Sunflowers are the happy flowers of summertime. Their flower heads follow the sun, and their various heights and bloom colors always bring a sigh of admiration from all that view them. But like all things, sunflowers must come to an end.
But the end of the season doesn’t mean a sunflower’s job is done. There are many ways to repurpose the plants in your garden.
Even after sunflower blooms have reached their peak and faded, the stalks and seedheads still have some practical uses in the garden and landscape at the end of the season. Sunflowers still have plenty to give after their blooms are gone from harvesting the seeds for yourself or wildlife to using the stalks to aerate your compost pile.
Read on to discover what else you can do with dead sunflowers.
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1. Harvest the seed heads
If you grew large, open-pollinated sunflowers with seed-filled heads, they need to be harvested before the plant dies. The birds and squirrels are anxious to get to those tasty ripe sunflower seeds as they dry out, so if you want them, you’ll have to beat them to it.
As soon as the yellow petals around the flower heads begin to turn brown and fall off, it’s time to harvest the seedheads.
Cut the stalk 12-inches below the seed head. Hang the seed head upside down by the stalk in a secure, dry, warm location until the seeds dry. Put a paper grocery bag or lunch sack around the seedhead to catch seeds that may fall out as they ripen.
It will take 2-4 weeks for them to dry; the larger the seed head, the longer the drying process will take.
When the seeds have dried, shake them loose over a large container, like a 5-gallon bucket, or into the paper bag you put on them while drying.
Snacks for people
The dried sunflower seeds are ready for human consumption after harvesting. If the shells have any dirt on them, you can rub the seeds between two dish towels to brush it off. The edible seeds inside are very nutritious and contain several vitamins and minerals that are great for people and animals alike.
Enjoy the seeds raw as they are, or roast them in the oven for 15 minutes and sprinkle a little of your favorite seasonings on them.
Snacks for birds
The dried seed heads can be given to backyard fowls as bird feed. Just toss a seed head into the chicken pen as a treat from time to time. Turkeys, guinea hens, and ducks also enjoy a snack of dried sunflower seeds.
If you don’t have backyard fowls, use the dried seed heads to feed hungry birds during the winter months when their natural food sources are scarce. Attach the seed heads to the eaves of an out-building or large tree in the winter, and the birds will find the tasty seeds.
2. Pull them up or cut them back
When the sunflowers begin dying back, it’s time to pull them up and prepare the soil for the winter or a crop of cool-season vegetables.
Sunflowers are easy to pull up. The trick is to loosen the soil around the long taproot. To make the job easy, wait until after a rainy spell which will soften the dirt and make your job much easier
You may have to dig around rootball to loosen the soil around large varieties like Mammoth because of their enormous root systems.
Alternatively, you can leave the rootball in the ground over the winter to decompose and contribute to the organic matter in your soil by cutting the stalk off at ground level.
Leaving the roots in the ground also helps avoid disturbing the roots of nearby plants that aren’t yet done for the season.
My favorite garden shears
I constantly misplace my garden shears and clippers, so I’ve tested a lot of pairs. Good thing these ones have red handles to help me keep track of them!
- Corona Leaf & Stem Micro Snips: Perfect for cutting small stems, deadheading spent blooms, or keeping the mint plant from taking over my garden.
- FELCO Classic Manual Hand Pruners: Better for heavier-duty pruning, such as dead sunflower stalks and tomato vines and cutting old zip-ties off the trellises.
3. Repurpose them in the garden
Gardeners love to recycle and reuse everything, and dried sunflower stalks from the large varieties have several garden uses.
After cutting the seed head and roots off the stalks, store them in a dry location until the next garden season, then put the sturdy stalks to use in one of these creative ways.
Create teepees with the old stalks for pole beans or cucumbers to grow on. Plant the seeds directly in the ground at the base of each recycled sunflower stalk. The beans or cucumbers will climb the stalks as they grow.
Build a ladder trellis to support flowering vines or vegetable plants. Use two long stalks as the sides and cut another stalk to create the ladder rungs. Attach the rungs to the long stalks with zip ties or bailing twine.
This is a great model for vining plants like cucumbers, melons, and pumpkins.
Create a windbreaking fence for the garden by stringing several dried sunflower stalks together with wire. Nail them to posts that have been secured in the ground to help reduce the amount of wind that blows over the soil and garden plants.
The stalks of the mammoth-sized sunflowers can reach 4-5 inches in diameter and make excellent kindling after being dried.
Cut the seed head and roots off the stalks and allow them to dry. Once dried, cut them into 12-inch sections and use them for starting a fire in a fireplace, outdoor fire pit, or wood-burning stove.
They will catch fire quickly and burn cleanly, and best of all, they are free.
5. Compost the stalks
Inspect the stalks for signs of disease or pest infestation. If they are clean and healthy, the stalks make an excellent addition to the compost bin.
Because the stalks are thick and tough, it’s best to chop them up before adding them to the compost. They will decompose quickly and increase the nutrient value of your homemade compost.
If your compost pile needs more oxygen to speed up the decomposing process, leave the tough stalks in long lengths. The long stalks will help aerate the compost pile by allowing air to circulate in the pockets created by the stalks.
6. Make mulch
Another way to recycle sunflowers is to chop them up and use them as mulch in the garden. You can use a lawn mower to run over smaller plants, or pruning shears to cut the leaves and flower heads into smaller pieces.
This is a great use for smaller sunflower varieties that aren’t strong enough to reuse the stalks as trellises and that are easy to chop up.
Spread a 2-3 inch layer around perennials and shrubs. The mulch will help protect the plants from extreme temperature changes, conserve moisture, and control weeds.
7. Create wildlife habitat
The dried stalks are ideal for creating a wildlife habit that will benefit birds and small mammals.
A pile of dead sunflowers stalks will provide animals with a food source, a hiding place from predators, a place to build nests and raise their young, and a fast escape route.
Many insects will be attracted to a pile of decomposing stalks, which will provide a steady food source for birds, amphibians, and other small wildlife.
The wildlife attracted to the habitat will remain in the area and help your garden grow. The birds and insects will help pollinate the plants and eat destructive garden pests.
Frogs are one of the best sources of organic pest control that you can have in a home garden. As nocturnal feeders, they will eat hundreds of garden pests every night. They will return to their burrow in the stalk pile as soon as the sun rises, and you’ll never know they’re around.
Pile the stalks close to the garden so it’s easy to toss an overripe vegetable on it as a treat for the wildlife.
Perennial sunflowers at the end of the season
Most gardeners grow annual sunflower varieties, which are guaranteed to die back at the end of the growing season, making them perfect candidates for the ideas above.
However, a perennial sunflower will last from season to season, spreading via underground rhizomes, which are like tubers. You’ll want to leave the stalks up over winter and cut them back in the spring.
The leftover foliage will help the rhizomes create and store energy for the next growing season, so removing them too early will likely result in stunted growth the following year.
Once you cut the old stalks back in the spring, the best use is the compost pile or mulch, as they are probably too weather-beaten to be strong enough to use as trellises.