FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – In the backyard of a home at the end of a cul-de-sac in Fort Wayne, you’ll find a garden fit for fairytales. The tomatoes are giant and the sunflowers are even bigger.
“The trick is to feed it and not overfeed it and water it, but not overwater it,” Alex Babich said.
Babich loves all things outdoors. He’s a master Morel mushroom hunter and creates clever shirts for other enthusiasts. He also owns a landscaping business. But, now Jack and the Beanstalk better move over. Alex and the Sunflower is growing into an even taller tale.
“I’m a grower, but new to the record-breaking,” he laughed.
Several sky-high sunflowers in his backyard have the potential to take titles this year. The tallest is 23 feet 10 inches as of Monday. And it’s still growing.
“Watering and feeding the roots is just as important as taking care of the flower. I go up [to the top of the flower] three or four times a day. The head is trying to curve and as soon as it curves, that’s it. The plant will be done with height and it will put energy into the seeds and the head will get bigger. Right now it’s trying to curve and I’m going up there to straighten it and put it up. We’ll see what happens,” Babich said. “I don’t know if we’ll reach the record, but it’s going to be fun.”
Babich said the current United States record for tallest sunflower is 24 feet 9 inches. He has eleven inches to go.
Even if it doesn’t quite reach the U.S. record, another flower in the field should snag the state title at the Indiana State Fair.
Babich’s son, Keenai is taking a 22-foot flower to compete at the fair. His daughter Ayla’s flower is third tallest in their field at home standing at 19.5 feet tall.
“I’m excited for my brother,” Ayla, who’s 11 years old, said. “I’m a little disappointed mine didn’t grow any taller so he gets to take the big one, but next year, I’ll try my hardest to get the tallest sunflower.”
Sowing the seeds is blossoming into a family hobby.
“It’s fun to water it and plant it and really makes me happy when it grows,” seven-year-old Keenai said.
Ayla thinks the difference-maker next year will be in the books.
“I’ll start reading to it at night,” she said. “I like to talk to it. That’s what my grandma says – talk to it. I say, ‘Come on. Grow taller than Keenai’s. You can do it!'”
Babich will cut down the two sunflowers to take to the State Fair on Wednesday.
The Ukrainian Spirit
This tale also has a twist. With every inch the tallest flower grows, it’s not just reaching for a record. It’s also harnessing hope on the other side of the world.
“We named the tallest one Ukrainian Spirit because of everything that’s going on right now,” Babich said.
The sunflower is the Ukrainian national flower.
“It stands for freedom and to be strong and to be happy,” he said.
Babich’s roots of growing plants started as a child in Ukraine.
“I grew up with food shortages. I always liked growing stuff. It’s natural and it’s right here in the backyard,” he said.
After the Chernobyl nuclear disaster happened, his family fled Ukraine to move to Fort Wayne. Babich was 14 years old at the time.
“They used sunflowers around Chernobyl because they would absorb radiation and clean the soil,” Babich explained.
In 2020, his home garden grew to new heights. Quite literally.
“I had a 15-foot flower and everyone on Facebook raved about it. The next year I adjusted what I did and grew a 19-foot flower,” he said.
This year, the Ukrainian Spirit is his tallest flower yet.
“God is present in all of this. It’s almost to the U.S. record and I hope we beat it,” he said.
As the flower keeps reaching for the sky, it’s a reminder of spirit staying strong in the Ukrainian people.
“You can’t break Ukrainian Spirit. It’s unbreakable. They’re fighting for freedom. If Russia overtakes Ukraine, it’s slavery. I don’t think Putin realized that. Ukrainian fighters are way stronger than he thought,” Babich said. “I’ll be sending the seeds to my cousins and best friend in Ukraine and they will grow them all over Ukraine. It’s touching. It’s really awesome.”
Babich also planted one of his giant sunflowers in the Salomon Farm Park field. They asked him to add one as a sign of support for Ukraine. While the field of flowers is a few feet tall, Babich’s bloom is already passing 12 feet.