Summertime Joy: Sunflowers

This article by Samantha Johnson originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of Northern Gardener.

The splendiferous sunflower might not be the first plant that comes to mind when you think of your kitchen garden. But these beauties deserve a place in your edible garden for both their flowers and their seeds. Sunflowers are hardy in the North; they’re easy to grow; and they make a bold and vibrant statement in the garden. On top of all that, they’re a fun novelty to use in the kitchen.

Planting and Growing

Plant sunflower seeds outdoors when the soil has warmed sufficiently in spring (ideally once soil temperatures reach 50 to 60 degrees F), in well-drained soil, approximately 1 inch deep, spaced 6 inches apart, in rows about 2 feet apart. Situate them in full sun and keep them well-watered. After planting the seeds, you may wish to cover the area with some type of screen if birds, squirrels or other critters are troublesome in your garden.

As your seedlings emerge and grow, remember to thin appropriately based on the type of sunflower. The best distance to space them will be listed on the seed package. Proper spacing is essential if your intent is to grow sizeable sunflowers.

All sunflower varieties are beautiful in their own way, and the multitude of available colors and types makes it a delight to ponder the possibilities for your garden. But if you’re considering sunflowers for use in the kitchen, it’s important to recognize the distinction between oilseed and confectionery (also known as non-oilseed) varieties. Confectionery sunflowers produce striped seeds—the kind that contain those delicious kernels that we use for cooking and snacking. Oilseed sunflower seeds are the kind you often see in birdfeeders;  this is the type from which sunflower oil is produced.

It’s also important to note that there’s a distinction between sunflower seeds and sunflower kernels: the seed is the hull (protective coating) that encloses the meaty part (kernel). When snacking on sunflower seeds, it’s easy to simply spit out the pieces of hull and consume only the kernel, but for cooking you need to work with kernels only. Post-harvest processing for roasted sunflower seeds for snacking involves soaking the seeds in salt water, then drying and roasting them. (See the video at https://youtu.be/oumO0BIy7Z4 for instructions.) Removing kernels for cooking typically involves pummeling the seeds (such as with an electric mixer), soaking them and then hand separating the hulls from the kernels. If you are growing the seeds for oil, you’ll need an extraction machine.

sunflower flowerCooking with Sunflower Seeds

If you love baked goods, then you’re in luck, because roasted sunflower kernels and sunflower oil work beautifully in breads, muffins, cakes and cookies. Oatmeal cookies are a particularly nice combination with sunflower kernels (and chocolate chips). The possibilities are unlimited when it comes to bread, and sunflower seeds make an excellent addition to your favorite muffin recipe. Pumpkin and sunflower seeds are an exceptionally nice pairing in breads and muffins.

And while you’re in the kitchen baking, don’t forget about pie! If you haven’t tasted a slice of sunflower pie, you’ve missed out on a simply incredible treat that’s reminiscent of pecan pie but is packed with roasted sunflower kernels.

Roasted sunflower kernels also shine in salads, pairing well with many types of greens and other vegetables by providing a nice crunch and additional flavor. Or dress your favorite salad with sunflower oil vinaigrette. Sunflower seeds and berries are another splendid combination; try them together in oatmeal, with yogurt or baked into snack bars.

If you’re fond of peanut butter and are game to try a substitute, you can also try making your own homemade sunflower butter for an interesting change of pace!

Any way you look at it, sunflowers offer an amazing return on your investment. Just think: you can harvest more than a thousand sunflower seeds from a plant that grew from a single seed and filled your garden with color and beauty.

Samantha Johnson is the author of several books, including Garden DIY, (CompanionHouse Books, 2020). She lives on a former dairy farm in northern Wisconsin. Visit her online portfolio at http://samanthajohnson.contently.com.

1 Comment

  1. Julie Weisenhorn on July 28, 2021 at 10:05 pm

    One of my all-time favorite sunflowers is Music Box Mix – a great pollinator plant and a great semi-dwarf, multi-stemmed plant that blooms till frost. It was a winner in the Flowers for Pollinators study here in Extension Horticulture. Thanks to our Extension Master Gardener volunteers for helping with the study!

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