowers make excellent borders and screens, and their large size can make a significant impact in the garden. But sunflowers are more than just a pretty face—they’re excellent at attracting bees and other pollinators, which can help increase yields in nearby fruits and vegetables.
Some other benefits of companion planting with sunflower plants include:
- Sunflowers attract scores of pollinators and beneficial insects, which helps ensure your fruiting plants are adequately pollinated.
- They provide dappled shade to protect more sensitive plants from the harsh afternoon sun.
- Sunflower heads can be left to go to seed, attracting birds who may also stop and pull any caterpillars or grubs from your garden.
- Plant a variety of sunflower types so you have some extra blooms to harvest as cut flowers. Beauty in your garden and in your home!
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The best companion plants for sunflowers
Grow one or grow them all; the following plants make excellent companions to sunflowers. With a bit of planning, you can have a beautiful and bountiful garden with a strong focus on symbiotic relationships, pollinators, and helpful insects.
Surprisingly, planting two tall crops together doesn’t create unnecessary competition between them. The sunflowers will help support the shallow-rooted cornstalks as they grow; in return, the corn will provide some needed shade for the sunflower roots.
Additionally, the sunflowers will draw in hordes of beneficial insects that can help keep your corn plants free of aphids, caterpillars, and other pests. Corn is pollinated by the wind, so it doesn’t need bees to set corn, but the extra pollinator activity can’t hurt!
Sunflowers are the perfect companions for cucumbers because they provide two things that cucumbers rely on – support and shade. Even though cucumbers are warm-season vegetables, they appreciate afternoon shade on scorching days, which sunflowers are happy to provide.
Sunflowers are also natural pest control for cucumbers because they attract insects such as ladybugs and green lacewings that feast on cucumber beetles. Sunflower blooms also attract beneficial pollinators for cucumbers, which will help ensure you have a hearty crop this season.
Even if you grow self-pollinating cucumbers, insect pollination can help guarantee a good crop, so
Sunflowers provide some much-needed shade for cool-season crops like lettuce. If lettuce gets too hot, it bolts quickly, so growing it beneath sunflowers ensures a longer, more consistent harvest.
Additionally, lettuce is a delicate crop that heavy rains can easily damage. Planting it beneath sunflowers helps to protect it from raindrops and keeps the leaves dry and free of rot.
Kale is another cool-season crop that appreciates the shade sunflowers provide. With tall neighbors, the summer sun won’t slow down your kale production over the summer, especially if you grow a dark variety like dinosaur kale, also known as Lacinato.
Certain varieties of kale seem to be more prone to aphid infestations in my garden (ironically, dinosaur kale for me), so for those, I like to grow flowers that attract beneficial insects nearby. Sunflowers definitely fit that bill.
The ladybugs can drink nectar from the sunflower, then fly down to the kale to clean up any aphids they find. Win-win!
Sunflowers’ sturdy stems provide structure for peas to climb up. The two species do not compete for nutrients, and because peas fix nitrogen in the soil, sunflowers benefit from the extra nutrient boost.
Peas are generally grown in the cool spring weather, so if you have a crop you aren’t ready to pull out, the sunflowers’ shade may extend your pea-growing season.
Harsh, direct sunlight can cause sun scald on peppers, so the shade cast by sunflowers is highly beneficial on hot afternoons. Sunflowers also improve conditions in the soil, making for a bigger, healthier harvest of peppers.
Sunflowers secrete nectar from the undersides of their leaves, even when they are not flowering. The nectar attracts beneficial insects that eat aphids – great news for peppers, which are particularly susceptible to aphids.
Pumpkins are another sprawling crop that not only looks good with sunflowers but is a great companion with sunflowers.
Pumpkins’ large leaves help to suppress weeds, eliminating competition for sunflowers. In return, sunflowers attract pollinating insects to ensure a good crop of pumpkins.
Sunflowers and pumpkins are both heavy feeders, so you must provide these plants with lots of compost and organic fertilizer to prevent the two crops from competing for nutrients.
Like peppers, tomatoes love the heat but can experience sun scald on hot days. Planting sunflowers near tomatoes provides much-needed shade on hot afternoons.
While you can try to use the sunflower stalks as a living trellis, some tomato plants are super-producers and will get very heavy with fruit, so it’s best to use caution.
Draping a branch or two over your sunflowers shouldn’t pose much of a risk to your sunflowers, but I would recommend having some additional support for your tomato plants just to be on the safe side.
Tomatoes are also susceptible to harmful pests such as aphids, whiteflies, and tomato hornworms. Fortunately, sunflowers attract many beneficial insects that feast on these pests, helping keep your tomato crop healthy and pest-free.
Zucchini plants will sprawl across the ground at the feet of your sunflower plants, shading the soil and preventing weed growth all summer. In return, the sunflowers will attract the insect pollinators needed to ensure a continuous supply of zucchini fruit all summer.
Just be sure to prepare the soil with lots of compost and water with organic fertilizer throughout the growing season. Sunflowers and zucchinis are both heavy feeders, and they will not benefit each other if they compete for nutrients.
