A Meadow Ripe With Sunflowers

Ah, Sun-flower! weary of time
Who countest the steps of the sun
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller’s journey is done:
Where the Youth pined away with desire
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow
Arise from their graves and aspire
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.

—William Blake

We like to feed the birds and so every year I buy what seems like a ton of sunflower seeds from Williams Department Store which is, for me, everything that Home Depot is not. That is to say, neighborly and close by. I figure if I can’t find it at Williams, then I don’t need it.

Anyway, back to the sunflower seeds …

Birds love them and during high feeding season, I have to reload the feeders almost every day. Sometimes when I go out to do this chore, a chickadee will perch on a branch no more than a yard from my face and commence to give me hell for not getting there sooner.

Squirrels, of course, also like the sunflower seeds and I learned after a few years of futility that there is no way to keep them out of a feeder short of shooting them and I couldn’t bring myself to do that. I make it hard for them, and my dog, Woodrow, keeps them on their toes. But the squirrels are going to get their share of those black oilers.

There is an interesting upside to this. The squirrels, of course, like to cache things for future use. No telling when, if you are a squirrel, the only thing between you and starvation will be those few sunflower seeds you buried back when times were good.

The inevitable upshot of this is that, every year, some volunteer sunflowers appear to surprise and delight us. We plant flowers, too, because in my aesthetic, you cannot have enough sunflowers. I believe I find them almost as seductive as Vincent van Gogh did.

Something about the size, I suppose, and the sheer, robust beauty of the flowers. They could not be more full of life and happier; if, that is, plants and flowers can actually experience happiness.

There is also that thing that sunflowers do … with the flower actually following the sun. It is called “heliotropism” and there is a nice scientific explanation for it. It’s a miracle of nature and biology, but in the end, it is the sheer, ineluctable beauty of the sunflower that gets to me.

Which is why, I suppose, that I created a little sunflower plot in the back meadow several years ago. I turned the earth and fertilized it and planted the seeds about two months before my daughter, Hadley, was to be married. She wanted to have the wedding in the meadow, along with the reception to follow.

And I wanted sunflowers for the occasion.

When the ground was prepared, I went to Williams for sunflower seeds of a different sort. Not the kind you feed to birds but the kind you plant. I bought seeds for sunflowers that would grow to eight feet with a blossom bigger than a dinner plate and some for plants that would grow to two feet and produce a flower the size of a tea saucer. And I bought seeds for sunflowers that would grow to sizes between those two extremes.

Some of the flowers would be the wonderful rich color between yellow and gold that accounts for the name, “sunflower.” Some would be darker, with a lot of red or maroon. There were half a dozen different shades of sunflowers that would bloom if my seeds took and the plants grew to maturity.

Which was no slam dunk. The location of my plot was close to the tree line that borders our meadow and is home to a thriving population of deer. Ordinarily, I like having them around. But not this year. Not if they were going to be nipping the tops off my sunflower plants once they had sprouted and begun to grow.

So the dogs and I maintained our vigilance and I bought some crystalized coyote urine from Williams and spread it around my flower bed.

It seemed to work and by the time of the great event, I had a perfect plot of sunflowers. Tall boys to the rear, short guys to the front.

I have a photograph to remember it by. The bride stands in front of the ranks of dazzling sunflowers, along with her sister and my wife and my mother. The most important women in my life on one of the happiest days of my life.

And sunflowers helped to make it so. ◊

Geoffrey Norman is a Dorset author and a regular columnist for Stratton Magazine.