Let’s talk about sunflowers. Beautiful, vibrant sunflowers. While they are not a plant the average vegetable grower considers putting in their garden, standing tall between the tomatoes and the melons, I’m going to take a few moments here to suggest they should be. Seriously, you need to be planting these lovelies. Even in my tiny garden, I usually carve out a small space to grow a few sunflowers.
Why? Besides the joy of seeing their bright happy faces in the morning, I have a handful of other good reasons:
- They draw and feed needed pollinators – bees love sunflowers
- They are super easy to grow from seed
- Planting them close to your cucumbers can improve the cucs flavor
- They add a bright splash of color
- And after all is said and done…you can harvest and eat the seeds!
Since sunflowers grow straight up, they don’t require much of a foot print and you don’t have to plant an army of them to gain their benefits. I usually only give them a two foot square of ground in which to grow. But even with that small space, once planted, they will soon be towering over my garden, beckoning the bees and butterflies.
They couldn’t be easier to plant. Super forgiving of the soil and environment, you pretty much just plant the seeds, cover with dirt, and water. And…boom! Sunflowers!
If you do decide to plant these beauties, you will need to make a few decisions. Sunflower varieties come in different heights, colors, and seed size. So be sure to read all the info about the seeds you are considering to make sure they will accomplish your goals. I have come to prefer the tall varieties with big seeds like Mammoth and Pike’s Peak (the variety pictured at the top of this post), but a shorter variety with smaller seeds might suit your needs better. That bit is totally up to you. But don’t be afraid to stray from the standard yellow – feel free to throw in a few other color varieties as well, like the orange one pictured below.
If you are just growing them for their pollination benefits and beauty, then you can pull the plants out when the flowers have all drooped and begun to dry. But if, like me, you want to harvest their tasty and nutritious seeds, then you will need to leave them alone and let time do its work.
After the flowers have grown big and bright and happy in the sunshine, and had visits from many pollinators, they will begin to droop over at the top. As this process continues, the petals will fall off and the flowers will look dead…but don’t be fooled. It is during this time that the seeds begin to grow big and tasty. Unfortunately, the birds think they are tasty, too. So I usually take precautions to make sure I get to enjoy the seeds instead of the neighborhood birds.
I simply slip one of these over each flower head…and wait. Pretty much any breathable covering that keeps the bird from getting to the seeds will do, but if you are looking for the same ones I use, I buy them in bulk from HarrisSeeds.com.
I know they don’t look pretty like this, but just think of the yumminess to come. Once the flower heads have grown their seeds, you can snip each one off its stalk. At this point, you can pull the stalks up out of the garden and send them off to your compost pile if you’d like. The flower heads should go inside to a cool dry spot to dry out for about a week or so. Once the heads are all dried out, it’s time to harvest those seeds.
The seeds are underneath all the fuzzy stuff on the surface of the flower’s face, so step number one is to rub all that off. You can wear gloves for this if you would like.
Once you brush all that debris off, you will see the seeds packed tightly in the center of the flower face.
That’s a lot of seeds in just one sunflower!! Gently loosen the seeds and remove them from the dried flower head – some varieties are packed tight and can take a little work.
And that’s it! What was once a bright flower bringing needed bees and butterflies to your garden…
Well now be a tasty snack for you to enjoy all winter.
I mentioned earlier about different varieties having different seed size. If you are hoping to eat your seeds, then choosing a variety with larger seeds will make that easier. While you can still eat the smaller seeds, the process is not as labor intensive if you have a variety with snack sized seeds (what the seed catalogs call the bigger seeds).
Here you can see the difference I’m talking about. This is a harvest of the smaller sized seeds.
And here is a comparison with a larger variety.
So when you are planning your garden for next season, please consider carving out a little space to plant a few sunflowers. You, and the bees, will be glad you did.
Now get out there and garden!!