Growing And Using Sunflower Seeds

The best way to grow your own sunflowers, harvest and roast the seeds, and to make nut butter with them.

Helianthus annus, the common sunflower, is native to North America and normally grows six to eight feet tall, but there are many variations of this flower around the world.

The most commonly planted for its seed crop can grow to twelve feet or more in height and have only one enormous head of flowers - so large in fact that it will droop on the stalk, being too heavy to stay upright, even to follow the sun.

To grow these sunflowers for the seed, either for yourself or birds or other animals, take several things into consideration.

It may be stating the obvious, but sunflowers love the sun. The faces of the flowers turn to the sun, from east to west, each day, so when you plant sunflowers, be sure to plant them in full sun. Find a place where they will be appealing whether they're facing the morning sun or the late afternoon sun. It may seem unimportant, but a full view of the backs of large sunflowers can look rather silly in certain places!

Remember that they will grow very tall, so don't put them where they will shade other sun loving plants.

Sunflower seed for growing is easily found almost anywhere garden seed is sold. You can start them indoors in areas where the growing season is too short (less than 90 days for most). If you do, plant them outside after the last frost date and keep well watered until they are established.

Sunflowers grow in almost any soil, but the better the soil, the better they'll grow. Choose soil that's rich and well drained, but if you don't have that kind of soil, add peat moss or other humus and mix thoroughly before planting.

To direct seed into your garden, wait until after the last frost date in your area, then work the soil thoroughly and plant seeds one-half to one inch deep, about twelve inches apart. Water well after planting.

After the seedlings are up, mulch the area and hand weed for the first few weeks, until they are at least a couple of feet tall. After the roots are well established and the plants are robust, they can hold their own against drought and nearby weeds.

They should start to flower about ten weeks after planting. During this three week period, be sure they are watered regularly and deeply.

Because these giant types are hybrid sunflowers and do not occur naturally, the huge heads make them susceptible to wind and anything else that might cause them to fall over. Hill the soil up around their bases and be prepared to stake them if needed. Drive narrow poles at least a foot into the ground and tie the stems to them with soft ties or rags.

Rots, wilts and molds are sometimes problems with sunflowers. If you find a problem, remove the affected plant immediately and burn it. Aphids can be controlled with insecticidal soap. Be sure to not plant in the same place year after year, to minimize or avoid these problems.


Sunflowers are a versatile crop, used for cooking oil and salted snacks as well as fed to a wide variety of animals, including birds, cattle, hamsters and rabbits. The seeds are generally made into a meal for livestock. Some Native American Indians used to use sunflower seeds for food and hair oil. 'Nut butter' is also made from the seeds, by grinding them until they produce a creamy spread. Salted in the shell as a snack or shelled for use in salads and other dishes, calcium and iron make them wholesome. No cholesterol is a big plus, too.

A quarter of a cup, which is a hefty serving of unshelled nuts, is about 180 calories.

The fat composition is mostly polyunsaturated linoleic acid.


You can begin to harvest sunflower seeds as soon as the center flowers turn brown or the backs of the heads turn yellow, to prevent birds from stealing them. Cut them, leaving a piece of stem to hang them in a well ventilated place to finish drying. Cover them with netting, paper sacks with holes or cheesecloth to catch falling seeds as they dry.

They can be allowed to dry on the stalk, but you'll have to cover them this way to keep the birds from eating them all before you can harvest them for yourself!

If you've grown sunflowers for the purpose of feeding birds, you can either leave them in the ground, or harvest the heads as above, then hang them in the yard or garden when they are ready. This method has an advantage in that you can dole out the heads over the winter, instead of seeing the seed all eaten within a few weeks.

Harvest them for other animals (hamsters, rats and so forth) using the same method.


When the seeds can be rubbed easily from the head, it's dry and the seeds are ready to be roasted for eating. First, remove them from the heads and pick out any pieces of stem or other debris.

Mix a quarter of a cup or so of plain salt to a quart of water, and soak the seeds in this overnight. Spread them on cookie sheets and roast in a very slow oven (150 to 200 degrees) until completely dry. Stir them once or twice during the drying time; this will take three or four hours. If you intend to store them for any length of time, put them in jars while still warm and close tightly. They keep very well in a cool dark place.

Variations call for mixing a teaspoon of melted butter with a cup of seeds while they are still warm from the oven, (these are for immediate eating) or roasting them until they are browned instead of just dry.


'Nut' butter, the butter made from various nuts and seeds, is a perfect spread for crackers or toast, or dip for vegetables. Start with raw seeds, and shell them by putting them in a cloth bag or wrapping them in a cotton cloth, then pound (gently!) with the flat side of a hammer, or something similar. Don't smash them, just crush them. When they're mostly crushed, pour them into cold water and stir a time or two to let the loosened hulls rise to the top. Skim these off, and stir again, as many times as it takes.

When nothing but sunflower kernels are left, (you may have to pick through them) pour off the water, and spread to dry.

There are various methods of grinding or crushing the seeds, but the easiest is to put them in a food processor and let it do the work. Alternatively, you can use a blender. More labor intensive, but perhaps more appealing, is to use a clean glass jar or bottle and crush the seeds against the bottom of a bowl. It takes more time, but connoisseurs claim that the butter tastes better when it's hand made.

If the butter seems dry and clumpy, add a little oil, about a quarter teaspoon, at a time, until you get the right consistency. Keep mixing until the butter is as smooth as you want it. You can add salt or not, but salt will help it keep better. Whether you do or not, store it in the refrigerator.

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