General gardening topics

When and how to harvest sunflower seeds – before the birds and squirrels get them

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I think sunflowers are one of the most rewarding plants you can grow, I myself prefer the giant sunflowers that can reach 8ft tall with heads that can be over 1.5ft wide. They really are a sight to behold.

So, if you have successfully grown sunflowers you may be wondering when is the best time to harvest the sunflower seeds and also what is the best way to harvest the sunflower seeds.

Harvested sunflower seeds
Harvested white sunflower seeds

When it comes to harvesting you have two choices to consider, you can wait until they are ready and the seeds will almost fall out themselves. But what if the birds, deer, mice or as in my case, squirrels, get to the seeds before you have a chance to harvest them. This is where the second option comes in, where you harvest them a little earlier. I also talk about this a little below.

How do I know when sunflowers are ready to be harvested?

It is usually fairly obvious when sunflowers are ready to be harvested. The heads will start to droop down and the back of the sunflower heads will begin to turn yellow/brown. The petals will also turn brown. If they are ready the seeds will then come away from the sunflower by just rubbing them gently. For me, this is usually sometime in October.

I personally harvest my sunflowers slightly earlier than perhaps I would ideally like to too. The reason for this is that the squirrels who visit my garden regularly (which my wife insists on letting them feed on the sunflower seeds) seem to love my sunflowers and they also appear to know exactly when they are almost ready to harvest.

Squirrel damage to sunflower which i why i harvest my seeds slightly earlier
Squirrel damage on my sunflower

Squirrels will climb up the stems and they like to eat the sunflowers seeds from the back of the sunflower head as well as from the edges. The tiny flowers that make up the centre of the sunflower will also fall away if you rub your fingers over them.

Hanging sunflowers heads to dry out if you have harvested them a little earlier

If you harvest your sunflower a little earlier than usual, where the back of the head is brown and the petals are brown but the seeds are not quite ready to fall out easily when you rub them, then, in this case, I like to hang the sunflower heads up for a week or two. You can hang them up with string in a dry cool place (such as a garage) to allow them to dry out a little more.

How to harvest sunflowers seeds?

So, the first thing you need to do is cut the sunflower head from the stem. If you are planning to hang them up for a week or two before you harvest the seeds, just make sure you leave a few inches of stem on the head to tie the string to.

Large sunflower head ready for harvesting

If you look at the sunflower carefully, you will see that each seed has a tiny floret on the end as sunflowers are actually made up of thousands of little flowers.

Removing the flowers so sunflower seeds can be seen

Use you fingers to gently rub the surface of the sunflower and the tiny flowers will fall off, leaving the sunflower seeds on show.

removing sunflower seeds by rubbing hands over them

Next you need to place the sunflower head over a bucket, container, cardboard box or whatever you plan on collecting the sunflower seeds in. Now rub your fingers over the seeds and they should all start to fall out. It can be easier to remove the sunflowers if you break the head into small sections.

What to do with harvested sunflower seeds?

Once you have collected all your sunflower seeds I like to leave them for a few days to make sure they are totally dry before storing them in a container or paper packet.

Thats it, I use some of my sunflower seeds to grow new sunflowers in spring and feed the rest to the birds over the winter but you can also roast them to eat.

Collected sunflowers seeds from just two sunflowers

I also like to leave the heads with some seeds in the centre to keep the squirrels busy, this seems to help stop them bothering with the bird feeders and my spring bulbs.

How to roast sunflower seeds

Roasted sunflower seeds

If you want to have a go at roasting them to eat, all you need to do is preheat the oven to 400°F and spread a thin layer of them over a baking tray and roast for around 5 minutes.

Keep an eye on them so they do not get too roasted, when they are ready, the hulls should crack open easily. If they aren’t quite ready, put them back in the oven for another minute or two and watch them like a hawk as they burn easily.

Dealing with problems when growing sunflowers

Below I have linked to a few articles that cover the common problems you may run into when growing sunflowers, from yellow and curling leaves to the sunflowers not actually flowering.

Why are my sunflowers not flowering?

Why are my sunflower leaves turning yellow?

Why are my sunflower leaves curling?


Welcome to my site, my name is John and I have been lucky enough to work in horticultural nurseries for over 15 years in the UK. As the founder and editor as well as researcher, I have a City & Guilds Horticultural Qualifications which I proudly display on our About us page. I now work full time on this website where I review the very best gardening products and tools and write reliable gardening guides. Behind this site is an actual real person who has worked and has experience with the types of products we review as well as years of knowledge on the topics we cover from actual experience. You can reach out to me at john@pyracantha.co.uk

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