Watching a tiny seedling turn into a plant tall enough to tower over Shaquille O'Neal in a single season can restore your sense of wonder. Indulge your inner child by growing some old-fashioned, seed-producing sunflowers this summer. The flowers are huge ― a foot across or more ― and as simple as a child's drawing of the sun, a circle of short yellow rays around a brown center. The reward is the crop ― enough sunflower seeds for both you and visiting songbirds to enjoy a feast.
One of the tallest sunflowers on the market is 'Sunzilla' (4), a new sturdy-stemmed hybrid that grows up to 16 feet tall. Other varieties in the 10- to 15-foot range include 'Giganteus' (3), 'Kong' (1, 2), 'Mammoth Russian' (1, 3), and 'Paul Bunyan' (1). Two medium-size varieties are 7- to 10-foot 'Tarahumara' (5) and the new 6- to 8-foot 'Snack Seed' (4). No room for giants? Try 'Sunspot' (3); it's only 2 feet tall but produces lots of seeds.
Sunflowers need plenty of nourishment. Choose a sunny spot in the garden and mix lots of compost and organic fertilizer into the soil. Sow seeds, and thin seedlings, following directions on packet. Keep the soil moist and well weeded, and feed weekly with fish emulsion. In windy areas, stake the plants to keep them from toppling. Once flowers develop, follow the tips below to ripen and harvest their seeds.
1. Cover flower heads. To keep birds and squirrels from feeding on seeds, cover each flower head with burlap, cheesecloth, or a paper bag as soon as the petals begin to fall.
2. Harvest seeds. When seed shells are plump ― but before they dry out and begin to loosen ― cut off the flower head. Store at room temperature in a dark place until shells are completely dry (three to four weeks). To remove the seeds, firmly massage flower head with gloved hands.
3. Roast seeds. In a 4-quart pot filled with 2 quarts water, add ¾ cup salt and 3 cups seeds. Bring water to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer 1 hour. Drain seeds and dry well on paper towels. In a 300° oven, bake seeds on a large cookie sheet, stirring frequently until crisp, about 1 hour. Remove seeds from oven, let cool, and store in an airtight container.