How to grow sunflowers and cook sunflower seeds
The sunflower has a rich history as a North American native plant.
Records show that Native Americans lived as early as 3000 BC. cultivated sunflowers for food and pressed seeds for oil production. Although still used for these purposes today, gardeners also use sunflowers as ornamentals, either in the landscape or as cut flowers, and to attract birds or squirrels.
Are there different varieties of sunflowers?
Breeding has developed cultivars ranging from 15 inches to 12 feet tall and in colors of yellow, white, red, and bronze. This selection gives even the smallest garden the opportunity to grow a sunflower. Dwarf varieties like Pacino, Big Smile, and Music Box Mix are bushy, with multiple flower heads on each stem, and grow to less than 3 feet tall. These are great for planters or mixed borders.
If you have more space, try to grow the 8 feet tall H. bismarkianus, And H. Citrine, or the 12 foot tall H. giganteus as background image. As a bonus, the larger varieties generally offer the widest range of colors.
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Sunflowers are also great cut flowers. Because they produce copious amounts of pollen, some pollenless varieties like Moonbright, Sunbright, and Sunrich are great.
Other popular strains, regardless of pollen count, are Velvet Queen, Autumn Beauty Mix, and Italian White. Double-flowered varieties such as Lion’s Mane, Teddy Bear, and Tohoku Yae are favored for bouquets.
Although all of these seeds produce seeds, confectionary species, the most commonly used of which is mammoth, are recommended for edible seeds.
How can I grow sunflowers?
Sunflowers have few basic needs to grow: well-drained soil, water, fertilizer, and weeding.
Seeds can be planted first in spring when soil temperatures reach 42 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit and air temperatures exceed 50 degrees. Depending on the strain and environment, germination should occur in seven to 12 days. Plant your seeds in full sun. Thin seedlings up to 3 feet apart for giant and 1 foot for dwarf varieties. Keep the soil moist during germination. Sunflowers require regular application of low-nitrogen fertilizer from germination to flower head development.
As a general recommendation, apply about one cup of 5-10-10 per 50-foot row every two to three weeks. Sunflowers mature between 65 and 90 days. Once established, plants are generally very drought tolerant, but need adequate watering during their critical seed development phase, around 20 days before and after flowering. If rain fails, top up with water during this time.
Weeds can also be a problem for sunflowers in the first four to five weeks after germination. Hand pulling and mulching is a must.
What pests should I watch out for?
Pests of sunflowers are few. Diseases of concern include white mold, which causes stem and head rot, powdery mildew, Verticillium wilt, and leaf spot. Rotate your sunflowers to different areas of the garden each year to reduce disease problems, or select new varieties that are disease resistant.
Stem borers and stem maggots, which bore into the stem and cause damage, can be reduced by removing the stems from the garden each year after harvest.
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Birds are probably your biggest nuisance near harvest time. The large seed heads are a perfect perch for birds to relax on while they feed. This may not be a problem if you’re growing the seeds for the birds, but if you plan on eating a few yourself you may need to cover the flower heads with plastic netting or cheesecloth.
Also, consider potting larger varieties. More than once, people have snapped large, heavy seed heads off their stalks in high winds before they could mature. Secure the stem to the stem with soft ties every six inches.
When should I harvest the sunflower heads?
Sunflower heads are ready for fall harvest when the flowers have shriveled in the center of the disc, the heads are down and the occiput is turning greenish yellow to yellow.
Pull a few seeds from the center of each head and split them open to check if the flesh is stuffed. When the heads are done, cut off the seed head, leaving about a foot of the stalk attached. Cover the seed heads with cheesecloth and hang them upside down in a warm, sheltered spot with low humidity. Leave the heads to dry for three weeks. Aiming a fan at the heads can speed up the drying time. Seeds are ready for storage when the back of the head turns dark brown.
Remove the seeds by rubbing two heads together or by rubbing the seeds with your palm. Store seeds in tightly sealed bags as jars and cans can encourage mold growth. If you’re growing sunflowers for wildlife, you can keep the seeds in mind and nail dried heads to a post during the winter months to create an instant feeding station.
How should I roast sunflower seeds?
Some people prefer their roasted seeds. You can roast your own by tossing a layer of shelled kernels in a shallow pan.
- Roast in a 300 degree oven for 30 to 40 minutes until brown and crispy, stirring occasionally.
- Remove the seeds from the oven and add 1 teaspoon of melted margarine to each cup of seeds, stirring to coat.
- Place seeds on absorbent paper and salt to taste.
- Store roasted kernels in a tightly closed container.
- For salted in-shell sunflower seeds, cover the unpeeled seeds with salt water (2 liters of water to 1/4 cup of salt).
- Bring to a boil and simmer for two hours or soak the seeds in salted water overnight instead of boiling. Drain and dry on absorbent paper.
- Then roast the seeds as described for the peeled kernels.
The benefits of sunflowers
Sunflowers contain vitamin E, iron, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, linoleic acid and oleic acid. Although they are high in calories, they are also thought to improve cardiovascular health, lower high blood pressure, and lower serum cholesterol levels.
Add to that their variety in height and color, and you have an attractive plant that’s not only good for you, but fun to grow too.
Growing sunflowers can be both mentally and physically healthy for you.
P. Andrew Rideout is the UK Extension Agent for Horticulture and can be reached at [email protected].