Growing Sunflowers from Seed

How to Grow Sunflowers for Decoration or Food

Growing Sunflowers from Seed

Whether planting short fluffy varieties or annual forests, growing sunflowers from seed is easy.

Unlike food crops tracing back to South America, Europe or Southeast Asia, sunflowers are almost exclusively from North America. Only three species originate within the southern hemisphere.

Native Americans have been growing sunflowers from seed for millennia. Evidence suggests they were cultivated within Arizona and New Mexico about 3,000 BC perhaps before domesticated corn. American Indian tribes ground the seeds into flour for cakes and breads, mixed meal with other vegetables, and ate the seeds for a snack. Some references indicate they even squeezed the oil to use in breadmaking.

Around 1,500 AD, European explorers brought the plant back from their travels. It was used ornamentally until about 1716, when a patent for sunflower oil was granted in England. Russian Czar Peter the Great discovered the flower while in Holland and started a large cultivation program. The Russian Orthodox Church prohibited consumption of most food oils during Lent and sunflower oil was not on the list. Over two million acres of sunflowers grew in Russia during the early 19th century. It then made its way back to the United States with the name “Mammoth Russian” sunflower.

Though more than 2,000 sunflower varieties have been identified, some are now extinct. Mammoth Russian is the main seed-producing variety, also known as Russian Giant, Tall Russian, Russian Greystripe or simply Mammoth. Italian White is a popular ornamental heirloom. Black oil sunflower seeds, common in wild bird mixes, come predominantly from the Peredovik cultivar.


Nutritional Significance

What can chickens eat to keep them warm in the winter and boost their protein intake? And what is the best food for rabbits other than alfalfa pellets? Black oil sunflower seeds provide nutritious protein, fat and calories for all kinds of livestock. Modern dairies supplement the feed of lactating cows with the seeds, and studies have shown it is excellent within “finishing” rations of beef cattle to build fat stores prior to slaughter. Homesteaders keeping backyard chickens can purchase bags of black oil sunflower seeds and either mix them with daily feed or toss them into poultry runs as a treat.

Sunflower seeds are high in fat but they’re also packed with linoleic acid to help with metabolism of other fats. They are also high in vitamin E, folic acid, calcium, iron, manganese, magnesium, niacin, selenium and zinc. Sprouted seeds contain vitamin C. Comprised of 24-27 percent vegan protein, they are almost equal to the same weight in ground beef but with twice the iron and potassium and almost four times the phosphorus. The oil is often used for frying fast food, though this has been proven to be one of the worst fat sources. It’s widely agreed that consuming seeds is the healthiest way to eat sunflowers.

Sunflowers are edible to humans and animals, though mature leaves become bitter. Beautiful cultivars such as Teddy Bear and Chianti produce small seeds which may not be worthwhile for human consumption but are still tasty for animals. Single-stemmed varieties such as Sunrich are pollenless hybrids, so they can be cut and displayed indoors without irritating allergies, but seeds cannot be saved for replanting the next year. Branching varieties reproduce and spread through neighborhoods with the help of wild birds, often interbreeding with intentionally planted cultivars.

Photo by Shelley DeDauw

Growing Sunflowers from Seed

Extremely hardy, sunflowers thrive in poor, limey soils and can tolerate drought. They can handle a light frost but temperatures below 27 degrees will damage them. Sunflowers grow best in well-drained soil around 60 to 70 degrees.

Location is important when growing sunflowers from seed. The foliage emits substances which can inhibit growth of certain other plants. Sunflower roots grow in a thick ball which will interfere with any other root crop. Beans and sunflowers do not thrive well together. And though the seeds are safe for humans and animals, the hulls can accumulate and release toxins which kill grass.

In addition to harming other crops, sunflowers are vulnerable to wildlife. Rabbits, squirrels and birds find the seedlings delectable. If sunflowers can grow undisturbed until they are at least a foot tall, they become tough and bitter, and most wildlife will leave them alone. But if animals frequent a garden, seedlings should be protected while tender. Few insect pests eat sunflowers but rusts and downy mildew may infect the leaves. Fungicides may be sprayed on plants, though heavily diseased sunflowers should be removed and either thrown away or burned.

No more than two weeks before the final frost, plant sunflower seeds six to eighteen inches apart, depending on variety. Push one to two inches into the soil. Cover and keep dirt moist. Seedlings should emerge in a week as thick, oval leaves. Once true leaves appear, plants can be thinned to a foot or two apart. Some varieties bloom in just over two months while others can take four. Enjoy the blossoms as they soar above the garden and attract pollinators.

Sunflowers grow wide, beautiful leaves which can shade other crops. These leaves may be snapped off to let light through as long as a couple remain on the plant for photosynthesis. Use the discarded leaves as mulch or feed to livestock such as ducks and cattle.

If you wish to save seeds, cover heads with fine mesh or cheesecloth after petals wither. The backs of the flower heads will turn from green to yellowish brown and the heads will nod downward. This is when seeds ripen and become tempting to wild birds and squirrels. If seeds are not covered, none will remain for personal consumption by the time they are mature. Do not cover with plastic because this traps moisture, promoting decay. When seeds are mature, cut heads with some stem attached and either hang to dry or lay in a warm, well-ventilated area. Dislodge dried seeds by rubbing two heads together. After seeds have dried a few more days, store them for replanting within a cool place. Or keep in airtight, refrigerated containers to retain the best flavor.

Whether for decoration, livestock feed, or human consumption, growing sunflowers from seed is an easy project for beginning gardeners to seasoned homesteaders.

Do you enjoy growing sunflowers from seed? What are your favorite varieties and how do you use them? Let us know in the comments below.

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