GROWING SUNFLOWER SEEDS

A row of giant sunflowers in my garden.

A row of giant sunflowers in my garden.

I planted giant sunflowers in my garden for the first time last year. Actually, that’s not completely true. Two years ago, I planted eight seeds, two in each of the corners of an eight-inch-high raised bed. When the giant stalks grew taller than me, I tied them to the vertical, mesh-covered frame that supports the sweet pea and string bean vines I grow in that planter each year. I only planted a few sunflowers at first because I didn’t know if they would grow for me. Plants teach me what to do and what not to do for them. They’re the best teachers and the only ones I’ve ever had. I learn the most from failure, but I relish the successes.

The Art of Gardening jumped a generation in my family, probably because Mom always worked forty-plus hours a week. On top of that, we moved every year, living in rental houses, which made having a garden of vegetables or even flowers an impossible dream. Not that it ever occurred to her to start a garden. The only thing I ever saw Mom grow was a split leaf philodendron. Every Saturday, she’d polish its leaves with a cotton cloth dipped in milk. She learned that by reading Better Homes and Gardens magazine. Mom was more an actress and entertainer than an outdoors type anyway. She could put on a great party but gardening was definitely not her thing.

I remember my Grandma on my dad’s side maintained a beautiful flower garden. I mostly remember the rose bushes. Every time we visited her Detroit brick home, she would be in the backyard pruning, weeding and deadheading, although I don’t remember her ever growing sunflowers. Her garden was more like a Monet painting than a Van Gogh. Our visits were usually too short for me to learn much from her about gardening, except that it required endless hours of work. I do remember on those occasional visits  learning how to bake cookies (Grandma let me pour the chocolate chips into the batter) and how to properly dust (she had me crawling beneath her dining room table with a damp cloth getting the bits from every crook and cranny).

Giant sunflowers

Living in rural Illinois for eighteen years has turned me into a huge bird lover. I mean, how could anyone resist falling in love with those colors: blue, yellow, orange and red and the striking combinations of black and white mixed sometimes with flashes of color. Growing my own seeds for the birds felt like a good idea. That and the fact that my husband loves to eat salted sunflower seeds spurred me to plant an entire package of giant sunflower seeds last year. I scattered the seeds along the northwest corner of the fence that we constructed to keep our German Shepherd from running off, chasing deer and turkeys and raccoons. Now he just barks at them.

Anyway, the entire garden did pretty well last year, except for the tomatoes. The individual spray heads on the rink-y-dinky irrigation system that we installed clogged instead of watering the seven brick circles that contained the tomato plants. The drought took them fast and I finally gave up, too busy picking strawberries and raspberries, peas and beans, broccoli and a whole slew of red peppers (my favorite for salads, sandwiches and veggie pizza).

Sunflowers taller than me.

Sunflowers taller than me.

The sunflowers did pretty well too except for when they drooped into some of my other beds. The weeds grew in and around the sunflowers because I didn’t mulching heavily enough. Both flowers and weeds grew taller than me and I’m 5’7″ (I use to be 5’8″ but old age made me shrink an inch). Horsetail weeds are famous for shooting up in one growing season as tall as the one-story buildings.

I never figured out just how or when to harvest the seeds. Plus, I was intimidated by the sunflowers’ thorny, thick stalks and their heavy root system anchoring them into the soil. A slew of them, maybe thirty or forty, had grown from seed with no help for me except for the moisture they received from the soaker hose. So I decided to just leave them for the birds. (That sounds like something my mom used to say!)

Seeds to be harvested.

Seeds to be harvested.

I did cut off two or three sunflower heads and stuck them inside to air dry. I was hoping Greg would help me shuck them (not sure if that’s the right term, but it works for corn and it’s the best I’ve got without taking the time to Google it). They sat there all winter. I never got around to dealing with them and neither did Greg. I guess he doesn’t like eating sunflower seeds as much as I thought.

When Spring came, the sunflower stalks were still standing tall in the garden. I waited until after a rainy day, then headed out to pull them up–roots and all. I broke off all the heads and threw the stalks in the burn pile. After I’d finished, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the heads. I couldn’t just toss them out with most of their seeds still attached. They made it through the entire winter. (I guess the birds weren’t that hungry either.) So I put them in a basket in the house. They ended up in a room that opens onto the back deck. The space serves as a pool room in the summer and a plant hothouse in the winter. Like most miscellaneous catch-all spaces, it tends to get cluttered.

Seeds remain Last week, with a few more days of Spring left to cram in a little more cleaning, I went to work moving and throwing out and organizing the stuff in that room to uncover the drafting board. I wanted to make a place to maybe do some art. I found a shelf space for the basket full of sunflower heads (still sitting there, untouched) thinking I might use them as a model for a still life drawing or watercolor. (We’ll see if that ever happens.)

While finishing the cleaning in that room today, I found a few handfuls of sunflower seeds in the bottom of a perfectly useful bucket. The black and tan striped slivers had dislodged from the heads when I moved them into the basket, along with the chafe that holds the seeds in place while they grow. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with them. I couldn’t just throw out perfectly viable seeds. But I needed to use the bucket elsewhere.

I didn’t need the seeds in the garden, because the ones that fell to the earth had already sprouted and I was transplanting them into buckets (one of the reasons I needed that bucket with the loose seeds in the bottom). Once the new sunflower plants were moved, I planned to whack away the weeds and mulch the bed before replanting the sunflowers.

Since I couldn’t decide what to do with the loose seeds, I set the bucket on the table until I finished cleaning.

After running around organizing for an hour or so, I needed some rest. So I sat down with a couple of bowls. The empty one was for the seeds. I dumped the contents of the bucket into the other bowl and, with a waste basket near by, went to work separating the seed from the chafe by hand, one seed at a time.

As I picked each seed out of the bowl, I wondered how this was done commercially. No one would ever make a penny selling sunflower seeds at the rate I was going. Probably some vibrating conveyor belt I decided. But how about in the ‘old days’ before machines and factories, when men hunted and women gardened, raising wheat and corn and veggies. Did some Native American or pioneer woman harvest seeds in the way that I was doing it right now sitting in my living room? I had to ask myself why I was taking the time to do it this way. Why couldn’t I just throw it all in the trash? I mean, I’m a conservationist, but isn’t this taking it to an extreme that is, well, quite frankly, ludicrous?

Dried Sunflowers Then I figured out why I was doing what I was doing–to keep my hands busy while I rested. I’m not very good at resting. Perpetual motion used to be the norm. But with aging and bad knees and too many pounds added a few every year over the last thirty years of marriage, I can no longer maintain a constant pace.

Doing something with my hands helps me sit still. When I crochet in the winter or pick these seeds out of the dried up plant material like I am now, my laser focus and my rhythmic hand-motions become an energy-renewing meditation for me. It’s almost a spiritual experience. I never would have thought when I first planted those sunflower seeds that they would become a lifesaver for me.

Now you may think I’m exaggerating by saying they save my life. I am known to fluff up a story from time to time. But not this time. You see, I’m just old enough to do stupid stuff when I’m tired–like fall and shatter my wrist or wreck the car when I’m driving. If I don’t take the time to rest every day–several times a day, in fact, I find some way to hurt myself. If I were tired enough, I might just do myself in, accidentally of course.

So, the birds may enjoy a few seeds, and Greg might eventually take the time to soak the seeds in salt water and put them in the dehydrator (I think that’s what needs done to them to make them edible, but again, I need to take the time to Google it) but in the end, the sunflowers are best used to put me into a restful meditation while shucking the seeds.

Ah, the joys of aging. What I do to get through each day amazes even me.

What’s your ritual when you need to take a break?

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