How to grow and care for sunflowers

Learn how easy it is to grow and bake the seeds of these flowers with these tips and instructions. Sunflowers are beautiful to look at and their seeds are good to eat.

Sunflowers are not only beautiful to look at they can provide you and your avian visitors with delicious seeds. Fortunately sunflowers are also among the easiest plants to grow from seed.

The first step in growing sunflowers is to select where they will be planted. Sunflowers require direct sun, preferably a minimum of six hours per day. Sunflowers that are not planted in ample sun will either fail to thrive or will grow leggy trying to reach the sun. Another consideration in deciding where to plant sunflowers is where the sunflowers should face for maximum viewing pleasure. The heads of sunflowers tend to follow the direction of the sun. If the flowers are planted between the viewing spot and the sun, all that may be visible from the viewing spot may be the backs of the flower heads.

Another factor in determining where to plant is the size of the sunflowers to be grown. Full size sunflowers can grow between 8 and 12 feet under ideal conditions. Smaller, dwarf versions reach a height of only 12 to 24 inches. The taller sunflowers can form a backdrop to the smaller sunflowers or other plants, while the dwarf plants are beautiful in a bed of their own.

Sunflowers will tolerate a wide variety of soils, but grow best in soil that drains well and is fertile. Manure or other fertilizing agents may be added to the soil a couple of weeks before planting to enrich the soil.

Sunflower seeds may be planted directly in the garden or may be started inside and transplanted as seedlings. The soil temperature should be at least 42 degrees, and preferably above 50 degrees before planting sunflower seeds. To encourage faster growth, sunflower seeds can be germinated prior to planting. Germination can be accomplished by placing the seeds between layers of dampened paper towels. The paper towels should be kept moist but not wet. Seeds should start to sprout within a week or two. The seeds that sprout first will generally result in the best plants. The sprouted seeds can be planted directly into the garden.

Sunflower seeds should be planted at least 1/4 inch deep in soil, and no deeper than 3 inches. Seeds can be planted a couple of inches apart, but will need to be thinned as they grow. Tall varieties should be thinned to approximately 2 to 2 1/2 feet apart. The dwarf varieties may be grown closer together.

Sunflowers plants should be watered generously. The plants can withstand some drought, but should not be deprived of water during the weeks immediately before and after flowering.

Sunflower plants will mature in 80 to 90 days, although those that are germinated first or started inside will mature earlier. Taller varieties may need to be staked for support.

Sunflowers can be cut and used to decorate the home or can be left on the plant to admire outside. If the seeds are to be consumed either by humans or birds the flowers should not be cut until the center of the flower has shriveled and the heads are downturned. This should occur in September or October, depending upon climate. The heads of the sunflowers should then be cut from the plants and dried. Hanging them inside in a warm, dry and pest-free environment can dry the heads. Netting or a paper bag may be placed over the heads to catch the seeds as they dry and are released by the flower. The seeds may also be allowed to dry while still on the plant, although the flowers will need to be covered to prevent birds from eating the drying seed. Seeds that do not spontaneously fall from the flower can be removed by rubbing them.

Seeds that are going to be fed to birds can be stored in paper bags. The seeds should not be exposed to high humidity as spoilage may result. Seeds that are to eaten by humans should be roasted first. The unshelled seeds should be boiled in salted water for two hours or soaked in salted water overnight. The seeds should be drained and dried, and then roasted in a 300-degree oven until golden, approximately 30 minutes. If desired the roasted seeds can be drizzled with melted butter and salt, or may be eaten as is.

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