Sunflowers, in all their varieties, catch our eye with their beauty. They also can improve soil when planted in moderation with crops. They make great companions for cucumbers but if planted in great quantity can be bad for pole beans, as both will compete for light. I planted just one mammoth sunflower in the middle of my pole bean patch, and the beans use it to climb.
Another added benefit of sunflowers is that they produce a substance that that inhibits nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the soil, thus delaying the day when grasses and weeds will normally take over.
It has been found that sunflowers and corn, when planted together, are protective of each other. In addition, you will notice a reduction of insects. Cucumbers can benefit from the wind break sunflowers provide. They can also help provide afternoon shade, and both like rich, evenly watered soil. You may want to add compost at planting so that both the sunflower and cucumber plants receive enough nutrition.
And whom amongst us gardeners could not use a little help from our friend, the bee? Sunflower blooms provide much-needed pollen for bees with their sweet nectar. The seeds, which are loved by birds, are rich in vitamins B1, A, and D as well as linoleic and alpha-linoleic fatty acids. They make a fine oil for cooking and salad dressings.
I will share my partner John DuCrest’s wonderful recipe for toasted sunflower seeds. Once mammoth heads start to curl, they are usually ready to harvest. Cut the heads off, and let them dry out for about a day. Twist and pry the seeds off onto a cloth. Wash and strain them, and soak them overnight, at a minimum, in sea salt. The next day, drain them and lay them out in the sun to dry for 24 hours. Now they are ready for the oven. Roast at 300 to 350 degrees for about 20 or 30 minutes. Before placing them in the oven, lightly brush them with olive oil and transfer them to a mason jar. Now is the time to get creative. Add ranch seasoning, cayenne, or sea salt. The possibilities are endless. Shake them up and seal the jar. Now you have some pretty amazing homemade sunflower seeds. Around our house, they do not last long.
So if you forwent sunflowers this year, rethink how great they can be for you next year.