Raye gardens organically, harvests rainwater, strives to eat locally, and honors the gods from her home in the Pacific Northwest.
A Guide to Growing Sunflowers
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.
This guide will cover the following topics:
- Colors and Types of Sunflowers
- How to Plant Sunflowers
- Saving and Drying Your Sunflower Heads
- Uses for Sunflower Seeds
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 given 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 Seeds
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.
Jane on June 23, 2020:
Why are some of my seeds from this years plants white and some are black?
Jane on June 21, 2020:
Some of my giants have white seeds and some dark seeds. They have all been planted at the same time. Is that normal? Or are the white ones not ripe?
Sharaun on September 03, 2018:
I live in Northern California, an accidental gardener. I bought some seeds at the local Home Depot, not expecting much, as we'd just moved here and wasn't sure of the quality of the soil. I did do some soil prep, so that's probably why I have GIANTS!!!, they're amazing! in color, and sheer size! I haven't counted, I'm guessing at least 24 survived my novice city gardening techniques, and at least 12'-14.' The heads are getting heavy with ripening seeds, and I'm having to stake them up for support, otherwise they'd be on the ground. Plus, I have 3 dogs, 2 of them Huskys, one of them has already tasted one of the heads :-/ . We also have birds, so I have made some net hoods (I'm a sewer, so had this stuff in house) to protect as many of the heads as I can to harvest for them later. We have some relentless squirrels around here, of which our dogs have done a fairly good job of keeping at bay, but I know I'm going to lose some heads. Thanks for your article, very helpful for this Accidental City Gardener.
Raye (author) from Seattle, WA on October 03, 2016:
Samantha, there are so many varieties of sunflowers it is hard to know them all. Taking a picture to my local garden center is my favorite way to get help identifying plants.
Samamtha on September 28, 2016:
I have sunflower but i dont know what kind of variety it is. Its size like my head or a plate. But it sorrounded buy a small sunflowers in the edge like a crown
Raye (author) from Seattle, WA on July 26, 2014:
I've learned that the biggest influence I have as a gardener is how much I water the plants. If I'm consistent, I get an amazing harvest.
Michelle Scoggins from Fresno, CA on July 26, 2014:
Thanks Relache very interesting article. I never really knew how to grow sunflowers and how to harvest the seeds. Looks like a lot of fun and the flowers are very beautiful.
Raye (author) from Seattle, WA on July 26, 2014:
It can be challenging where I live as sun and heat can be limited in my coastal region, and the plants want a bit of both. Also, I don't grow the giant 8' tall types as then I'm too short to harvest them...lol...
Oyewole Folarin from Lagos on July 26, 2014:
Being an urban planner, I love to have my compound well landscaped. But I need to do some research or consult an horticulturalist to see if sunflowers do well in Nigeria. I love all the sunflowers pictures.
Raye (author) from Seattle, WA on July 25, 2014:
I have to get some new pictures added, as I'm growing a 5' tall variety this summer.
Audrey Hunt from Idyllwild Ca. on July 25, 2014:
I love all the information you've provided, along with the photos of sunflowers. I live in the mountains where both squirrels and birds share the forest with me. I plan on growing sunflowers for their beauty and because I eat so many sunflower seeds. :)
Thanks for a hub that will continue to come in useful for me.
Raye (author) from Seattle, WA on April 21, 2013:
I've harvested the heads and then put them out for the birds later in the winter when there is nothing else for them to eat.
FlourishAnyway from USA on April 21, 2013:
Great instructions. I have my seeds and am ready to start! Didn't know people "harvest" the sunflower heads, though. I'm going to leave mine for the birds to enjoy. (Nature lover.)
craftybegonia from Southwestern, United States on December 19, 2011:
Nice hub. I've always wanted to grow sunflowers but we have some little rascal ground squirrels that would certainly take all of the seeds. I saw your solution. . .
Phil Hauenstein on October 18, 2011:
I grew 2 dozen giant Sunflowers this year,got them in real late. They got 10' to 13' tall with 10” to 15” Dia. Heads. All were single head except one that is still blooming,last count 34 blooms,the largest top flower is about 7”in Dia.. They all came out of same package any clue as to why the one grew multiple flowers? I have seeds from the rest of the plants that range in color from all white to black and dark gray stripe. What should I be looking for in seeds to replant? P.S. I used large mesh laundry bags that I got at Dollar Tree to cover My heads,the birds worked hard to try to get the seeds but they will need them more in the winter when I let them have them.
