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PHOTO: Susan Brackney
Little by little, I’ve been working to replace my monoculture lawn with native flora. My efforts should help to support area pollinators, birds and other critters.
But, I figured, shouldn’t I reap some benefits, too?
So, I decided to grow myself an outdoor retreat where I would be completely obscured from view behind golden sunflower walls. I’d slip inside this outdoor “room” to read, sip iced tea and doze in the sun.
The results and steps pictured here are from last season, and, in truth, it ended up looking more like a botanical “time-out” than the private spot I’d originally wanted. Nevertheless, it was pleasant enough—and now I know how to improve on my original design for this year.
Best of all? If you choose to make your own flower fort, you’ll be able to learn from my mistakes.
Here are some ways to establish a pollinator corridor in your neighborhood.
What You’ll Need
I chose an area in full sun. If you have a spot that gets at least six hours of full sun, you should be in good shape for this project. You’ll also need:
- Tape measure
- Scissors or utility knife
- Landscape fabric or cardboard
- Landscape fabric pins
- 100 percent cotton sheet or cardboard
- Chair(s), table, etc.
- 4 fence posts and fencing
- Deer netting and zip ties (optional)
- 50 mammoth sunflower seeds
- 25-30 extra seeds of an additional annual flower variety
Unless you want your outdoor room to be permanent, choose annual flowers in lieu of perennials. I started just over 50 mammoth sunflowers from seed for this project the first time around. (I kept some extra mammoth plants back, in case I needed to replace any that went missing.)
For my future forts, though, I will also start 25 to 30 zinnia plants.
While the mammoth sunflowers function really well as the “walls” of the outdoor room, their growth habit isn’t bushy enough to provide cover closer to the ground.
That’s where my zinnias will come in. They can reach three to five feet tall. They also have fairly dense foliage and profuse blooms that will nicely fill in the spaces between the mammoth sunflowers.
Alternatively, you could rely solely on sunflowers. Sunflower varieties that are low-growing and multi-branching can fill in the gaps when mixed in amongst mammoths.
Check out these 12 sunflower varieties that you can grow at home.
Measure and mark a 12-foot-by-12-foot square where you want your flower fort. Your area could be a different size and even a different shape, but you’ll need to adjust the number of plants you grow accordingly.
Dig up the soil just inside the perimeter of your outdoor room-to-be. (This is where you’ll either direct sow your seeds or where you’ll place your established seedlings.) Once you’ve prepared the perimeter’s soil, cover it with landscape fabric or cardboard. Secure with landscape pins.
Use the cotton sheet (or additional cardboard) to cover the remaining interior section of your fort. Again, secure with landscape pins. Cover the cotton sheet area with mulch. Next, place any tables or chairs in the center of your fort.
Planting and Protecting
Space each of your mammoth sunflowers one foot apart around the perimeter of your fort. Using scissors or a utility knife, cut through the landscape fabric (or cardboard) to facilitate direct seeding or placement of your mammoth sunflower seedlings.
Now, cut a second series of holes to accommodate your other set of annuals. Again, think zinnias or dwarf sunflower varieties.
Offset these secondary flowers by positioning them in their own row either slightly in front of or slightly behind the mammoth sunflowers. Ideally, work to space the secondary flowers so that they’ll obscure the view between each of the mammoth sunflowers.
Choose one section of the fort to serve as your doorway. In this spot, you’ll place plants 1 1/2 to 2 feet apart, so you’ll be able to get through.
Water well and cover the landscape fabric (or cardboard) with mulch.
Finish by driving fence posts and stretching fencing or chicken wire around the entire area. This should protect your plants from browsing bunnies, deer and other hungry mammals.
However, if birds are snacking on your sunflowers, you may need to top the whole garden with netting. If you do, zip-tie the netting securely to the fencing so that birds won’t inadvertently get stuck inside.
Periodically check plants for damage and replace any with your extras as needed.
Once the flowers are tall enough to hold their own, you can take down the fencing and posts and take up your new position—inside your very own flower fort.