Sunflowers and Sunflower Seeds


Happy fall, y’all!

I won’t wax poetic for long about the beauty of this season, but I must say, I’ve enjoyed it even more these past two years. I’ve always loved the cooling down of weather, color changes, and that spicy scent of leaves and bonfires and whatever else is in the air.

But I also realized the other day, as husband and I were doing some cleanup and harvest in the garden, that fall is also when we get to catch our breath after the craziness of summer. This summer in particular has been crazy, with an unfortunately much smaller harvest than last year, but even more work in weeding and maintenance to get that small harvest (which I gave up on for some rows). Fall brings about cool weather that kills most of the most annoying weed culprits (I’m looking at you, crabgrass), as well as last harvests and low-maintenance cool-weather crops.

Unlike spring, which brings about a flurry of activity and life after months of cold dormancy, fall is a break, and a time for reflection and planning for the coming year. More on that later (especially in the realm of cold-weather crops).

Today, as I speak of last harvests, I’m talking about sunflowers, and their very tasty, versatile seeds!

Other than home experiments of planting our hamsters’ food in soil cups, I’d never actually grown my own sunflowers until this year. They were one of our few crops that did well, despite the rain, crazy temperatures, and absolutely ridiculous weeds, and they were beautiful, to boot. We’ve still got a few going out in the beds, which I’ll harvest later for seeds.

So, why do I love planting sunflowers?

  1. They’re beautiful. They’re a treat to look at, especially on a blue-sky sunny day. The heads on some of our sunflowers were huge (bigger than my own head!), despite being a “dwarf” variety. We were able to cut a few of the smaller blooms to adorn our kitchen table, too.
  2. They attract pollinators. We’ll be planting more flowers in general in the vegetable beds for both visual appeal and encouraging pollinators, which make all harvests possible. They also attract birds (which may be more of a con to some of you, if you’re trying to keep birds out), which eat a lot of the pests that plague our crops.
  3. You can use them for companion planting, especially for plants that require a bit of shade. There are, however, some plants you shouldn’t plant with sunflowers, like beans and potatoes, since sunflowers can also prevent the growth of other plants around them.
  4. They produce a ridiculous(ly good) amount of seeds. You don’t have to plant a ton of sunflowers to get this benefit, especially if you go with larger varieties. Me? I’ll probably plant more next year to provide home-grown seeds for some tasty Sunflower Oatmeal Bread. Mmmm.
  5. The seeds are super versatile. More on that in a moment.
Sunflower (and my goofy) head! It got even bigger after that picture was taken. (The sunflower, not my head.)

There are, of course, a few cons to growing sunflowers. You want to be judicious about where and how many you plant, as in the aforementioned no-beans no-potatoes companion planting. They’re also big plants, and require pulling at the end of the season, as they are hardy, woody, and tend to prevent other plants from growing where they once grew. But the pros outweigh the cons for me, and I’ll be planting them on the regular in the garden, and likely throughout our homestead.

Now, as far as seeds, let’s talk about harvesting. How do you know when a sunflower is ready to give you its seeds?

The most telling signs are a pronounced droop in the sunflower head (as in, it’s turned away and bent over, but still quite alive) and the back of the flower is beginning to (or has turned) brown. Some sources say you can put a paper bag over the heads (while they’re still in the ground) to both prevent birds from getting at the seeds and to collect any that fall as you wait for them to dry. You can also cut the heads and dry them yourself on a towel, paper bag, or baking sheet – just make sure they have plenty of air circulation or they’ll go moldy, fast.

To harvest the seeds from the dried sunflower, simply rub the “face,” either with your bare hands, with a fork or spoon, or while wearing rubber gloves (I like this last one because it made gripping the seeds easier), allowing the seeds to fall into a large bowl or colander. Place the seeds in a colander, place the colander into a large bowl, and fill both with water. I do this for three reasons:

  1. In rubbing the sunflower head, I inevitably get a bunch of other sunflower parts and petals that I don’t want to eat. This helps to separate these from the seeds. I pour out the water that collects in the bowl (and use to to water some plants), and repeat rinsing 2-3 more times.
  2. Empty seed shells float, while seeds will generally sink. When you pour water on the seeds, skim the floating bits and compost them.
  3. Cleaning. I’m still going to hull and roast the seeds themselves later, but this is a good way to get the more egregious debris from the batch.

Lay out the seeds on a single layer on a towel, paper bag, or metal sheet, and allow to dry completely. You can compost the hulls in moderation (some say this may prevent your compost from growing plants, but this is not widely researched), or use them as a weed-suppressing mulch. Or rub them on your face. You do you.

sunflower seeds
Sunflower seeds, ready for processing!

Now, what can you do with sunflower seeds?

There are, of course, the usual suspects: eating them out of hand, baking them in bread, using them as a salad topping, and combining them with, well, just about anything for an extra crunch. Roast them or toast them briefly for best flavor.

But what about other, perhaps less familiar uses? One thing I’m going to try this year is Sunny Butter, a delightful-looking recipe from an excellent book, The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen. Along with having some pretty tasty recipes, this book tells you about lots of edible foraging crops, as well as places emphasis on sustainable harvesting, cooking, and eating. It’s what I want to be when I grow up.

Sunny Butter is homemade sunflower butter (as in, like peanut butter, but with sunflowers), and can be used in baked goods, as well as (I imagine) eaten like peanut butter. You can find the recipe here, as well as in the aforementioned book, which I highly recommend.

You can also use sunflower seeds (black sunflower seeds, in particular) for pressing into oil. You would need a good deal of them, but hey, if you’ve got a yard and nothing else to do, why not try it? We might dedicate a large space to sunflowers and see what happens.

Got any other tips or recipes to use with sunflowers? Leave them in the comments!

Until next time, happy homesteading!

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