In Midwinter, Organic Gardeners are thinking Sun... Flowers!

  • Sunflowers in a University of Pittsburgh student garden. Photo: J.S. Jordan

With the price of sunflower seeds rising, Organic Gardeners Doug Oster and Jessica Walliser discuss why, and how to get the most bang for your buck! You don't need to start the plants indoors, but if you're looking through seed catalogs now, remember that you do want to use fresh purchased seeds.

OSTER: I love feeding the birds in the winter, but I’m paying twice as much as I used to for sunflower seeds. Why is that?

WALLISER: Yes that’s because sunflower oil is now being touted as a healthy alternative.  And it is.  We have a lot of the big food manufacturing companies have turned to sunflower oil. As a result, much of the acreage that was once dedicated to growing black oil sunflower seeds for birds is now being dedicated to growing it for oil production. So we’ve seen the price of bird seed go up.

OSTER: But it’s not just for food is it?

WALLISER: You’re right, they’re also growing those sunflowers for the oil to use in fuel production.  So they’ve taken away a big part of the acreage that was once used for bird seed.

OSTER: Well, you know how, let’s say “frugal” I am.  I don’t want to pay double for bird seed. What should I do?

WALLISER: Grow your own. And you can start thinking about it now. Actually putting your seed order now in the coming months and select some varieties that are good for the birds.

OSTER: Yeah, I don’t have 2 acres to grow sunflowers.

WALLISER: Well, if you’re limited in space as most gardeners are, you’re going to want to plant the best variety that give you quite literally, the best bang for your buck. You want a large headed sunflower that’s multi-branching that is known for good seed production. So things like the mammoth giant sunflower which the flower head can grow 2 feet across.  They’re just absolutely enormous. Titan is another one, and those would be the varieties that you want to select for good seed production.

OSTER: Well I know sunflowers are easy to grow, but everyone might not know the best way to plant them.

WALLISER: Well they definitely need full sun, a minimum of 8 hours of full sun a day, and also you want to purchase fresh seed every year to plant them and that that seed gets planted about one inch deep. Direct sowing is the best way to plant them in the garden; you don’t need to start them indoors under lights or anything like that, just go out to the garden after the danger of frost has passed, usually about mid to end of May, so those seeds, and give them enough space so that they have good air circulation around them, so maybe plant each seed maybe 12-inches apart from each other.

OSTER: Well then our seed grows, we have a big flower head, and I know the birds love to just get to the flower at the end of the season, so what do we do there?

WALLISER: Well that’s the thing, if you want to use it for bird seed production you actually have to protect it from the birds early on in the season when they have other food sources available to them. The easiest way to do this is actually to just get a piece of cheesecloth and wrap it around each flower head when the petals have dropped. You keep it attached to the plant and the seeds are allowed to continue to ripen on the plant, but the birds can’t access them. So take that piece of cheesecloth, tie it around there with a piece of jute twine or string and let it on there until the plant turns all the way brown. Then you can go ahead and cut that seed head off, and then you want to put it in the garage, somewhere setup on screens, or somewhere warm and dry so that the seeds can continue to dry out for a few more weeks.

OSTER: So I can just take that big whole flower head and just put in on top of the bird feeder, or do I take it out of the flower head.

WALLISER: You can actually take that whole flower head and hang it from your bird feeder stand at any point during the year or you can strip the seeds from the flower head, and the easiest way to do that is to take two of the flowers and put them up against each other- - seeds to seeds, face to face-- , and rub them back and forth over each other and all the seeds will kind of pop out, fall to the ground, and then you can collect them up and put them in your feeder.

OSTER: And is there anything else I can plant for the birds?

WALLISER: Yeah, you can do broom corn. They love broom corn, which is another plant that’s really easy to grow in full sun. Millet, which is a grain crop, is really enjoyed by them as well. Sorghum. If you want to do a couple rows of sorghum in your garden it is a beautiful plant and the birds love it, and that is easy to dry as well.

OSTER: So what else to get those birds to come to the feeder?

WALLISER: You’re really gonna want to make sure you have plenty of shelter for them, so when planting time comes next year spring, get lots of bushes, shrubs, and evergreens planted in your garden so that they have a place to shelter in, and also water; and if you’re looking to attract birds in the winter you have to have unfrozen water, so you might want to get a little bird bath heater. They have electric units that you can plug in that will always make sure they have fresh water available to them during the winter months.