GROWING TO SEED
Annuals don’t come any bigger than the sunflower and the list of uses for this amazing plant is practically as long as the flower is tall!
There are all kinds of ornamental sunflowers, but it’s the old fashioned kind packed with seeds that this article is about. You might not be able to grow pecans or walnuts, but no matter where you hang your hoe, chances are good you can reap a harvest of sunflower seeds.
Inside those small silver seeds lurks the health kick of a giant. Sunflower seeds contain a wealth of vitamins and minerals including Vitamin B6, selenium, magnesium, copper, zinc and iron. As if that’s not enough, sunflower seeds have enough protein to make them a suitable substitute for meat which is probably why they are the official symbol of the vegan society!
In ancient times sunflowers were used to treat blindness, bronchitis, colds, coughs, dysentery, fever, influenza, fractures, malaria, rheumatism, wounds and even snake bites. Today they are grown almost exclusively for culinary use. And what a lot of culinary uses there are! I can’t think of a single dish that wouldn’t taste better with a handful of sunflower seeds. From salads to muffins to banana splits, a sprinkle of sunflower seeds adds an easy dash of texture, flavour and nutrients.
There are two types of seeded sunflowers – oil and confectionary. As you can probably guess, the oil sunflowers seeds are used for making cooking oil. While it’s not impossible to make your own sunflower oil at home, the process is very labour intensive, requiring an expensive press and something like 762 square metres (2500 square feet) of sunflowers to produce 11 litres (three gallons) of oil!
Confectionary sunflowers are the ones that produce the big striped seed shells that you find sold by the snack bag in the grocery store. If you’re looking to raise your own sunflower seeds these are the ones you want to grow.
Four heads of confectionary sunflowers should produce about .45 kilograms (one pound) of unshelled seeds or seven heads will yield .45 kilograms (one pound) of shelled seeds. Since the average person will happily consume five pounds of shelled sunflower seeds per year that works out to approximately 35 sunflowers per person per year. A family of four would need 140 plants which would require approximately an 8 X 3 metre (26 X 10 foot) plot.
To make the most of your space in your flower garden plant sunflowers about 45 centimetres (18 inches) apart and then completely flood their ankles with plantings of marigolds, calendulas or nasturtiums. In the veggie patch let climbers (cucumbers, pole beans, peas etc) scramble up your sunflower’s knees and plant squash, lettuce or spinach around their toes. This is the same principle as the “Three Sisters” method of growing corn, beans and squash together, except you’re substituting sunflowers as the trellis plant instead of corn.
If your sunflower patch is next to your home or garden shed, consider painting the trim a bright yellow to match the flowers. I’ve seen this done on several buildings and it never fails to leave an artistic impression.
Sunflowers make excellent single season shelterbelts. Plant a double row along the north end of your garden and not only do you have a cheerful display, but you will have created a windbreak providing a warm microclimate for the rest of your plants.
Sunflowers make great privacy hedges as well. Plant them around the perimeter of your property or even strategically place them in big pots on your balcony or deck to create a cheerful, hidden retreat.
The genus name Helianthus comes from the Greek word Helios which means sun and anthos meaning flower. Indeed, the Helianthus worships the sun with such devotion that not only can it stretch itself skyward to incredible lengths of 4.25 metres (14 feet) or more but it actually rotates its flower head to track its beloved sun’s daily journey across the sky. After it watches the sun set in the west, it will swing its head all the way back to the east where it will remain fixated throughout the night, watching for the sun to rise again.
Sunflowers use their large stems like a giant sippy straw, happily sucking up a gallon of water per foot of height per week.
The sunflower even has the amazing ability to extract toxic waste such as arsenic or lead. After the Chernobyl accident sunflowers were planted on special rafts and set afloat in ponds where their long roots dangled down to remove uranium and other toxins from the water.
Plant your sunflowers in a sunny location, in rich soil and water them well for the seediest results. Most confectionary varieties require no more than 100 frost free days from seedling to harvest and some far less. Check the package and plant accordingly. If your area has a short growing season you might need to start your sunflowers indoors and transplant them out when temperatures are leaning on the upside of zero – though small plants will survive a light lick of frost.
