To bring communities together and connect people when COVID restrictions were in force, the SHAPE team of Community Liaison Officers (CLOs) came up with a fun initiative to see who could grow the tallest sunflower during the summer. They threw down the gauntlet to the whole of the European Joint Support Unit (EJSU) area. Word spread fast, and with the help of CLOs in other countries, they quickly recruited 140 or so participants, Commanding Officer EJSU Lt Col Jonathan Craven included, across 14 locations – Brunssum, Brussels, Goch, Izmir, Lisbon, Madrid, Milan, Naples, Poggio, Ramstein, SHAPE, Stavanger, Ulm and Wesel.

Rules of engagement

Seeds were distributed, a dedicated Facebook page created, and the competition was set to go. Seeds were planted from 1 May, measurements were taken every month, the leader board was updated, with the final measurements submitted in August. It was a slow start with much pondering and head scratching. It was about a week before there were signs of life and there followed a flurry of sprouting in all areas.

“I love that you can just randomly ask people ‘how are your sunflowers doing?’ and most people will have a little story,” said Matt Cascarina from SHAPE.

The highs and lows

There was much debate about the benefits of eggshells to repel slugs, coffee grounds to promote growth, and covering seeds with cling film to replicate ‘the greenhouse effect’ with complaints of failure due to overwatering and bad weather.

There was talk of sabotage and having been tricked with dwarf seeds. There were reports of plants being eaten by rabbits and one near divorce scenario when seedlings were mown down by a spouse.

“The best thing was when they first came up from the ground and I could see the shoots through the soil! I was so pleased that the seeds had sprouted and were growing,” said Ava, seven, from Ferrera in Italy.

Competitive edge

Padre Paul from SHAPE was disqualified for using a microphone stand to elevate an artificial sunflower he bought from Ikea (he left the label on and gave the game away) and Madrid had so much success at the start that they considered giving plants to neighbours as gifts with a sign to say, ‘please look after this plant’.

Final measurement day saw impressive growth across the whole area but triumph was celebrated in Milan with a massive 408cm, followed by Brunssum in second place with 380cm and SHAPE in third with a solid 340cm. The winners in Milan were the Lucas family. Genevieve (11), Freddie (eight) and Joe (seven) joined in “because it’s fun to do things with other people” and claimed “the best thing was mummy climbing down the house to measure the sunflowers.”

The competition saw some great collaboration with tips, tricks, photos and friendly banter – it’s hoped that the sunflower battle will commence once again next year.

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