When and How to Harvest Sunflower Seeds

My Garden Life
September 4, 2018
Table of Contents

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. When to harvest sunflower seeds.

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 turns from green to 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. Depending on where you live, sunflower seeds may be ready to harvest from September into October.

2. Protect sunflower 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.

The biggest challenge for people growing sunflowers for a seed harvest is birds. Sunflower seeds are a favorite for cardinals, blue jays and finches of all kinds. When the birds discover a thriving patch of sunflowers, it’s like having a half-price sale at your favorite restaurant. Soon, those heads full of seed will have large, white gaps where the seeds used to be. Also, the birds crack through the striped seed coat and discard it, scattering empty shells throughout the bed.
When a seed harvest is your goal, it is best to cover the sunflower heads with cheesecloth until the seeds are fully ripe. You can fit a large piece of cheesecloth around the flower for protection until the seeds ripen. Or, if the back of the flower has already turned from green to yellow, you can harvest the flower.
Deer and squirrels also enjoy eating the seeds, so you may need fencing to keep them away. Normally, however, there are other offerings available during the summer to attract these animals.

3. Harvest and dry the sunflower seeds for a raw treat.

Man eating a sunflower seed.

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 the stem should do).
The seeds will need further drying before they can be stripped from the flowers. Here are the steps to a successful seed harvest:
  • Hang flower heads by the stem in a warm, dry area. Make sure the heads are not touching. With good air circulation, the heads should be fully dry in 4 to 5 days.
  • Once the heads are dried, brush the seeds onto clean paper or cheesecloth. Rub at the seeds with your bare hand. They should fall right out.
  • You can eat the seeds right away (raw) 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.

4. How to roast sunflower seeds.

Roast or sautee sunflower seeds.
Some people prefer to roast their sunflower seeds after soaking and drying them. To roast the seeds for eating:

  • Soak sunflower seeds (still in their shells) overnight in a brine solution composed of 2 quarts of water with 2 cups kosher salt added.
  • Drain seeds from salted water and dry them on paper towels.
  • Heat oven to 300 degrees. Spread sunflower seeds in one layer on a baking pan and place them in the oven. Bake for 30-40 minutes, stirring every ten minutes until seeds are golden brown.
  • Remove from the oven. Stir with 1 teaspoon of melted butter or extra virgin olive oil per cup of seed to coat seeds. Allow to cool on fresh paper towels, and salt to taste.
  • Store seeds in an airtight container for up to two months.
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.

5. 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.

6. Save the seeds to feed birds 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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