Growing and harvesting your own sunflower seeds may seem daunting, but it's actually easier than you think. Grow your own sunflowers and harvest the seeds for yourself, and for wonderful chicken feed!
We love having sunflower seeds on hand for snacking. They can be eaten raw, roasted, or ground into flour. Sunflower seeds are also a good source of protein, essential fatty acids, vitamin E, magnesium, phosphorus, and copper!
They are also a great addition to the diet of any pastured chicken, not only for the extra protein but they are also considered anti-parasitic. We grow pumpkin seeds to feed our chickens for the same reason.
But good quality seeds can be very expensive - especially if you are feeding them to your chickens. So we decided to start growing our own sunflowers and harvesting the seeds instead of continuing to purchase them.
Growing Sunflowers for Seed
Sunflowers can be grown almost anywhere! You should plant them in the spring, after the last frost, and when the soil temperature reaches at least 60°F. Sunflowers need full sun, however, if your summers get too hot be sure they have a bit of shade in the hotted part of the day.
Here are some of our best tips for making sure your sunflower crop is successful this year.
- Choose the right variety - Not all sunflowers are created equal when it comes to seed production. Look for varieties that are specifically labeled as “oilseed” or “seed” sunflowers. These will produce larger, fuller heads with more seeds. Some popular varieties for seed production include Russian Giant, Mammoth, and Black Oil. Most seed sunflowers are perennials, meaning you will have to plant them year after year.
- Prepare your soil - Sunflowers prefer well-draining soil that is rich in organic matter, which means the Back to Eden gardening method is perfect for sunflowers! Sunflowers also prefer a soil pH between 6.0 and 7.5, so if your soil is too acidic you can add lime to raise the pH.
- Plant at the right time - Sunflowers are warm-season plants and should be planted after the last frost in your area. In most regions, this will be in late spring or early summer. Sunflowers also require full sun, so choose a location that receives at least six hours of direct sunlight per day.
We used these organic black oil sunflower seeds from Azure Standard and have really enjoyed them.
Growing sunflowers is a very simple process, and sunflower plants tend to be very hardy! Here is a step-by-step look at growing sunflowers.
- Placement - Choose a sunny spot in your garden to plant your sunflower seeds. Keep in mind that they will need at least 6 hours of sunlight per day.
- Soil Prep - Prepare the soil by loosening it up and adding some compost or manure. This will help your sunflowers grow big and strong.
- Planting - Sow the seeds about 1 inch deep and 12 inches apart. If you're planting more than one row, space the rows about 3 feet apart.
- Hydrate - Water the seeds well and keep the soil moist until they germinate, which usually takes 7-10 days.
- Thinning - Once the seedlings have sprouted, thin them out so that only the strongest plants remain. Space them about 18 inches apart so they have room to grow.
- Maintain - Keep the soil moist by watering as needed for your gardening method. For the Back to Eden method, this may be needed only once or twice a month. For other methods, it may be every other day.
- Support - As the sunflower plants grow, you may need to stake them to prevent them from toppling over. You can also pinch off the side branches to encourage the plant to put more energy into seed production.
Harvesting the Sunflower Seeds
Sunflower seeds are ready for harvest when the back of the flower head turns yellow and the petals begin to wilt and fall off. Cut the stem about 4 inches below the flower head and hang it upside down in a dry, well-ventilated area to dry. Once they are completely dry, you can remove the seeds by shaking or rubbing them off of the flower head.
Here's a step-by-step guide to ensure a successful harvest:
- Wait - Wait until the back of the sunflower head is brown and the seeds are dry. This usually happens in late summer or early fall.
- Cut - Cut off the sunflower head, being careful not to damage the stem.
- Dry - Place the sunflower head in a paper bag, and let it sit for a few days so that the seeds can fall out.
- Remove - Once the seeds have fallen out, carefully remove them from the bag and spread them out on a towel to dry completely.
- Store - Store the dried seeds in an airtight container in a cool, dark place until you're ready to enjoy them as a snack, or until you are ready to plant again.
Storing Sunflower Seeds
Once your homegrown sunflower seeds are fully dried, you can store them like you would any other seed or nut. We like to store ours in glass jars or mylar bags for long-term storage.
For planting next year, you can also use a paper seed package or plain letter envelope and then store them with your other seeds.
Common Questions about Sunflower Seeds
Unshelled and unroasted sunflower seeds are good for about 1-2 years when stored in an airtight container and in a cool, dark place. They must be FULLY dried or the seeds will mold in the container.
For laying hens, a handful every few days *for the whole flock* is plenty. If you are raising meat chickens, sunflower seeds can make up 15-20% of their diet without issues.
In small quantities, it would be fine. Just like feeding them leftovers from your kitchen. However, in large quantities, unsalted and unroasted sunflower seeds are the best option for chickens.
Yes! Simply shell the sunflower seeds and then process them the same way you would to make homemade peanut butter.
Even More Gardening Ideas
Ready to keep your family and animals eating high-quality food, straight from your own garden? Here are a few of our favorite things to grow!