Not only are there many interesting facts about sunflowers, they also provide a variety of uses even after they have been cut. One of which is harvesting their seeds for either eating or re-planting. Here is what you need to know.
CHOOSE THE RIGHT SUNFLOWER FOR HARVESTING
Not all types of sunflower are ideal for harvesting sunflower seeds – especially if you want to use the seeds for food.
‘There are pollenless and pollinating types of sunflowers. Pollenless varieties are generally grown for cut flowers only, while pollinating sunflower seeds produce oil seeds and striped seeds,’ explains Lonnie Decker, farm manager for Blake Farms(opens in new tab) in Michigan.
‘Oil seeds are best used for bird seed or to produce sunflower oil. While oil seeds can be eaten, people usually eat the striped sunflower seeds.’
‘To harvest sunflower seeds, it is best to grow sunflowers that have been bred to produce large, edible seeds that are great for snacking,’ adds Pabst. ‘Good varieties include Feed the Birds, Mongolian Giant, Skyscraper, Super Snack Mix, and Titan.’
NURTURE YOUR SUNFLOWERS
Get your sunflowers off to a good start by planting them in fertile soil. Keep on top of weeds and pests such as snails and slugs, which could ruin your crop.
‘Sunflowers will grow in any soil type – direct sow seed into the ground starting late May through to the end of July,’ says Decker. ‘Plant 1-2 inches deep into the ground, a foot apart. They are one of easiest things to grow and produce beautiful flowers.’
If harvesting sunflower seeds for eating, you may need to protect the seeds from birds. ‘Tie a paper bag over the blooms in the garden, or you can cut the stalks before they are ready and hang them indoors to dry,’ says Pabst.
You could alternatively cover them with mesh.
HOW DO I KNOW WHEN SUNFLOWER SEEDS ARE READY TO HARVEST?
With some trial and error, it’s easy to spot when to harvest sunflower seeds.
‘You’ll know your sunflower seeds are ready to harvest once the flower has turned brown, the seeds are plump, and they come out easily when you wiggle them,’ says Andrychowicz.
If you want to be absolutely certain that the seeds are ready, follow this advice from Decker:
‘Tie a paper bag over the flower head, cut the stem 12-18 inches below the head, and hang the stem upside down for at least five days,’ she says.
‘When seeds start falling out of the head easily, they are ready for storing or eating.’
HOW TO COLLECT SUNFLOWER SEEDS
Once the seeds are ready, you will need to remove the sunflowers from the garden so you can begin harvesting them.
‘The easiest way to collect the seeds is to cut the flower off the stem, and bring it inside,’ says Andrychowicz.
Firstly you need to remove the chaff (spent inner flowers and outer petals). ‘The chaff may drop off on its own, or you might need to pick or rub it off to expose the seeds.’
Mature sunflower seeds will come out of the flower easily when you firmly rub your fingers over them – simply place a bowl beneath to capture them as they drop.
‘If the seeds don’t fall out easily, that means they need more time to mature,’ adds Andrychowicz. ‘In that case, allow the flower to dry out longer, and check on them again in a few days.’
HOW TO DRY SUNFLOWER SEEDS
If you want to save your sunflower seeds for later use, then you’ll need to dry them.
‘When collecting seed the most important thing to remember is the dryer the better. If your seed is not dry enough you run the risk of your seeds becoming moldy,’ says Decker.
Once you have harvested the seeds, rinse them in a colander and then pick out the debris to clean them.
‘Line a shallow box or container with newspapers and paper towels, and place the seeds in a single layer on the paper to dry,’ says Pabst. ‘Be sure to leave space between each seed, and let them dry completely – this can take one or two days.’
When the seeds are ready, store them in an airtight container in a cool, dry spot.
HOW DO I SAVE SUNFLOWER SEEDS FOR NEXT YEAR?
One of the key benefits of learning how to harvest sunflower seeds is to save them for next year’s planting. To do this, you will need to dry them out and store them properly.
‘Once they are completely dry, place them in a paper bag or jar, and store them in a dark, cool, and dry location until you’re ready to plant them in the spring,’ says Andrychowicz.
Make sure you label the seeds so you remember what they are.
Alternatively, if you wish to eat the seeds and improve their shelf-life by several months, you can salt and roast them.
‘If you suspect pests, freezing your sunflower seeds will kill off any eggs that may be lurking in the shells,’ says Kate Russell, gardening author and owner of The Daily Garden(opens in new tab). ‘Sunflower seeds stored in the refrigerator or freezer are good for a year.’
HOW TO REMOVE SUNFLOWER SEED SHELLS
Before eating sunflower seeds, it’s best to remove the shells, as they are indigestible. If just grazing, you can remove them as you eat; otherwise, you can process the whole batch in one go.
First, you’ll need to break up the shell. You can do this with a pestle and mortar, by putting the seeds in a plastic bag and rolling over them with a rolling pin, or using an electric mixer.
Once you have broken up the outer shell, place the seeds into a large bowl and fill with water. Stir well to help separate the seeds and shells.
The husks should rise to the top – use a slotted spoon to remove them.
Finally, rinse your sunflower seeds in a sieve or colander.