In the cold months of the year it can be hard to find fresh local greens. Growing your own sunflower shoots indoors is one way to ensure fresh, nutritious greens. Sunflowers shoots only take about 10 to 14 days to grow and are an extremely nutritious green. Full of vitamins A,B,C and E, as well calcium, iron, magnesium, niacin, phosphorus and potassium, sunflower shoots can be a significant contributor to a healthy diet. Oh, and did I mention they are delicious. The crisp and nutty sunflower shoots are great in salads, soups, sandwiches, stir fries, smoothies or simply straight up. Here are a few pointers to help you succeed in growing your own sunflower shoots.
When looking for seed remember that you need a living seed to succeed. The grocery store may have some seed, but make sure it hasn’t been roasted or salted. Sunflower seed that is sold as bird seed can be used but the quality can vary. There are also many hybrid sunflower seeds available, and they tend to produce a more vigorous shoot with less disease issues. Make sure the seed has not been treated with any pesticides. Bulk commercial seed that a farmer might use is often treated, making the seed unsuitable for shoots. Black seed varieties are generally preferred over the stripped seed varieties because they tend to shed their shells easier. You will need about 2 cups of seed to plant an 11x22 tray. A tray of this size should yield about 4 to 6 cups of shoots.
The type of container used to grow the sunflower shoots can vary, but the container should allow for drainage of excess water. 11x22 mesh trays that you often see holding transplants at the garden center are commonly used, but anything will work as long as there is drainage. Make sure the tray is thoroughly cleaned and free of any soil contamination that could lead to mold/fungal problems.
Soil or Soil-less
Sunflower shoots need something to root into. This can be soil, but it can also be vermiculite or grass mats like the Baby Blanket grass mats. Whatever is used, it should retain water and provide a good rooting medium. If you are using soil, try to find a sterilized potting mix that is light and provides good drainage. A thin (1/8”) layer of worm castings on the bottom, topped up with 3/4” of potting soil will provide an excellent medium to grow the shoots. The worm casting will provide additional plant nutrition to ensure a healthy and robust crop of shoots. You can substitute the worm castings with other composts, but make sure that whatever you use is well composted in order to avoid contaminating the shoots or introducing pathogens. If you are using the grass mat, place the worm castings under the mat.
Pre-Soaking of the Seed
Measure out the required seed and rinse it thoroughly under cold water. Drain the seed and place it in a clean, sterilized bucket and fill with cold water. Sunflower seeds float, so place a plate or bowl on top to hold the seeds under the water. Soak the seeds for about 12 - 18 hours at cool room temperature. Pour out the water and drain the seeds to be ready for planting.
The ideal temperatures for growing sunflower shoots is about 18 to 24 degress C. Sunflower shoots do not require direct sunlight, but for the best quality and volume the sunflowers should have 2 or 3 hours of direct sun each day, or alternatively be grown in an area that has bright indirect sun. Too little sunlight and the shoots will develop slower and grow tall and lanky. Too much sunshine can result in excessive temperatures that are not conducive to quality shoots. If your growing location is really sunny, a shade cloth canopy will help reduce the sunshine and heat.
Once you have the growing medium in place spread a layer of seeds on top of the soil. Do not incorporate the seeds into the soil, leave them on the surface. Spread the seed so that the soil is covered, but avoid putting too many seeds down, as this can lead to an increase in disease incidence.
A 11x22 tray will require about 2 cups of soaked seeds in order to grow a dense canopy of shoots. If you notice a lot of mold or fungus developing, try reducing your seeding rate and also ensure that your trays and pre-soaking bucket are clean and free of any soil contamination. Also, make sure there is good drainage, because if the seeds are floating in water there will be significantly more fungal problems.
Once you have spread the seed, water the tray and place another weighted tray on top of the seed. The phone book is a good weight. This tray on top will hold the seed down close to the soil and assist in good rooting, and it will also maintain a high humidity that will assist in helping the shoots break free of the shell. Place the trays in a dark, cool spot in the house for four days. By then the seeds will have germinated and rooted and are ready to be brought out into the sun. Allow the shoots to grow for another 8 to 10 days, lightly misting them with water each day to ensure adequate moisture.
Harvest the shoots when the cotyledons (the first set of leaves to emerge) have fully developed, but before the first “true leaves” have emerged. If you wait too long to harvest, and the true leaves have emerged, the shoots will become stringy and loose some of their flavour. The baby sunflower shoots should be crisp and crunchy, not stringy and tough. Cut them off with a pair of scissors and enjoy. Once cut the sunflower shoots can be stored in your fridge for 10 to 14 days, but it is best to try and eat them as soon as possible. Some of the hulls on a few seeds will have not come free of the shoot, but if you are careful they can be plucked off. Running your hand across the top of the canopy will also facilitate the removal of the hulls. If you plan to store your cut shoots, stop watering about 8 to 12 hours before cutting. This will allow the canopy of shoots to dry before cutting, and the dry shoots will store longer then wet shoots. After you have cut your shoots you will generally get a second flush of shoots that are from seeds that were slower to germinate. Once cut the sunflower shoot is dead and will not re-grow.
Once you have mastered the art of growing sunflower shoots you will always be able to grow your own fresh and nutritious veggies regardless of the weather outside. It’s a fun project for kids also, and when they participate in the growing of the shoots they are eager to snack on them. The high nutritional value and the multiple culinary uses of the shoots are just some of the reasons why you should start a batch of today.