Harvesting Sunflower Seeds

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The Ultimate Back-to-School Snack

A beautiful, double sunflower before it's begun to product seedsA beautiful, double sunflower before it's begun to product seeds

If your house looks like mine your clutter is a direct result of the inevitable back-to-school rituals. I have a pile of last year’s  clothes ready to be handed down to the next child sitting in the laundry room, new backpacks in a heap by the door and stacks of school forms that still need to be completed. Amid the weather-beaten swimsuits that line the bathroom counters, lies the heavy thought that another summer has come and gone. I’m not quite ready to let it go.

In an effort to cram in one last gardening activity before our evenings are spent on spelling and math homework, we’re going to harvest our sunflower seeds. Harvesting and eating the seeds (maybe even throwing a few into those school lunch sacks) is a great way to celebrate one of the most fun and beautiful parts of our outdoor space.

Sunflower gardens are incredibly popular due to their ease and beauty, but often questions arise about how to harvest the seeds correctly. If you have planted an edible variety it is important to follow a few simple steps in order to achieve the perfect snack.

First of all, recognize that drying the sunflower heads with the mature seeds still intact will serve two purposes. It will cause the seeds to harden further, making them easy to remove from the blooms. Sunflowers don’t give their seeds up readily unless they’re dried. Drying the seeds will also prepare them for eating. If you still have compliant weather (dry and sunny), you can dry them on the stems. otherwise, it will need to be done in a covered location.

Sunflowers that are ready for harvest will look dead or dying. They will be wilted, dry and brown, and most if not all of the yellow petals will have fallen off. The undersides of the heads will turn yellow when the seeds are ripe for drying.

Envelop the heads of your sunflowers in brown paper bags. Secure around the stem tightly with a piece of string or twine. This will prevent the loss of any dropping seeds. It is important to use a paper bag, rather than a plastic bag to prevent the development of fungus or mold on the seeds. The paper bag will allow the plant to breathe and prevent the accumulation of moisture. If you need to bring your plants indoors to complete the drying process, cut the bagged flower head from the plant about 12″ below the paper bag. Turn it upside down and hang it in a warm, dry spot with good ventilation.

You’ll need to monitor the progression of the drying process. Open the bag each day and collect any seeds which may have already fallen off. When the backside of the flower head has turned dark brown and very dry, the seeds will be dried and ready to harvest. This process may take between one to four days. When the seeds are dried and if your flower head remains on the stalk, you may cut it from the stalk about 12″ below the bag. Don’t remove the bag or you’ll risk dropping the seeds on the ground.

To remove the seeds, simply rub your hand across the seeds on the flower head and they’ll pop right off the sunflower. Collect them in a large colander and rinse them well with cold running water. Drain them thoroughly and spread them out in a single layer on a thick towel. Allow the sunflower seeds to air dry for a couple of hours. Pick out any foreign matter or debris that you can see. Your dried sunflower seeds are ready to eat just as they are, or you can spread them on a cookie sheet and lightly toast them in the oven and salt them. Store them (if you toast them they need to be completely cooled) in air-tight containers or re-sealable plastic bags.

The seasonal evolution of summer to fall can bring on a bit of melancholy in every parent. Making these last few harvesting moments a family affair is a great way to ease into the transition. Send everyone in your family back-to-school this year with a little summer snack tucked away in a pocket.

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