Raye (author) from Seattle, WA on September 05, 2011:
Kitty, brand-new sunflower shoots are also a favorite of many birds. I either begin with established starts (that are a few inches tall) or use some chicken wire to protect my newly-planted seeds until they get large enough to not seem like a delicious snack.
Kitty Fields from Summerland on September 04, 2011:
Planted some sunflower seeds back on Litha...they've since been covered by grass, etc. I just lost the time to take care of them...but I believe that the squirrels or rabbits might've dug up the seeds when I first planted them.
Raye (author) from Seattle, WA on September 17, 2010:
Frisky, try hanging the heads up in a net or mesh bag to dry.
Frisky on September 17, 2010:
I love this information. There is a huge lot of Ford land in my neighborhood, they planted rows and rows of beautiful sunflowers there. I picked up some of the heads that fell off and took them home. Now I see you have to have the stalk and hang them upside down. I don't want to go back there and hack their sunflowers down. Can I dry these heads out without hanging them upside down? I want to plant the seeds next spring.
Raye (author) from Seattle, WA on August 24, 2010:
Bandit, you plant individual seeds to grow sunflowers, not chunks of the heads.
BANDIT on August 17, 2010:
I GOT A SMALL PIECE OF SUNFLOWER STALK WITH A SMALL SUNFLOWER HEAD THE SIZE OF ABOUT A QUARTER. I WAS WONDERING IF I CAN PLANT IT DIRECTLY INTO THE GROUND AND IF IT WILL GROW.
WMC on August 14, 2010:
I grew some giants from seed indoors then transplanted them. I bought a small bottle of miracle grow transplant shock stuff that worked really well. My sunflowers are full of seed, six feet tall with strong stalks and leaves. Can not wait for them to be ready for harvest! :)
jayjay40 from Bristol England on February 11, 2010:
Love this hub and sunflowers. I haven't the room to grow many, but usually manage 3 or 4 earch year. Thanks for sharing
britishbirdlover from London, UK on January 01, 2010:
A lovely hub with some great pictures. Thank you for sharing.
500myway from India on October 08, 2009:
I like sunflowers and you have provided very good information.
Paula from The Midwest, USA on August 07, 2009:
Excellent hub, I really liked this. Great tips and ideas. Thank you for sharing them.
Sheila on June 13, 2009:
one thought - make SURE that the back of the sunflower face is really yellow, and nearly dried out. I made the mistake of taking one off too early, I hung it, as suggested, but it was too wet yet, and it molded. I lost most of the seeds to rot.
Raye (author) from Seattle, WA on June 08, 2009:
Actually Marilyn, there are a whole lot of plants that don't transplant well and that's why you grow those seedlings in peat or some other appropriate pot that biodegrades and you plant the entire pot and the seedling. It works like a charm.
Marilyn on June 08, 2009:
Great article on sunflowers but I don't recommend anyone start them as seedlings inside and then transplant them. Sunflowers don't take to transplanting well. I have done it but had several plants die and most of the rest aren't what I would consider strong growers.
prasetio30 from malang-indonesia on June 07, 2009:
thanks for share,Sunflower is a beautiful flower. I like your hub.
Raye (author) from Seattle, WA on March 26, 2009:
Last year I just had one plant, which I got as a start at the Farmer's Market. I saved some seeds from it, and I'm about to start those indoors to see if I can get a whole bunch growing this year.
Brian Stephens from Laroque des Alberes, France on March 26, 2009:
This is a very well written and informative hub with some really good tips.
I am really fortunate in that I live in the South of France and the local farmer plants a whole field full of Turnesols right in front of my house (usually every other year) so I get to enjoy the beauty of them without any of the work.
Cindy Lietz from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada on March 24, 2009:
I grow sunflowers in my garden every year. I love watching the birds and the squirrels nibbling on the seed heads. Its like having your own nature channel in your back yard!
Raye (author) from Seattle, WA on March 24, 2009:
Jerilee, a farmer who has a huge field can afford the loss of some of the crop to birds, but for a backyard gardener with just a few plants, protecting heads really makes a lot of sense so that you actually get some seeds.
Jerilee Wei from United States on March 24, 2009:
I'd never heard of using a protector from the birds, very cool idea.