The sunflower competition featured on page 32 of the winter edition of Army&You, stirred up some friendly but fierce rivalry across 14 locations in the European Joint Support Unit, bringing whole communities together through the challenging times of the pandemic. Ava Cooper, age 7, from Ferrera in Italy, Claire Fernie from SHAPE, Belgium and Jess Taylor from Ulm, Germany, chatted to AFF’s EJSU lead, Lesley Slater, about their growing pains…

What has been the best thing about taking part?

Ava: The best thing was when they first came up from the ground and I could see the shoots through the soil! I really enjoyed counting the buds to see how many flowers there were.

Claire: Getting our little girl Isobel involved in the process of growing something from seed. For us, it’s hugely important to get her involved in nature and understand how things grow and provide for us.

Jess: I study biology at university and for me this competition was a way to share that passion with other members of my community. I think the best thing was when the younger children from around Ulm were able to compare our flowers, which led to a bit of teasing about my sunflowers’ lack of height!

How long did it take for the seeds to start to grow?

A: After about two weeks I could see all of the shoots coming through. We planted some in pots and some in the ground. The ones in the pots appeared first.

C: Not long, we planted on 1 May and the first signs of life were on the eighth.

J: My sunflowers where late bloomers, but it took them around a week to start sprouting.

How many survived to the end of the competition?

A: We planted 25 seeds and about 20 grew and lasted. One of the stems had seven sunflowers on it!

C: We planted 14 seeds in old egg cartons before eventually planting them outside.

J: I planted three seeds but by the end of the competition I only had one left.

What happened to the ones you lost along the way?

A: I think the pots weren’t deep enough and were too small. Two didn’t survive in the soil because I they were too close to our carrot patch.

C: All but one survived. Unfortunately, high winds resulted in one plant snapping in half. We had far too much rain, so it was not a good year for growing sunflowers in SHAPE – ours was smaller than expected. Kudos to all those who managed to grow one.

J: I couldn’t be in Ulm for the first day of planting, so I left this task in what I thought were the capable hands of my father. He planted all three sunflowers in a tiny green pot no bigger than a cereal bowl. As you can imagine, this did not provide the most spacious environment, leading to the early death of one of my sunflowers. The other two progressed to the repotting stage, but my dog, Milo, developed a taste for sunflowers as he quickly destroyed another.

Did anything funny happen along the way?

A: We had quite a few bad storms here in Italy when they were growing but they all survived!

C: Our garden was flooded, so I had to spend hours trying to get rid of the water. Also, our winning sunflower had not flowered by the end of the competition!

J: It was a running joke that we were winning the width category as my remaining sunflower started growing sideways. For most of the summer we’ve been curious to know what was growing in the field behind our house – imagine our surprise when we found out it’s a commercial sunflower field! Given how unsuccessful we were, this was rather entertaining.

Inspired to run a competition in your area next year? It’s a great way to bring the community together. Our EJSU growers have some top tips:

  • When they are very small, make sure you put some eggshells around them so that they don’t get eaten by big slugs and snails
  • Only water them once they are out of the sun and the sun has set
  • Sunflower seeds need a LOT of water!
  • They need a lot of sun too, so pick a bright, sunny spot
  • When you grow the seeds in the ground make sure they have enough space
  • Put your seeds into pots first, and once they are about 5cm high, plant them straight into the ground
  • If it’s too cold at night, cut a plastic bottle in half and use the bottom to cover the seedlings and protect them from frost
  • If you can, grow against a wall that gets plenty of sun. At night, the bricks stay warm and help with the growing
  • If you can’t plant them in the ground because you don’t have a garden, put the seedlings in a very deep pot otherwise they won’t survive.

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