Growing Sunflowers From Seed
Sunflowers are beautiful and fun flowers to grow. They got their name because their colorful blossoms will turn to follow the sun's path during the day. Although most people think of them as yellow, there are actually several varieties that aren't yellow at all.
Along with having the lovely flowers—just one or two in a tall vase can be spectacular—you can also grow sunflowers for their delicious and nutritious seeds! You can harvest these to eat yourself or save them for a mid-winter treat for birds in your yard.
I have grown sunflowers on and off for the last decade. In the Pacific Northwest where I live, an overcast summer can make it challenging. This guide, however, will show you how to grow thriving sunflowers, even in difficult conditions.
Colors and Types of Sunflowers
Although most people would presume that sunflowers are yellow, there are actually quite a few color variations available.
- Yellow: These can be dark gold to bright lemon yellow.
- Red: The red range can go from dusky orange or rust to bright cherry red.
- Green: Sometimes called lime or ice green.
- Chocolate: This is the name give to brown sunflowers.
- White: A very pale flower.
The petals on a sunflower can vary as well. Some have bold, spaced petals, while others like the Teddy Bear sunflower are covered with so many little petals that they look fuzzy! You will also find variegated sunflowers, where the petals fade from one color to another or into several more. These can be quite dramatic.
Different Variations of Sunflowers
Not all sunflowers grow singularly either. While some stalks are topped by just one large bloom, some variations put out multiple flowers all along the strong stems. If you get a seed mix, you'll have the ability to grow different types and be surprised all summer!
Hybrid vs. Heirloom:
- Hybrid varieties are purposeful crosses of two plants, and those seeds will not reproduce themselves. The offspring will show characteristics of one or the other parents. They must be repurchased fresh each year.
- Heirloom or open-pollination varieties are plants that will produce the same type of flower if the seeds are saved until the next year. These are favored by organic and permaculture gardeners.
How to Plant Sunflowers
Start by finding a spot in your yard or garden that is sunny and has room for plants that can be 5 feet tall (or taller). Sunflowers definitely grow best where there's lots of daytime sunshine. And you want to make sure they aren't going to bump into anything when they reach their full height or shade out other plants below them that might also need some sun.
Growing sunflower plants need plenty of water, especially if the plants are young transplants or if the weather is hot for multiple days in a row. Giant-head varieties and other "super" seed producers may also need poles for extra support or to ensure sturdy growth. Be sure to tie stems to supports with soft ties so as not to damage plants. They also benefit from being fertilized. (Please use only organic products for your benefit and that of the critters in your yard!)
Note: One interesting thing about sunflowers is that while they are developing, the heads will turn to follow the sun. But once the seeds really start to grow, the sunflower will stay facing to the east to protect them from the serious sun rays that come from facing west.
Harvesting Sunflower SeedsClick thumbnail to view full-size
Saving and Drying Your Sunflower Heads
As sunflower heads approach maturity, it may be necessary to protect developing seeds from birds, squirrels, or other garden nibblers. Netting or bagging the heads can guard the seeds before they fully loosen or start being eaten. Cheesecloth or small paper bags are most often used. One really easy method is to use a small, mesh lingerie bag—which can be zipped closed around the stem—that still lets plenty of air to the flower head.
How to Tell When the Sunflower Heads Are Ready for Harvest
Watch for the back of the seed head to turn from green to yellow. When it gets really yellow, you'll want to cut the head and as much stem as you can from the plant. Then take the head and hang it up in a dark, dry location to finish drying. How much time that takes will vary. You'll know when the seeds are done, as ripe seeds will be loose in the head and should be able to be brushed out by hand easily.
Uses for Sunflower Seeds
Here are just a handful of great uses for sunflower seeds:
Roasting Sunflower Seeds
Boil the seeds (shells and all) in heavily salted water for about an hour. Then roast them for about 20–30 minutes in an oven that's set to about 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Keep an eye on those seeds after the 20-minute mark. You want them roasted and not burnt, and how long they take will vary slightly with each batch you roast.
Sunflower Seed Butter
Shell (hull) your seeds and then crush them with a mortar and pestle for a tasty seed butter. Alternatively, you can also run them through your food processor the same way you would with any other seed or nut.
Saving Heads for the Birds
Many people who grow sunflowers for the birds pick and dry the heads, offering them later in the winter. Leave a good amount of stem on the head when you dry it, and it will make it easy to hang as a bird feeder all by itself!
- Harvesting & Handling Sunflowers
Sunflowers growing in the backyard are easy to harvest and roast for a tasty treat. Sunflowers should be allowed to mature in the garden.
- Tips for Preserving Sunflower Seeds
The quickest way to shell sunflower seeds is to grind them in a seed mill, and then place them in cold water where the shells will float to the top and can be skimmed off with a slotted spoon.