Growing & Harvesting Sunflowers (for human food, livestock feed, and more!)

How to grow and harvest sunflowers for food
Few plants are more cheerful than sunflowers, and with their blooms ranging from sunny yellow to orange to deep red, they make a beautiful addition to any garden. But sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) also make good food for both humans and livestock. Fortunately, they are also very easy to grow.

Getting Started with Sunflowers 

It's likely you can purchase sunflower starts at your favorite nursery. However, in order to save money and have a better harvest, I recommend you skip that trip and start sunflowers from seed. By purchasing seeds you'll have access to a far wider number of sunflower varieties - plus sunflowers hate having their roots disturbed, so they'll be happier and more abundant if you don't transplant them.

Plant sunflowers seeds in a bright, sunny location, with at least 6 hours of sunlight each day. The soil should be well-draining and loose, allowing the plant's roots to go somewhat deep, which will help keep the tall sunflowers upright. Grow the tallest varieties of sunflowers in a sheltered area, where the wind won't knock them down.

If you have trouble with tunneling pests like gophers, voles, and moles, I highly recommend that you plant your sunflowers in a raised bed (with a gopher barrier beneath the soil) or in large containers. For example, I use old bathtubs. If you neglect to do this, you may find entire plants disappear, just as the seedlings are beginning to look strong and vigorous. (Ask me how I know!)

Sunflowers prefer alkaline soil, but they will grow in slightly acid conditions (pH 6.0 to 7.5). If your soil is acidic, they will be much happier in a raised bed or container with improved soil. Sunflowers love lots of organic matter, so it's an excellent idea to add fresh compost or garden-safe manure to the sunflower beds before planting. 

If you choose to plant sunflowers in pots, use quite large pots, and smaller-sized sunflower varieties.

Sunflowers growing in our orchard.

Plant sunflower seeds in the spring, as soon as the last threat of frost is over and the ground is at least 60 degrees F. Follow the seed packet for planting directions, but generally, the seeds should be planted about an inch deep and around 6 to 12 inches apart, depending on the variety you've chosen.

If you want to grow a lot of sunflowers - especially if you're growing them for livestock feed, to attract pollinators, or just to have a pretty field of sunflowers to look at - consider choosing a less likely source for your seeds: Grab a bag of black oil sunflower seeds (BOSS) at a local big box or feed store and plant those seeds in your garden. Yes, they will germinate! And you may find this a much less expensive way to get all the planting seeds you want.

If you want staggered blooming (and harvesting), plant a few seeds one week, a few more the following week, and so on.

Water in the seeds and make sure they stay consistently damp (but not soggy) until they've germinated.

Caring for Sunflower Plants

Once the seeds germinate and seedlings begin emerging, water only once a week, as needed. Always water deeply, to encourage the roots of the plant to go deeper into the soil (and thereby make the sunflowers less likely to topple over as they grow). Over fertilization can make sunflowers fall over, so if you choose to fertilize them, do so sparingly and with weakened fertilizer.

Very large varieties of sunflowers may require staking so they don't collapse under the weight of their flower head.

Harvesting Sunflower Seeds

Once the flower petals die and the back of the seed head is turning brownish-yellow and begins bending toward the ground, it's time to take action and protect your sunflower seeds from birds and other wildlife. You may either cover the flower heads with pantyhose legs or a few of layers of cheesecloth held in place with string - or cut off the entire head (leaving 5 or 6 inches of stem attached) and place the heads in a warm, dry location where wildlife can't reach them.

Sunflower heads just after being cut off the stalks.

Once the heads are completely brown and dry, brush off what remains of the flowers. 

Fully dried heads, ready for harvest.  
What a head looks like before the remaining flower parts are removed...

...and after the flower parts are removed.

Then harvest the seeds. To begin the seed removal process, I like to rub two sunflower heads together over a bowl. Any seeds that remain on the heads, I remove with either my fingernails or thumb, moving in a circular fashion.

Some people tell me it hurts to remove sunflower seeds this way, so you should consider wearing gloves. Or use a stiff brush to remove the seeds. A few gardeners have told me that after they cut off the sunflower heads when they lose their flower petals, they hang them to finish drying. They cover each head with a paper bag, held in place with string. The seeds, they say, will naturally fall into the bags as the sunflower head dries.

Removing the seeds.


What to Do with Sunflower Seeds

You may either eat the sunflower seeds yourself, feed them to livestock or wildlife, or keep them to grow more sunflowers next spring.

To store sunflower seeds for replanting next year, simply place them in a cool, dry, dark location. An envelope or an old medicine bottle will hold them safely.

Wildlife and livestock are usually fed black oil sunflower seeds (BOSS). Keep the dry seeds in a cloth bag in a cool, dry, dark location. (And remember that some livestock love eating the leaves and stems of the sunflower plant, too! Our rabbits adore the green leaves and stems, which I give them even before the sunflower heads begin to dry. Sheep and goats enjoy sunflower leaves and stalks, and pigs and cattle will eat the dried leaves and stalks, ground down. Rabbits, sheep, goats, cattle, chickens, quail, ducks, and turkeys also love to eat sunflower seeds, and some people say you'll get more eggs and milk if you feed them BOSS.) These seeds should last about a year.

To store raw sunflower seeds for human consumption, store them just like you would for animals. 

If you prefer to store sunflower seeds roasted, they should be kept in a glass jar with a metal lid in a cool, dry, dark location. They'll last 4 or 5 months. Shelled seeds may also be stored, but only for 2 to 3 months. You may prolong the life of both shelled and roasted sunflower seeds by putting them in the freezer, where they'll stay good for about a year.

How To Roast Sunflower Seeds

For every cup of sunflower seeds in the shell, use 1/3 to 1/2 cup of sea salt. Place the salt and seeds in a bowl and cover with water. Stir well. Allow this mixture to sit overnight.

Strain the seeds and place on a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Roast in a preheated 325 degree F. oven for 15 to 30 minutes (depending upon the size of the seeds). Stir every 5 to 10 minutes to ensure even roasting.

If desired,you may lightly coat the seeds with olive oil and sprinkle them with seasonings before roasting.

Brined seeds going into the oven to roast.

To roast the seeds without their shells, measure out about 1/2 cup of seeds and place them in a gallon food storage bag. Lay the bag flat on the counter and shake the bag until the seeds are in a single layer. Seal the bag. Gently roll a rolling pin over the seeds, cracking the shells.

Pour the seeds into a bowl of water. The kernels will sink and the shells will float. Use a slotted spoon to remove the shells. Drain the kernels and pat dry.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. and line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Place the shelled seeds on the baking sheet and pop into the preheated oven. Roast 7 to 10 minutes, stirring periodically. Again, you may choose to oil and season the shelled seeds before roasting. 

DIY roasted sunflower seeds.

Sunflower Varieties to Try

For livestock and wild animals: Black Peredovic, Hopi Black Dye, Black Oil, and Clearfield Lonesome Dove.

For human consumption: Titan, Mongolian Giant, Mommoth Grey Striped, Mammoth Russian, and Snack Seed.

For beauty: Fantazja, Autumn Beauty, Teddy Bear, Crimson Blaze, Chocolate, Strawberry Blonde, and Red Sun.

For pollinators: Common sunflower (Hellianthus annuus) and beach sunflower (Hellianthus debilis).

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