Diary of a Sunflower
Starting from seed
Growing sunflowers from seed is so easy and rewarding. The benefits of growing sunflowers are two-fold: you get beautiful, giant flowers, and you get edible seeds. Kids love them for their quick growth and daily surprises.
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I hope that one day, my kids will remember the time Mom grew giant sunflowers in the backyard. My kids were so excited when I told them we were going to grow giant flowers as tall as the house. They waited by the front door for the mailman every day until the seed packets came in.
Once we got the seeds, we soaked them overnight in water. This helps to soften the seed shell and allow for easier germination. You can skip this step, but it will take longer.
Direct sow your seeds into a prepared bed. I like the double dig method for turning new beds. Plants as tall as sunflowers have very long taproots to help them stay vertical. They need to be able to break through the soil. Turning your beds helps allow the roots to go deeper.
Plant your seeds a half-inch deep and space them 6-10 inches apart. If you are planting in rows, space the rows 2-3 feet apart. Titan and mammoth variety sunflowers will grow up to 14 feet tall, so don’t plant them under your eaves on the side of the house. They need room to go up up up!
Find the perfect location to plant
Make sure they get at least 8 hours of full sun. The heads will turn toward the sun throughout the day. You can track how much sun a certain area will get by making a sun map. See how to make a sun map here.
While searching for the best sunflower for us, I found the Titan Sunflower from Baker Creek Seed Co. There are many types of sunflowers, it just depends on which type is best for your garden. If seeds aren’t important, but space or beauty is, the Elf or Little Becka varieties might be better for you.
It wasn’t long before the tiny sprout leaves grew taller and taller at breakneck pace. The kids loved to have their photos taken with the flowers to measure the height. In just a few weeks, the seedlings had grown into gigantic stalks– taller than the fence.
I credit most of my success to good, stinky liquid fertilizer. My favorite is Neptune’s Harvest Fish and Sea Kelp Organic Fertilizer. OMG it stinks, but it works! You only need a capful in a watering can, so this small bottle should last you a while. Just don’t spill any on your shoe!
The Waiting Is the Hardest Part
Every morning, the kids would wake me up and ask “Is there a flower yet, Mom?” And I would rub my eyes and check the time and groan. “It’s fifteen o’clock, Mom, can you get up now?” It was 6:35am. The rule is that Mama starts the coffee first…and then we can go outside and check the garden. Start the coffee, locate flip flops, grab sunglasses. Oh wait, my phone… Alright, let’s go outside.
Every morning, from the day after we put the seeds in the ground, this was the routine. Go outside, look at the dirt, and I would explain that it takes a long time for plants and flowers to grow. Then we would mopey-march back inside until the next morning.
But one day…. we went outside and there was a tiny hump of germinated seed poking out of the soil. OH MY GOSH, it was the most exciting moment of their entire lives. IT’S ALIVE.
We had to check it every hour that day until a leaf finally popped up (squeee!). After that, the excitement was off the charts as breathless and eager toddlers rushed me out of bed.
The whole “coffee first” thing went out the window, quick.
Nothing compares to the day the first bloom finally opened up.
You would think we had just landed on the moon for the first time.
Sunflower Heads Forming
You can see the head forming once the plant has reached its full height. It starts as a small, round bud, and starts to get gangly around the edges. It’s easy to tell the difference between another set of leaves because it will form a round base at the bottom and the edges of the leaves will begin to curl. These leaves will end up being the outside leaves of the sunflower head.
Pow! This flower head popped up overnight. It’s amazing how quickly a plant can develop such an intricate structure in just a few short hours. It started to look a little gnarly and alien.
Yellow color showing…
Any time now…. I’ll just grab my lawn chair and camp out right here.
This is what pure joy looks like in the form of a flower. My kids didn’t have much to say at first. They just kind of stood there in awe with their little mouths agape. “Whoa.” I did get to sleep in the next day. Then, of course, we had to tell every one we encountered about our flower for the next several days.
It doesn’t stay like this for very long, so be sure and get some good picture of it on day one or two. The petals will start to wilt around the edges and the head will droop, making your bright cheery sunflowers start to look a little sad and pouty.
Sunflower Seed Harvesting
It’s not the end! The best is yet to come. You still need the seeds to mature, so don’t take your sad heads down yet. The heads are ready to be harvested when the back of the head turns yellowish-brown, sags, and some or all the petals have fallen out.
There are a ton of seeds in each sunflower head. It is an intricate pattern of swirling fractals and patterns. Nature is amazing. The seeds are sitting in the head with the pointy end down and the round end has a teeny-tiny flower attached to the end of it. This is what gives the sunflower head’s center a yellow hue.
At first, the seeds may be white and very soft. Leave them attached to the stem until you can pull a seed off and the shell is hard. There should be visible grey striping.
Paper bags (not plastic) are often tied around the head while it reaches full maturity. This helps keep the birds and squirrels from stealing all of your seeds, and catches any seeds that fall out. Check the bag every day to give it some air and prevent mold and mildew.
After a few days, pull the bag off and your seeds will be ready. Just hold the head in your hand and brush the seeds off into a container. Be sure to save a few for planting next year. If they are really compact in there, you may have to dig them out with your fingers. Flat seeds are no good since they won’t have any “meat” in them, they’re just a shell.
Rinse and dry the seeds, then soak in a saltwater brine overnight. The best salt in the world is from a company called Redmond. This salt is mined in Utah since the 1950s, unrefined with 31 trace minerals, and comes in several levels of coarseness including popcorn salt.
You can use something heavy and a plate or lid to keep the seeds pushed under the brine water. Drain and roast them in the oven for 10 mins at 400.
We like sunflower seeds because they’re a snacktivity. You have to work to get to the food inside. It takes forever to eat a whole package of sunflower seeds. We will definitely grow sunflowers again next year.
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