Saving sunflower seeds is a wonderful gardening project for beginners and experienced gardeners alike.
To save sunflower seeds, cut the flower heads off the plants when the outer petals fall off. Dry the whole heads by hanging them upside down or placing them on a flat surface for a couple of weeks. Pluck out the seeds by hand, by rubbing one head against another, or with a bucket topped with hardware cloth. Dry the individual seeds in a single layer on a screen or another dry surface before storing them.
Read on to learn all about how to save sunflower seeds!
Introduction to saving sunflower seeds
Sunflower seeds are easy to collect and save for planting next year. Just let the flowers go to seed, then harvest the seeds and store them in a cool, dry place.
Saving sunflower seeds is a great way to get free seeds for your garden, and it’s also a fun project for kids. If you have a sunflower patch in your garden, you can save money by collecting your own seeds.
Sunflowers are in the Asteraceae family (Aster family), which also includes lettuce, zinnias, and many other favorites. Plants in the Aster family like lettuce have perfect flowers. Sunflowers of one variety easily cross with those of other sunflower varieties.
Planting sunflowers for seed saving
To ensure a large quantity of viable seed that is genetically diverse, plant at least 12 sunflowers of one variety.
Sunflowers are obligate crossers. If you do want to cross two varieties, they can be planted next to each other. You can develop your own backyard sunflower varieties this way!
Isolating a single variety by distance requires a minimum of 1000 feet (300 m), and is unreasonable in most home gardens. It is not uncommon for commercial seed producers to isolate varieties by 10,000 feet (3,000 m). A good solution for home gardeners is to bag the flower heads and hand-pollinate the flowers to prevent cross-pollination.
Choose an open-pollinated variety
Make certain the sunflower breed you choose is open-pollinated. Even if you were to isolate seeds from hybrids (F1 crosses), they would not be true to type.
Here are some great open-pollinated sunflower varieties:
- Autumn beauty sunflower
- Lemon queen sunflower
- Mammoth sunflower
- Teddy bear sunflower
- Skyscraper sunflower
- Black oil sunflower
- Velvet queen sunflower
Most types of sunflowers (except florist sunflowers) are perfect for saving seeds and home seed production.
Companion planting for seed saving
Sunflowers are excellent companions for many garden vegetables. Some good crops to plant alongside sunflower include:
Sunflowers are also great for providing shade and windbreaks in the garden. They can be used to protect more delicate plants like lettuce from the harsh afternoon sun. Here is a big list of companion plants for sunflowers.
Growing sunflowers for seed saving
To grow sunflowers plants for seed saving, start with high-quality seeds. Make sure to buy them from a reputable seed company.
Plant sunflower seeds in well-draining soil after all danger of frost has passed. Sunflowers do best in full sun, but they will tolerate partial shade.
Water sunflower plants regularly, especially during periods of drought. Mulch around the plants to help keep the roots cool and moist.
Fertilize sunflowers in the spring and summer with a balanced organic fertilizer. Be careful not to over-fertilize with a nitrogen-rich fertilizer, as this can encourage leaf growth at the expense of flower development.
To encourage large, healthy sunflower plants, thin out the seedlings so that they are spaced 12 to 18 inches (30-45 cm) apart. You can transplant the seedlings to other areas of the garden or give them away to friends.
Isolating one variety
If you will be isolating a variety by covering each head with a bag, be sure to cover each flower bud before it opens to prevent pollinating insects from reaching the flowers. You can use a fabric bag or a piece of insect netting tied around the stem with twine.
Each sunflower head is actually made up of thousands of small individual flowers. The flowers around the outside bloom first and the flowers in the very center bloom last. Each flower is open for only a couple of days, but it can take 1-3 weeks for all the flowers to bloom.
Hand pollinate the flowers daily while they are blooming. Carefully remove the covers off of two flower heads and rub the flower heads against each other. Try to do this at a time of day when there aren’t many pollinators around to sneak in and pollinate while you do your hand pollination.
Choosing sunflowers to save seeds from
Choose sunflowers that are healthy to save seeds from. The plants should be strong and stable and the flowers beautiful or rich in sunflower seeds for the birds.
How to save seeds from sunflower plants
Here’s how to save sunflower seeds:
1. Let the flowers bloom and go to seed.
2. Cut the heads off the stalks when the outer petals fall off.
3. Dry the heads by hanging them upside down or placing them with the seeds up on a flat surface. Be sure to choose a spot with good air circulation (and protected from birds, mice, and other hungry critters). Drying the heads usually takes about 2 weeks.
4. When the seeds are dry, remove them from the flower head. You can use your hands (with gloves), or rub one head against the other. If you’re collecting lots of seeds, you can rub the heads over a bucket topped with hardware cloth.
5. Continue drying the seeds once they have been removed from the flower head. Spread them out in a single layer on a screen or dry flat surface in an area with good air circulation. Ideal temperatures for drying sunflower seeds are 75°F-85°F (25°C-30°C). It usually takes a minimum of a week for sunflower seeds to dry.
Storing sunflower seeds
Wait until sunflower seeds are completely dry before storing them. The seeds should crack and break when bent.
Store sunflower seeds in a labeled airtight container such as a glass canning jar. Make sure to include not only the cultivar name but also the date that the seed was harvested.
Properly stored sunflower seeds can remain viable for 5+ years. To extend storage life, store sunflower seeds in the refrigerator or freezer.