You grow, girl
Sunflowers rank at the top of the “easy to grow” category. They will grow in almost any type of soil, tolerate most variations of wetness and require little pest control. They only demand lots of direct sun with little shade.
Start your sunflowers with good soil preparation. (This yields the biggest flower heads and the meatiest seeds.) Make sure the soil has no standing water. Till to a depth of 8 inches. Incorporate manure, compost, organic matter or a slow-release general-purpose fertilizer into the soil; rake smooth and even.
If planting in rows, stake rows 3-4 feet apart. Use the handle of a rake or shovel to trace a straight line and make an indentation in the soil 1/4 to 1/2-inch deep. Sow seeds in this furrow, 6 inches apart, and cover with a 1/8 inch layer of fine soil.
Germination will take from 5 to 10 days. The ideal soil temperature is 70 degrees Fahrenheit. The seeds and young seedlings can take very light frosts, but they might die after a hard freeze.
When the first true leaves appear, thin the sunflowers to stand 2 to 2 1/2 feet apart. Stake tall plants to help hold up the seed head. Sunflowers thrive in hot dry weather and tolerate droughts, but they benefit from large quantities of water applied as deep soakings. All of the above information applies to both the sunflower for edible seeds and the decorative varieties.
The sunflower is a very vigorous growing plant, reaching 6 feet in five months. To keep up with this rate of growth, a booster application of fertilizer is recommended when the flower head begins to appear.
Few enemies: Most common threats to the sunflower are the stem borer and stem maggot, as well as rust and powdery mildew. Clean garden practices are the best prevention.
Kid-pleasers: Sunflowers are perfect for child gardeners because the large seeds can be easily handled by small fingers and the plants grow quickly. Share the responsibility of nurturing by watering the plants together.
Harvest and storage
The initial harvesting of the sunflower seed head is quick and easy even if a ladder is needed. Sunflowers may be harvested when fully matured or when two-thirds of the seeds are mature.
When birds begin visiting the seed heads, it’s time to cover the seed heads with cheesecloth to protect the seeds. The covered seed heads will be ready to harvest when the backs are brown and dry and no traces of green remain.
To harvest, remove the seed head with 1-2 feet of stem attached. If the seed head was not covered before harvest, use a cloth or paper bag to catch falling seeds. Hang in a warm, well-ventilated location such as an attic or garage to cure. After curing, when the backs are entirely brown and papery, remove the seed for final storage. To remove, merely brush them with your hands or a stiff brush, and the seeds will fall right out. To prevent rot or mold, do not wash the seeds before storage.
Store in airtight containers in the refrigerator to retain the most vitamins and food flavor. The seeds may be eaten raw or roasted.
Nutty about nutrition
Sunflower seeds are high in minerals, vitamins and essential acids. The only drawback is that they are also high in calories. (1 tablespoon of sunflower kernels has 51 calories; one cup has 816 calories.)
The nutrients plentifully available in sunflower seeds include protein, thiamine, vitamin E, iron, phosphorous, potassium, calcium and two essential fatty acids (linoleic acid and oleic acid). Sunflower seeds are 24 percent protein, putting them in the same protein league as beef. They also are higher in iron than any other food except egg yolks and liver. Potassium levels are similar to raisins, nuts and wheat germ, with higher calcium levels than soybeans.
This great proportion of nutrients in the seeds is believed to improve cardiovascular health. Their high proportion of potassium but low sodium content makes the sunflower seeds act as a diuretic, which helps to lower high blood pressure. The essential linoleic acid is necessary for growth and prostaglandin production, and tests have shown it to help in reducing cholesterol levels.
Source: National Garden Bureau