Sunflowers (Helianthus annus) say summer like no other flower. They are native to the Americas. Actually, each “flower” is made up of hundreds of flowers that produce seeds. The seeds are edible, while the leaves can be used as cattle feed and the stems make a fiber that can be used to make paper.
Sunflowers grow between five and twelve feet tall. They need full sun to grow best. Because of their height, it is a good idea to sow them against a building or fence that breaks the wind so the stalks do not blow over.
Sunflowers are planted by seed after all danger of frost is passed. They grow best in well drained, heavily mulched soil. Sunflowers like a pH of 6.0 to 7.5. To prepare your seedbed, till it to a depth of twelve inches and work in three inches of compost. Plant the seeds one and a half feet apart and one inch deep. Cover with soil. Spread a balanced fertilizer over the top of the soil and water in.
Sunflowers will sprout in seven to ten days. Keep them watered and moist, not squishy, until they sprout. Then switch to watering them weekly or twice a week with an inch of water each time. Sunflowers have a deep taproot and can tolerate some drought, but seed production will be effected if they are not watered regularly. Seeds are ready in eighty to one hundred twenty days, depending on the variety of sunflower planted. One reliable sunflower variety for seeds to snack on is called “Mammoth”.
Because sunflowers have tall stalks with a heavy seedhead attached to it, staking it with a tall bamboo stake is a good idea. Be sure and use ties to the stake that will not bite into the plant and injure it. The stake should be planted beside the sunflower when it first comes up and the stalk tied to the stake as soon as it is a foot or so high. Continue attaching the stalk to the stake every foot or so as the sunflower grows.
When the sunflowers are a foot high, it is a good idea to spread three inches of mulch around them. This will hold in soil moisture and make it harder for weeds to come up. Sunflowers can be fertilized, but use a low nitrogen fertilizer such as a 1-2-3 because a high amount of nitrogen will make for big stalks and no flowers.
Birds can be serious pests of sunflowers as the seeds ripen. Bird netting over the sunflower plants can help this problem.
When the seeds are ripe, carefully pick the flowers. Bring them inside and hang them over newspaper. Let the heads cure for several weeks. Dislodge the seeds by rubbing two heads together. You can then eat the seeds raw or roast them in the oven with or without salt. Store the seeds in glass jars out of the light once they have dried well to prevent mildew and spoilage.