When two out of town guests showed up, I had the table lined with newsprint grade paper, then covered with dried sunflower heads. No one will believe me now, if I try to say I didn’t have it planned, so I might as well take credit for it. I invited the visitors and my parents (who they were visiting and who live a half a mile away from me) into the house. We naturally gathered there, in the kitchen and around the table. That is just inside the front door and there are good arrangements of chairs. Everyone greeted and began chatting, then gradually each person found a chair at the table and asked about the sunflowers…
I told them I had picked the mature seed heads a couple of weeks ago. I was honest. I said there were possibly quite a few bugs (mainly earwigs) still hiding in the nooks and crannies. When I had chopped the sunflowers off the their humongous stalks, I had tried to brush away the cold-numbed wasps, the hairy spiders, the shiny tatooed beetles, and the myriad of earwigs. The action had been knocking the sunflower seeds into the lawn, so I just brought the fully loaded heads into the kitchen and set them on the floor. For the next several days, I smashed spiders that had migrated to the counters (not the same type as the one I found crawling on me in bed during that time period). Apparently none of the wasps made it inside, for which I am grateful. The earwigs chose to stay mostly enclaved. The beetle posed for a photograph.
Always one to be setting up for the next step, even if I am not quite sure how it will evolve, I had decided the day before this day that it was time to make the seed heads “available” on the table. I have used this general method before, in getting help with processing and storage steps. I just try to think about how the family’s helping me could relaxingly fit into social or entertainment activities of other family members. They don’t mind having their hands busy. Usually, this has been centered around the living room couch and the television. However, with all of the bugs camped out in the sunflowers, I thought it might be disruptive to have people constantly jumping wildly as things crawled on them. Not to mention, it would probably send sunflower seeds all over the living room.
So, I found the roll of thin art paper. I figured this would help contain both the seeds and the bugs. It would be much easier to see something crawling on the smooth, light surface. Any gooey bug guts would be easy to clean up. I would keep a supply of kleenex handy. If I needed to relocate the project, it would be relatively simple to pick up the sheets of paper with the thousands of seeds mixed with plant debris.
I informed the group, present on this particular day, of my intended method of loosening the seeds by rubbing a gloved hand over them. There were now 6 people, as 2 of my daughters had joined the conversation. One by one, all except my mother who has allergies, each person picked up a sunflower head and began removing the seeds with their fingers. I warned them about making their finger tips raw, which I have done getting popcorn off of the cob. The plump sunflower seeds are packed tightly in the Fibonacci sequence, each seed being held in place by stiff cardboard-like dividers. There was the occasional yell and smash as an earwig met its demise, but no blood other than that. Piles of seeds grew around the perimeter of the table.
It may be to my advantage that the two men in the group were retired engineers. Give an engineer a subtle problem and he almost can’t help himself. Not that I was manipulating anyone. But since there must be a better way to dislodge sunflower seeds, said the engineers, we had discussions of putting the flower heads in a small portable cement mixer, such as both my dad and my husband have in their shops. This is how my dad removes the dried husks from walnuts that he gets from my sister’s walnut tree. In the end, they agreed this would probably damage the sunflower seeds. Later, the other engineer took out his pocket knife and flipped the seeds free one at a time.
The visiting engineer used to work for a food processing company. He suggested putting all of the seeds on a screen and blowing air up through it using something like a hair dryer or a small fan. I happen to have a large screen that my husband made me for drying freshly sheared wool, which I actually did a couple of times. The screen has more recently been used for drying peppers and wool sweaters. The most important feature is that the mesh won’t rust. I will tell about separating the chaff from the seeds later.
The truth is, I could not have planned a more pleasant and productive sunflower seed removal party. Emptying a whole sunflower brought shouts of victory with arms raised. It’s different than shelling peas or beans that way. There are now several completely empty sunflower heads. The kitchen smells lightly of sunflower seeds, even though they are all still in the shells. And, there is something about seeing so much progress that is inspiring. There has already been more random seed removal as people sit there now and then. These seeds are much fatter than the ones I grew last year and even though the plants grew about twice as tall as they were advertised to grow, I will save some of the seed for next year’s planting.