When and How to Harvest Sunflower Seeds
- sunflowers bring cheer, beauty, and an edible bounty -

Posted on September 4, 2018

When and How to Harvest Sunflower Seeds

Sunflowers are a gardener's dream. They grow easily from seed, aren't fussy about soil conditions, and take minimal care. They are equally beautiful as part of the landscape or as cut flowers. And they're readily available in a wide range of colors, bloom shapes, and sizes.

Another great advantage of the sunflower is that, once its blossom has faded, you can harvest the seeds to make a tasty, nutritious snack or use them to feed wildlife over the winter. Here's how:

1. Know when the seeds are ready to harvest.

Sunflowers with seeds ready to harvest.

You can pick your sunflower seeds when the majority of the petals have fallen from the flower head, and its back is dry and brown. By this time, the seeds should be mature, with black-and-white striped seed coats. They’ll look like the snack packs of seeds you pick up at the grocery store.

2. Protect the seed heads from hungry wildlife.

Chipmunk eating sunflower seeds.

Humans aren't the only ones who love to eat sunflower seeds. Squirrels, small rodents, and birds especially, may go after your crop before the seeds are ready to harvest. If so, you can fit a large piece of cheesecloth around the flower for protection until the seeds have fully ripened. Or, if the back of the flower has already turned from green to yellow, you can harvest the flower. Just cut it off about a foot (0.3 meters) down the stem. Hang the cut flower upside down in a dry place, safe from wildlife, to finish ripening.

3. Harvest the seeds.

When the seeds are ripe and ready to harvest, cut the seed head off leaving enough stem to give you something to grip (a foot (0.3 meters) or less of stem should do). Rub at the seeds with your bare hand. They should fall right out.

4. Dry the sunflower seeds for a raw treat.

Man eating a sunflower seed.

Soak your harvested seeds (still in their shells) overnight in a salt solution of about one-third cup (100 grams) of salt in two quarts (two liters) of water. Drain and dry on paper towel. You can eat the seeds right away or roast them for a richer flavor. How you eat your sunflower seeds is a personal choice. You can crack each one with your teeth and gently pry out the tender kernel inside. You can chew the entire seed and spit out the shell, or, some people even eat the whole seed - shell and all – although this could be a bit hazardous to the digestive system if the shells aren’t thoroughly chewed and softened.

5. Roast the raw sunflower seeds.

Roast or sautee sunflower seeds.

Some people prefer to roast their sunflower seeds after soaking and drying them. To do so, spread the seeds (still in their shells) on a cookie sheet and bake in a 300 degree F (150 degree C) oven for 40 minutes stirring every ten minutes. Salt and let cool on a paper towel. Hulled seeds can also be toasted in a skillet; simply warm the seeds for 1-2 minutes over medium heat until they are golden brown and toasted.

6. Shell your seeds for use in baking or salads.

Sunflower seeds for snack, salad or soup.

Shelling your seeds is necessary if you plan to use the seeds in other dishes. The easiest way to do this is to place your dried and cooled seeds in a plastic bag and gently run a rolling pin over the bag to crack the shells. Dump the contents of the bag into a bowl of water. The shells will float to the top, where you can skim them off with a slotted spoon. Drain the kernels in a colander and pick through them for any stray bits of shell. Let the kernels dry on paper towels completely before using or storing.

7. Save the seeds to feed wildlife during the winter.

Goldfinch eating seeds on a sunflower.

If you want to feed your crop to the birds over the winter, simply store the whole seeds in a well-ventilated container after harvesting and use them in your feeders as needed. Or simpler yet, don't remove the seeds from the seed head. Instead, let the dried flower - seeds and all - serve as a natural feeder by hanging it from a post or tree. You can even leave the dead sunflowers standing in the garden for birds to feast on through the winter months. The stalks have the added benefit of providing ornamental interest in your fall and winter landscape.

Dried sunflower plant in a snowy winter setting.

Sunflowers are cheery and bright additions to any summer garden, but their contribution doesn't end there. Well after the flowers have faded, the seeds of these hardy, low-maintenance plants can provide nutritious snacks for your family or your neighborhood wildlife.

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Save some sunflower seeds to share with the birds this winter.

Click here for a fun, easy recipe to make decorative suet cakes. Hang them from trees and shrubs for your feathered friends! Cookie cutter suet cakes

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