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Part 1 of 2: Summer Nights and Sunflowers
by Cookie Curci
My grandmother came from a small coastal village in Italy, near the Adriatic Sea, where she learned early on that fish was the best fertilizer for fruit trees, and cucumbers caught the best sunlight when planted near a northern fence, and the best time to plant parsley was on Good Friday. In March, on the feast of St. Joseph, she seeded her flowering herbs, knowing instinctively just when to pick them and which ones to use for what illness: chamomile tea for a good night's sleep, rosemary and mint to soothe a stubborn cold, basil to relax a nervous stomach, and sage to calm everything from a headache to a sore throat.
In mid August, a dazzling combination of annuals and perennials filled the sun drenched plots of Nonna's garden. She knew that bright blossoms stood up best against the harsh rays of the noon day sun; there she planted golden sunflowers (Helianthus Annuus), in rutted rows, that grew to unusual heights. Nonna planted her sunflower seeds after the last frost, 1 inch deep and 6 to 8 inches apart. She thinned the seedlings later to 1 and 1/2 feet apart. The plants were watered well and kept moist until the seeds sprouted.
Grandma grew several varieties of the large sunflowers among them: "The Russian Giants" which grow 20 inch seed heads and the "Kong Sunflower" that grows 10-15 ft tall. Other varieties include Music Box: These come in a mix of yellow and cream. This is a a dwarf variety and a good container sunflower. Autumn Mix: The colors are yellow and rust; they grow tall, usually over 6 foot. Birds love this variety. The flower heads are about 5 or 6 inches wide. Teddy Bear: This variety has a full, almost "fuzzy" look and grows only 18 inches tall. You can plant this type in patio boxes or large pots.
Sunflower seedlings will sprout out of the ground in a week to two weeks, and will start out slowly. When birds tried to feed on the young seedlings grandma covered them with wire mesh, or something similar, to protect them. They will pick up speed in their growing process , that's when grandma covered them with her homemade compost and mulch.
Grandma's sunflowers grew to unusually tall heights and their heads measured 18 to 20 inches across. At harvest time, I helped grandma cut off the huge seed heads. When the seed heads started to turn brown, that was the signal to cut them down. They were cut leaving 2 inches of the stem and hung to dry in the ventilated garage. When they were dry, we rubbed them together to loosen the seeds, then the seeds were soaked t over night in salted water and then drained. We spread them on baking sheets and roasted for three hours at 200 degrees until dry. These can be stored in a container for eating. Seeds for planting and bird feeding are saved before the baking process and stored in a dry cool place.
Helping grandma grow her sunflowers was a learning process. It taught me a lot about nature and the growing of things, as well as the patients it takes to be a gardener.
Grandma's tall sunflowers stood like bastions along the ranch house fences, their heads round and sunny like small balls of sunshine, bouncing in the wind.
For each year's growing season and cycles, Nonna's sunflowers emerged stronger, healthier and bigger. I believe Nonna's ability to grow things was part instinct, part knowledge and, I suspect, a bit of magic tossed in for good measure. In her garden, Nonna could slow down the quickly passing days and feel closer to life. It was her Old World belief that a garden brought prosperity and harmony to a home.
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