Growing and Harvesting Sunflowers

No summer garden looks complete without majestic sunflowers towering over the other crops, their signature yellow petals facing the sun. Certainly, sunflowers are a summertime favorite, lending cheer to harvest landscapes throughout the growing season. In addition to their beauty, sunflowers are a source of food, as well as ingredients for herbal medicine and natural cosmetics. They are easy to grow in almost any type of soil and their seeds are simple to harvest with versatile uses.

History of the Sunflower

The sunflower is indigenous to the Americas, with the Native Americans being the first to take advantage of its many uses.

Medicinally, Native Americans used the sunflower to treat pulmonary infections, such as pleurisy, bronchitis, and pneumonia. In addition to bird food, roasted sunflower seeds are very delicious and made into tea.

After the New World was discovered in 1492, specimens of the newly discovered sunflower were brought back to Europe. The earliest record of sunflowers was published in 1568 by a Belgian herbalist.

After they made their way across Europe, sunflowers were introduced to Russia and China, where their fibrous stems have been utilized for manufacturing fabrics and paper.

In laboratories around the world, the insides of the sunflower stalk- the pith- are examined as one of the lightest substances in the world. In the Netherlands, farmers plant sunflowers in soggy soil because of their amazing ability to absorb water.

Uses for the Sunflower


As most of us know, eating sunflower seeds as a snack is on the go, and is an excellent source of good fat, vitamins, and protein. They can be consumed raw, roasted, or dried.

Uses of Sunflower as food

In Native American history, Indians would ground the seeds for flour which was used for baking.

Even sunflower petals are free to eat, like the edible seeds. Try cooking and eating them like artichokes.

Of course, people are not the only ones who enjoy snacking on sunflower seeds. They are a source of food for animals, especially birds.


Sunflower oil is a popular ingredient in many natural soaps, potions, and candles. The properties found in sunflower oil have been known to treat many skin conditions.


Sunflower roots are a popular ingredient in some herbal medicines and remedies that may be used to treat spider and snake bites. They can also be ground into tea to treat fevers and stomach ailments.

Growing Sunflowers

Given their beauty and many uses, it is no surprise that many gardeners incorporate sunflowers into their summer gardens. There are nearly 70 different types of sunflowers, ranging from 1 to 15 feet in height with a variety of colors.

They are resilient flowers and can thrive in almost any type of soil, although they do best in slightly acidic or sandy soil. Since they are Native to the arid American prairies, they can even survive droughts, once they get established.


Some gardeners start sunflower seeds indoors before the first frost, but it is not usually necessary. Even in climates with short growing seasons, sunflowers can be planted 1 to 2 weeks before the first frost without the seeds being damaged.

For long growing seasons, try waiting until the soil reaches 55 to 60 degrees and sowing them directly into the ground.

Space the seeds 6 inches apart in rows that are 2 inches deep. Keep them well watered for the first 7 to 10 days, until they sprout.

Planting Sunflowers is the Garden

When the sunflowers start growing their second set of leaves, they can be thinned out to only 2 feet apart to ensure their roots have plenty of room to spread out.

Growing Time

Different varieties of sunflowers will have different maturation times. Typically, they mature between 80 to 120 days. Try sowing different varieties with different growing times, or plant the sunflowers in rounds, to ensure continuous blooms throughout the growing season.

Caring for Sunflowers

As their name implies, sunflowers need a lot of sunshine. Make sure they have a spot in the garden that gets between 6 to 8 hours of full sun each day. They flourished during the long, hot summers.

Sunflowers have long roots and are heavy feeders, so try adding organic fertilizer or compost to the soil before planting for an extra boost.

Some varieties of sunflowers can grow very tall – up to 15 feet! To protect them from strong or damaging winds, consider planting these tall varieties along a fence row or against a building. Even planting next to corn can help stabilize them.

However, some very tall sunflowers will need some extra support, such as a bamboo stake. Simply tie the bamboo to the sunflower stalk with a twine, securing it every 3 to 5 inches, starting near the base of the stalk.

Harvest Sunflower Seeds

Harvesting sunflower seeds is a very simple process.

First, make sure the flower head is spent. When they are ready to harvest, they will be brown and drooping toward the ground. If they still have yellow petals and are facing the sun, it is not time to harvest seeds yet.


Using a knife or pruning tool, cut the sunflower stalk 4 to 6 inches from the head. Using a spoon or by hand, scrape the seeds out of the center and into a bucket. Other debris will be scraped out in the process. Be sure to separate the seeds from the debris before cooking or roasting.

Soak the seeds in water and salt overnight. Use 1 cup of salt for every gallon of water. Some people eat raw sunflower seeds but many prefer them roasted, especially the striped sunflower seeds.

To roast sunflower seeds, preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and place the un-shelled seeds on a baking sheet. Roast them in the oven for 30 to 40 minutes. Once they have cooled, storing sunflower seeds is recommended in an airtight container.

Growing and Harvesting Sunflowers in Pots

Growing and harvesting sunflowers in pots is a delightful departure from traditional garden cultivation. This unique approach allows garden enthusiasts to enjoy the beauty of sunflowers in smaller spaces, on balconies, or even indoors. Unlike conventional planting in open soil, potted sunflowers offer more control over soil quality and positioning.

To get started, choose a large pot with good drainage and fill it with a well-balanced potting mix. Sunflower seeds can be sown directly into the pot, about one inch deep. Regular watering and adequate sunlight are essential for their growth, just like in garden beds. However, potted sunflowers may require more frequent watering due to the limited soil volume.

One of the key differences is the height. Potted sunflowers typically grow to a more manageable height, making them perfect for small spaces. The smaller size also makes them less susceptible to strong winds and pests, requiring less maintenance.

Harvesting potted sunflowers is similar to their garden counterparts, with the flowers reaching full bloom in late summer. When the petals start to wilt and the center turns brown, it’s time to harvest sunflowers seeds. Simply cut the sunflower heads and hang them upside down in a dry, well-ventilated area. Once the seeds are dry, they can be easily removed and enjoyed as a tasty snack or saved for planting next season.

Planting Sunflowers Along Fence

Planting sunflowers along a fence transforms a mundane boundary into a vibrant tapestry of nature’s beauty. As the sun-kissed flower heads sway gently in the breeze, they create an enchanting, living curtain that provides both privacy and visual delight.

The carefully selected sunflower varieties reach for the sky, their golden petals basking in the warm glow of sunlight. Maintenance is minimal, and the reward comes not only in the form of their cheerful blooms but also in the delightful crunch of sunflower seeds when they are ready for harvest. This living fence becomes a haven for bees and butterflies, adding a touch of enchantment to any outdoor space.


Sunflowers are easy to grow and make lovely additions to summer garden landscapes across the country each summer. Consider growing a variety of sunflowers, ranging in height, and harvesting the seeds for snacks, birdseed, tea, or sunflower seed oil, and enjoy the aesthetic and practical contributions of America’s favorite beauty!