Rising high above the garden, mammoth sunflowers are a sight to behold. It’s amazing to think that one small sunflower seed can produce giants of such stature and beauty.
By Mara Higdon
[This article was first published in the Gateway Gardener July/August 2013 issue.]
Rising high above the garden, mammoth sunflowers are a sight to behold. It’s amazing to think that one small sunflower seed can produce giants of such stature and beauty. Sunflowers come in all colors and heights, but the varieties that produce the best edible seed for human consumption are the giant varieties. Some edible sunflowers to try are Mammoth Grey Stripe, Sunzilla, Paul Bunyan, and Aztec Gold.
Start your sunflowers off right by planting them after all danger of frost has vanished. They don’t enjoy being transplanted. Sunflowers also need at least 6-8 hours of direct sun each day to produce sunflowers with lots of delicious seeds. Plant 2-3 seeds in groups about ½” deep into well-drained soil. Space your groups 6-8 inches apart. When the seedlings reach 3-4” high, thin the seedlings down to one sunflower plant per group.
Water your sunflowers regularly and consistently. For really large sunflower heads, fertilize using a diluted fish emulsion. First use a stake to make a 1-2 foot deep hole about a foot away from the sunflower seedling and fill the hole with diluted fish emulsion. This will encourage the sunflower’s roots to spread and further support the growth of the giant flower.
After about 3 months from planting, the sunflower heads can be harvested or you can chose to let them mature and ripen on the stalk. Cut the flower heads with about 1 foot of stalk attached. You can use a paper bag or cheese cloth to cover the flower head while it dries in a warm, dry space with good air circulation. Any seeds that fall out with be caught be the bag or cheese cloth. If you choose to let the seed mature on the plant, cover the flower head with the paper bag (punch a few small holes for ventilation) or cheese cloth. This will protect the seeds from birds and other wildlife from eating your seeds. Check on the flower head periodically and make sure it’s getting enough ventilation. After 3-4 weeks, the seeds should be ready to harvest.
To harvest, simply rub the seeds out with your fingers. If they need a little more
coaxing, you can use a wire brush. Store the seeds in a container that provides air circulation such as a mesh bag or panty hose. Don’t put them in plastic bags or glass jars as any remaining moisture may cause the seeds to mold. To roast the seeds, coat lightly with olive oil and bake in a single layer on a cookie sheet in a 350 oven. Bake for a total of 10-12 minutes, but shake the seeds after 6 minutes to ensure even roasting. Sprinkle with salt and/or pepper and enjoy!
Mara Higdon is Program Director at Gateway Greening, Inc. They focus on community development through gardening throughout the St. Louis area. You can reach her at 314-588-9600.