The easiest way to tell if your sunflower heads are ready to harvest is that the ripe seeds start falling out. (Photo: Shutterstock).

Carol O'Meara, Colorado State University Extension

Carol O’Meara, Colorado State University Extension

Longtime readers of this column know I have a running battle with squirrels in the garden. Digging up perfectly good plants, stealing fruit from trees, or throwing things to chase off intruders, I’m sure they think I’m a nuisance to their otherwise idyllic patch. Too bad I think it belongs to me.

With a great deal of chicken wire and netting, I’ve managed to protect a lot of the plants, but sunflowers simply won’t be contained and have grown tall enough that I thought there was no way the squirrels to get to them. They’re in the middle of the yard, away from fences or trees, so there is no launching pad for the furballs to fling themselves from.

I underestimated the ingenuity of those animals.

Sitting at a peaceful breakfast on the patio, I noticed a trembling in the sunflowers, with one of them shaking and disturbing their neighbors. Suddenly it fell like a sequoia, crashing to the ground in a majestic, slow motion tumble that left a hole where once it had been. The squirrel at the base of the plant looked delighted and scampered along the stem to sever the head and cart it off for a meal.

They’ve begun strip-logging my sunflowers, a sure sign that it’s nearing time to harvest those heads. Here’s how:

The easiest way to tell if your sunflower heads are ready is that the ripe seeds start falling out. Pick up a few and split them open to see if the seed is plump with meat. If they’re not falling yet, look for the heads to be droopy and down turned with the back changing from green to yellow/brown. Petals will be shriveled and falling, leaving the plumped seeds exposed.

Keep birds and squirrels from thieving the seeds by bagging the head with perforated plastic bags. In my case that isn’t going to help, because the logging operation is in full swing, so the head needs to be ripened away from the plant and in a protected area.

At this point – before the seeds start falling – cut the head off the stem, leaving one foot of stem attached. Hang them upside-down in a warm place until dry and the seeds separate easily. Then use this stem to turn over and hold the head upside down while rubbing the seeds out by hand. Dry and store them or roast them in a 300-degree oven for 15 to 25 minutes.

If you prefer your seeds salted, soak them overnight in a brine of two tablespoons of salt to one cup of water. Boil the brine, seeds and all, for a few minutes, drain, then spread them thinly on a cookie sheet and roast in the oven at 200 degrees for three hours or until crisp. Roasted long enough, they’re easy to shell.

Other seeds are ready for harvest, such as dill, fennel, cilantro (coriander) or parsley. To harvest these seeds, cut the stems when the seeds are turning from green to brown (cilantro when half of the seeds have turned brown). Bundle the stems together with rubber band – they shrink to fit the stems when the stems dry – and hang them upside down. Loosely secure a paper bag over the flower heads to collect the seed as it shatters from the stem. Once the seeds have completed the browning, rub them to separate any remaining from the stem. Dry them the rest of the way by setting the seeds out on a drying screen in a warm, well-ventilated space for a few days.

By Carol A. O’Meara. Carol is an Extension Agent – Horticulture Entomology at Colorado State University Extension Boulder County. For more information contact CSU Extension at the Boulder County Fairgrounds, 9595 Nelson Road, Box B, Longmont, 303.678.6377, e-mail comeara@bouldercounty.org or visit ext.colostate.edu/boulder.