How to Grow and Harvest Big from Sunflower Crop
Sunflowers grow faster taking three to four months to mature depending on the variety. Sunflower (Helianthus annuus) is an annual plant with a large daisy-like flower face. Its scientific name comes from the Greek words helios “sun” and anthos “flower”.
The flowers come in many colors – yellow, red, orange, maroon and maroon, but they are usually bright yellow with brown centers that mature into heavy, seed-filled heads. You can get finished products like sunflower oil when you process it.
Michael Mbiti, a sunflower farmer from Kitui County, has been growing the plant for years and his family lived off sunflower seeds when the drought hit. They sell the seeds and extract the oil. He shares ideas about its production and marketing.
According to Mbiti, common sunflower varieties in Kenya include H-008, H-893, H894, 8-8938, H-8998, H-001, H-898, Kensun 22, Kensun 33, Super 400, Kenya Fedha, Kenya Shaba and Rekord. Kenya Fedha, Kenya Shaba and Rekord seeds can be used for two to three seasons. Farmers are advised not to use seeds of hybrid varieties more than once as yields will be lower.
Sunflowers thrive in warm to hot climates with full sunlight during the day. Dry seasons are perfect for growing sunflowers. Soil with a pH between 6.0 and 7.5 is recommended, although it is relatively hardy and can grow in most soil types.
Plant the seeds manually or use a corn drill. The distance between the rows is two and a half feet and the distance between the plant holes is one foot. The seeding rate varies from two to four kilograms per acre. Plant three to five seeds per hole at a depth of one to two inches.
“Use the lowest seeding rate for certified hybrids when water is sufficient. Use a higher seeding rate when using your own seed. Farmers using their own seed should plant medium to large seeds. Plant after the rains start,” advises Mbiti.
Weeding and thinning
Keep the crop weed-free four to six weeks after planting. One month after planting, after weeding and when the soil is moist, thin to one plant per hole. If labor is a constraint, use herbicides recommended for weed control.
Pests and diseases
Common pests that affect sunflowers include cutworms, semiloopers and African bollworms. For control, use recommended pesticides.
Birds: Birds consume sunflower seeds and this could lead to losses. To manage this, use bird scaring devices.
Diseases to watch out for include sclerotic wilt which attacks the roots, stem and ear, causing the crop to shrink and rot. Downy mildew causes loose white parts on the lower surface of the leaves and sooty rot, causes the stems to appear black at the bottom and the inner part looks torn. To control disease, rotate crops, use certified seeds and recommended chemicals when plants are young.
Hand harvesting is done when the heads turn dark yellow. Cut off the head, stick it upside down on the stem or thresh it and dry it in the sun. This prevents rot and bird damage.
“Don’t wait for the leaves to dry out otherwise the birds will invade and cause damage,” warns Mbiti.
Sunflower seeds help make soap, cooking oil, soaps, cosmetics, animal feed, and fuel. Mbiti sells seed to interested farmers and businesses for between 25 and 35 shillings per kilo.
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