Growing & Using Sunflowers

Sunflowers are a Lot of fun! They not only add beauty to your garden but they attract bees which help pollinate other plants. The harvested seeds can be eaten or used as bird food and can be stored for the following planting season. Always be sure to check your zone as to the appropriate planting time. Here in zone 9b, I have had them sprout all year but they do the best when planted between March and May as it takes about 3 months before seeds are ready to harvest and warm sunny weather is best.

Sunflower being pollinated by bees.

Uses for Sunflowers:

  • Human and wildlife consumption but note, if you feed the squirrels you will need to take steps to prevent them from eating the ones you want for your own consumption. I will discuss that later in Harvesting.
  • Attracting Bees
  • Landscaping / adding beauty to your garden

Selecting Sunflowers to Plant: To start, choose sunflowers from a seed supplier of your choice. There are So many varieties including a cute Teddy Bear variety which only gets about 6 inches tall up to ones like the Russian Mammoth that get 6-8ft tall and provide huge flowers with abundant large edible seeds.

A Teddy Bear Sunflower in bloom is a fun addition to a garden especially if you have children.
A Teddy Bear Sunflower in bloom is a fun addition to a garden especially if you have children.

Pests: I have not seen any pests bothering sunflowers other than squirrels although I am sure birds could also pose a problem. There are many options available including covering them with netting or a paper bag but this isn’t necessary until the flowers no longer look like flowers.

Site Location: Choose an area that will get at least 6 hours of sun a day. Sunflowers will grow in less sun but they will be slower to flower and flower size will be greatly reduced. Sunflowers, most varieties, will get tall so plan accordingly as you might not want to have other plants blocked behind them. Sunflowers like to be direct-sown meaning plant them directly in the ground where you will want them. They do not like transplanting and if started in pots, transfer them in the ground as soon as they reach 2inches high. If you start them in pots, know they might not grow as tall as their direct-sown counterparts. I had to start a few in pots as squirrels often like to dig up the seeds before they sprout but this year I did not have a big squirrel problem. I planted half directly in the ground and started the rest in pots. The ones that were transferred did not grow as tall as the direct sown plants but still produced beautiful flowers.

Red/Orange Sunflower

Soil Requirements: Florida has sandy soil so although your sunflowers will grow, they will flourish and grow to their full potential if the soil is amended. Sunflowers do not like waterlogged soil but they do like it moist so choose something that will add richness. This year I added Miracle Grow Garden Soil, just because there was a great sale on it and figured I would give it a try. You can also add peat moss to your soil if you want to be more organic and there are several companies that offer organic soil amendments should you have a preference.

Fertilizer: Yes, Feed your sunflowers if you are planning to harvest seeds for food. If you do not, they will be prone to having empty seed shells and nothing is more disappointing than harvesting seeds with nothing in them! I used a liquid 10-10-10 balanced fertilizer. I prefer the liquid fertilizer as it has less chance of burning the roots. Once every 10 days should be sufficient. You do not have to fertilize sunflowers you do not intend to eat (unless you did not amend your soil!) If you used a garden soil that has a time-released fertilizer already in it, it will provide the nutrients needed to allow your sunflowers to beautifully bloom and attract bees.

Pollination: If you intend on collecting seeds for human consumption, be sure your plants are completely pollinated so that all seeds are full and not empty. You can do this once the flower is in full bloom. If you do not notice a lot of bees covering the flower, take a small soft paint brush and rub it across the center of the flower. Do this to all of your flowers at the same time which will ensure thorough pollination. Be sure to wipe off or use a separate paint brush for each variety to avoid cross-pollination, unless this is desired.

The Russian Mammoth Sunflower grows quite tall & produces large flowers with edible seeds
The Russian Mammoth Sunflower grows quite tall & produces large flowers with edible seeds

Harvesting Sunflowers: Once all of the petals have fallen off the flower, allow the now seed head to droop and slowly dry up until the back part of the seed head begins to turn brown. If you have pesky squirrels, birds or other critters that want to eat the ripening seeds, cover them with a paper bag until they turn the dried-up brown. Once they have dried up, cut the stalk the flower is on, leaving it in the bag if it’s in one, and place in a dry, dark and somewhat cool place (just not a hot place) for the seeds to continue to dry. They will fall off and go directly in the bag if they do – at this point remove all of the seeds. They can be eaten fresh but use within a few days as they can go rancid. For longer storage, they will need to be roasted.

Roasting Seeds: There are many methods to roasting sunflower seeds both with the shells and the shells removed. I will offer one way to roast them with the shells on. The internet has many options to choose what will work best for you.

  • Step 1: Clean the seeds removing any debris and put them in a bowl of water. They will absorb some of the water which will prevent them from drying out during the roasting process.
  • Step 2: Salt them at this stage with 1/2 cup of salt if you want a salty taste to your sunflower seeds as it will be infused into them as they soak. Soak them overnight.
  • Step 3: Drain the sunflower seeds and pat dry with a paper towel.
  • Step 4: Preheat over to 300 degrees Fahrenheit (150 degrees Celsius). Spread seeds on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper making sure they do not overlap.
  • Step 5: Roast seeds for 30-40 minutes, stirring occasionally to allow for even baking until golden brown and a slight crack in the shell has formed.
  • Step 6: Serve immediately or allow to cool completely and store in an airtight container.
Yellow Sunflower Visited by Bees
Yellow Sunflower Visited by Bees