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Published September 13 2010

Fargo couple grow giant sunflowers in backyard

No, Ron and Hallie Anderson didn’t plant magic beans in their backyard.

But the stalk of the 11-foot sunflower that stands behind their house looks like something you might expect Jack to climb down to get away from the giant.

The two 70-something retirees are former farm kids who actually grew up on adjoining homesteads in Yellow Medicine County, Minn. But despite their agrarian background, they say they’ve never seen a sunflower like this.

Even before the sunflower’s massive head grew to the point that it caused the top to droop over, it was measured at about 11 feet 6 inches tall, Ron says. They staked it to an evergreen tree to keep it from falling over.

“It just decided it was going to be king of the hill, I guess,” says Ron, who retired from the Extension Service at North Dakota State University.

Hallie, a former secretary for Elim Lutheran Church, reminded her husband that he’d put some manure back in that part of their north Fargo backyard at one point, and Ron says he’s sure that helped the plant out.

It’s not their first venture into sunflower agriculture. The Andersons planted some seeds last year but “didn’t have very good luck,” Ron says.

Luck was better this year, to say the least. Several smaller-but-still-giant sunflowers stand in their backyard as testament to that.

Gerald Seiler is a research botanist with the USDA Agriculture Research Service whose work focuses on wild sunflowers.

He says the size of the tallest of the Andersons’ sunflowers is “not common,” but that it’s “not totally unexpected.”

Seiler says there is more variance in the size of garden-variety sunflowers. Those grown as a commercial crop are smaller, typically in the 5- to 6-foot range.

That, of course, is no accident. Seiler says, “We’ve actually been trying to shorten” them, genetically speaking. There are several advantages to doing so, including making them sturdier and easier to harvest.

That aforementioned manure may have been part of the reason the Andersons’ plant did so well. Nutrient availability is one of the factors that can encourage growth in sunflowers, Seiler says.

Plus the giant gray stripe variety, which is what the Andersons planted, is one that can grow quite large. In fact, the package that the seeds came in bears the words “World’s largest variety” along with an image of a child holding an enormous sunflower.

But while the Andersons’ sunflower is nothing to sneeze at, don’t go calling the folks at the Guinness just yet.

Citing 2004’s Guinness World Records, the National Sunflower Association says the title of tallest sunflower goes to a doozy in the Netherlands. That flower came in at a whopping 25 feet 5.4 inches tall.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734

We want your produce (photos)

Got an ear of corn the size of a watermelon? Have a squash that looks just like Al Pacino?

If so, we want to see them.

Send your photos of and stories about produce of unusual size, shape, color, etc. to Robert Morast. We might even make your veggies part of a story.