Autumn once again, and various seed heads are air-drying slowly in the back shed. Among these, and the largest by volume, are the tubs of dried sunflower heads of three different varieties. Separating the seeds from the heads and storing them was the task for the Anzac Day public holiday on the 25th April.
The trick with this abundance of seed will be to filter out the biggest and best seeds to carry on the line, so I am expecting a significant amount of wastage.
Wastage? Another advantage of owning chickens is that very little is wasted; the gleanings from this process will be spilled onto the ground as I winnow the seed outside in the wind and where the chooks will snap it up; sunflower seeds are rich in oils and energy. Normally we would purchase in a fair amount of this seed from the local grain store, but this year the sunflower harvest has picked up as the result of more prodigious sowing of garden beds to ‘clucker tucker’.
The sunflowers are left on the plant until they have filled in their seed head completely and dried off. This is a dangerous time for the crop as birds will alight on any upturned heads and pick out the seeds. Fortunately, nature has found a trick to prevent this; the sunflower heads turn over and face the ground as they dry off. So the real danger is that I fail to harvest these heads (by snipping them off with secateurs) before the seeds start to fall out onto the soil and become lost to me.
A month later and all the colour has disappeared from the seed heads. The seeds can be seen clearly once the last of the flower parts are rubbed away from their face.
The simplest and gentlest way to release the sunflower seeds from their casing is to don a pair of heavy leather cloves and rub the heads over a tub placed to catch the seed that is dislodged. I started this way as usual, but after the first boxful decided that some innovation was needed for the remaining four cartons of seed heads. So I turned on the shredder and dumped them though that.
Separating the seeds from the debris is the hardest bit of the operation and about the point where I wish I had a wider range of sieves to help me. But the job gets done using a simple plastic sieve purchased from the local hardware store; this has a 6mm square hole pattern in a sturdy circular shape. If I can, I’ll stand outside at the corner of the shed where the slightest breeze is amplified and helps blow off some of the finer bits of stalk and dried petals. If I keep the whole arrangement over the wheelbarrow I find I can move the operation around to best suit the process step while catching any spillage prior to the final filtering.
Sunflower seeds are largest at the periphery of the seed head and get smaller as they spiral their way inwards to the centre of the bloom. Panning the whole mix with the sieve at a small slope stratifies the heavier seed from the lighter debris, allowing me to pick off the latter by hand and toss it onto the compost heap. The heavier seed is sieved further – this time where the hens will find it – so that the smaller seed falls to the ground and only the biggest and plumpest seeds remain to go into the seed collection tins.
Because I’ll be the customer for these tinned seeds next Spring I don’t get too fussy about picking out any remaining litter; this will get thrown into the seed trench anyway and do no harm. And because this debris has been thoroughly air-died it should not go mouldy in the storage tins where it would wreck my seed harvesting efforts.