When growing confectionary sunflowers for their seeds, you can expect fierce competition from our fine feathered friends. Protect your harvest from going to the birds by covering the blossoms with cheese cloth or reemay or anything that allows air and light to get through, while providing an effective barrier for bird beaks.
One year I covered an entire row of sunflower heads with old nylons. It worked great but every time I went down to the garden I couldn’t shake the feeling I was being greeted by a gang of robbers. I was tempted to arm them with toy guns and put up a sign that read “Your watering can or your life!”
Be sure to leave the sunflower heads on the stalks well into the fall to give the seeds ample time to dry. The backs of the blossoms need to turn completely brown and the seeds should have ripened all the way into the centre of the flower head. If frost threatens before the heads have had a chance to dry naturally, you can always cut them off and leave them in the sun by day, or put them in the oven or a dehydrator at a low temperature not exceeding 38 Celsius (100 Fahrenheit) and dry slowly.
After the seeds have dried you can easily remove them from the seed head with just your hand. However, if you have a lot of sunflowers it might be worth investing in a stiff brush.
If you’re growing sunflower seeds to feed to the birds over the winter, you can simply lop off the sunflower heads, store them in a dark cool spot with reasonable air circulation and then set them out in the feeders one by one over the winter like a loaded dinner plate.
The first time I tried this I stored the seed heads in plastic tubs thinking this would keep them safe from rodents. I was unreasonably proud of my cleverness. Not one mouse so much as nibbled on a single seed; unfortunately neither did anything else that year. When I opened the tub in late October, much to my horror, I was greeted by a green, slimy, smelly mess. I learned a valuable lesson – just because sunflower heads look like they’re thoroughly dry doesn’t mean they actually are. And don’t store them in air tight containers. All that work ended in the compost pile.
I take a much more laid back approach to growing my own bird seed today. I do nothing at all! I simply leave the seed heads intended for the birds right on the stalks and let the birds help themselves a la carte from fall right on through the winter months. I even let the birds plant their own sunflowers, leaving a lot of the seeds to grow wherever they have tumbled over the winter. It doesn’t get any easier than that!
When the sunflower’s day in the sun is done and all you have left are the dry stalks it’s time to let your creativity flow! You can make charming trellises, fences, plant ladders, bean tripods, tomato cages or anything else your imagination can hatch simply by breaking out the pruning shears and cutting the sunflower stalks into desired lengths and attaching them together with string, wire or twist ties.
The only thing I have against sunflowers is that it has been officially labelled by the language of flowers as “haughty.” This ruffles my petals no end. If I were in charge of the language of flowers I would describe the sunflower as cheerful. How can a person be anything but cheerful with a row of sunflowers in their garden?
I suppose as the tallest of all the annuals, with the amazing ability to track the sun, provide food, medicine, building materials, cooking oil, and bio fuel, if the sunflower really is haughty, well, maybe it has a right to be.
THREE SEEDY SUNFLOWER VARIETIES TO TRY IN YOUR GARDEN!
This is the most popular confectionary sunflower for home gardeners wanting to grow their own seeds. The seed heads are huge measuring up to 30 centimetres (12 inches) across producing an abundance of thin striped shells with plump meaty seeds inside. Stalks average about 1.8 metres (six feet) tall, but can grow to almost twice that height in perfect growing conditions. Available everywhere!
Instead of turning out one flower on top of a single towering stalk Kong produces multiple branches with each one producing its own blossom. Reaching heights of 4.25 metres (14 feet) or more and covered in numerous blossoms, Kong is seriously eye catching! Available from Veseys.
As the name implies everything about this sunflower is gigantic including its extra sturdy stalks. If you get a lot of heavy winds and are using sunflowers for a windbreak Giganteus would be an excellent choice. Each stalk produces a single sunflower head packed with seeds measuring 20 – 25 centimetres (8 – 10 inches) across. Available from Veseys.