10. Pole Beans
Pole beans are climbing plants that require some form of support to grow. Sunflowers make the perfect living trellis for pole beans. Pole beans will happily wind their way up a sunflower, and the two species will benefit from each other’s company.
As the pole beans climb, they provide shade for the sunflower’s roots, and the sunflower will protect the beans from wind damage. When your corn ears are ready to harvest, be careful when removing them from the corn stalk in case a bean vine has wrapped itself around the stalk.
Marigolds are known for their pest repelling ability. Although most of the testimonials for marigolds are purely anecdotal rather than scientific, why not plant them with your sunflowers and find out for yourself?
Marigolds’ strongly scented flowers keep leafhoppers, beetles, and cabbage worms far away from precious plants. Marigolds also attract beneficial insects, like ladybugs, that feed on aphids.
A bed of sunflowers underplanted with marigolds looks fantastic as the two species’ flower colors are complimentary. Dwarf sunflowers look especially good with marigolds since it brings their blooms closer to the same level.
Nasturtiums and sunflowers, with their red, yellow, and orange blooms, look stunning together. They also happen to be great companion species due to their growth habit and ability to reduce pest pressure.
Nasturtiums create a dense canopy of foliage, shading the soil and suppressing weeds, which reduces competition for sunflowers. Trailing nasturtiums will happily climb the sunflower stalks, bringing their blooms up to the perfect height for hummingbirds.
The flowers also protect sunflowers from pests like aphids because they act as a trap crop. This means that you sacrifice the nasturtium to protect your more valuable sunflowers. Pests such as aphids, whiteflies, and cucumber beetles will head to the nasturtium first, leaving your sunflowers alone.
Snapdragons are cool-weather flowers, so they appreciate some shade. Sunflowers make excellent companions for snapdragons because their large flower heads and leaves cast the perfect amount of partial shade.
Your snapdragons will bloom in the spring before the sunflowers have gotten a lot of height to them. By the time they are tall, the snapdragons will be going through their summer dormancy and appreciate the extra dose of shade.
As the sunflowers start to fade and you remove the spent flowers, the snapdragons will come back to life for a second round of blooms in early fall, letting you squeeze a maximum number of blooms from one space.
Calendula’s bright orange and yellow blooms look fantastic alongside sunflowers, and the two species benefit from growing together. Like marigolds, try growing calendulas with dwarf sunflowers to have all the flowers at a similar height for the most impact.
Talk about a kid-friendly combination!
Calendulas and sunflowers have the same soil condition requirements, making them a low-maintenance planting. They both attract loads of beneficial pollinators that will keep your garden buzzing.
Even though lupines are native prairie plants, they don’t mind some afternoon shade, so planting them amongst sunflowers is highly beneficial. Lupines reward sunflowers by improving soil fertility. As a legume, lupines fix nitrogen in the soil and make it available to sunflowers and other plants.
Lupines bloom in just about every color of the rainbow, and the blue and purple spires look particularly striking against the golden yellow of sunflower petals.
Sunflowers are a great neighbor for basil to help extend your harvest period. Basil, like lettuce, has a habit of bolting if it gets too hot. This can be a problem if you’re growing your basil to harvest for cooking, as bolted basil tends to taste bitter.
To avoid your basil bolting, take advantage of the shade provided by sunflowers. You will still need to pinch off flowers when you see them developing, but sunflowers will make this job much easier.
On the other hand, if you’re growing some extra basil to harvest the flowering stalks for bouquets, leave the flower buds to develop and enjoy the beautiful sight of white and purple basil flowers at the feet of your golden sunflowers. You’ll never see so many bees as you’ll observe with a sunflower/basil combination!
What NOT to plant with sunflowers
While sunflowers are a great companion for many plants, a few crops need their own space away from these garden beauties.
Sunflowers are allelopathic, meaning that they excrete chemicals, like terpenes and phenolic acids, into the soil around them, inhibiting the growth of other plants. In some cases, they can even be lethal to other plants!
Avoid planting sunflowers with the following species:
The chemicals that sunflowers excrete into the soil inhibit the growth of potatoes. Planting sunflowers near potatoes also increases the risk of potato blight, a fungus that can spell disaster for your whole potato crop.
A sunflower’s allelopathy is a problem for runner beans, but strangely enough, pole beans are not affected similarly. Runner beans struggle to germinate and grow around sunflowers.
Fennel is a tough crop to companion plant with just about anything, including sunflowers. It will inhibit the growth of sunflowers if planted too close. Fennel is also allelopathic to many other plants, so it is best to give this herb its own space in the garden.
Time to plant sunflowers
Now that you have a laundry list of companions for your sunflowers, it’s time to find room for at least a plant or two. Bring in the pollinators, provide some afternoon shade, and cut a stem or two for a bouquet and you’ll be glad to have these sunny flowers in your garden.
If you’re new to growing sunflowers and want a guide from start to finish, check out these resources: