Your survival garden needs to provide you with protein, fat, and carbohydrates — the three macronutrients. Carbs are easy to grow. Many crops provide plenty of carbohydrates: potato, sweet potato, rice, wheat, quinoa, other grains and tubers. But man does not live by carbs alone. Growing sufficient protein and especially sufficient dietary fat is also necessary and somewhat more difficult. Grains and tubers contain only modest levels of protein. You can supplement that protein by growing beans and other legumes. However, beans are too high in fiber and other anti-nutritional factors (e.g. indigestible oligosaccharides) to supply a large portion of your protein needs. By comparison, seeds and nuts are high in protein and are a good complementary protein when paired with grains or tubers.
Sunflower seeds are high in protein (20.78% according to the USDA) and the protein includes all essential amino acids in ideal proportions, except lysine at 88% of ideal. However, the high total protein means that sunflower seeds still provide plenty of lysine because it is 88% of a high number (20+ percent total protein).
Of the three macronutrients, fat is the most difficult to obtain from a backyard garden. The typical main staple crops for any large population living off the land is either tubers (e.g. potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams) or grains (e.g. wheat, rice, maize). These crops contain lots of carbs, some protein, and almost no fat.
You can grow your own peanuts for protein and fat. There are a number of other, less well known fat crops suitable for survival gardening. But for many dietary fat crops, you will need a small oil press to extract the fat, as the whole food is either unpalatable or inedible.
Sunflower seeds can be pressed for oil in a small oil press, like the Piteba press, with a claimed 80% efficiency. It is not necessary to hull the seeds before pressing, so much labor is saved. But you will need to grow the type of sunflower seed that is high in oil. These are called ‘black oil seed’, as the seeds are small, black, and high in oil content. The advantage of growing the oil seed type and pressing them is that you have a homemade source of cooking oil. The disadvantage is that you don’t make use of the high quality protein in the seeds.
The other type of sunflower seed are the ‘snack type’, which are larger, contain less oil and more protein, and are typically lighter in color and striped. These larger seeds are easier to crack open by hand, but they cannot be pressed for oil (at least, not efficiently). Eating the sunflower seeds as a snack means that you obtain both the high quality protein and the high quality fat from the seeds. Sunflower seeds are high in mono-unsaturated fat and in omega-6 polyunsaturated fat. So the oil is very healthy.
Sunflowers grow well in a wide range of climatic conditions:
Sunflower is grown in many semi-arid regions of the world from Argentina to Canada and from central Africa into the Soviet Union. It is tolerant of both low and high temperatures but more tolerant to low temperatures. Sunflower seeds will germinate at 39°F, but temperatures of at least 46 to 50°F are required for satisfactory germination…. Temperatures less than 28°F are required to kill maturing sunflower plants. Optimum temperatures for growth are 70 to 78°F, but a wider range of temperatures (64 to 91°F) show little effect on productivity. (Alternative Field Crops Manual)
The plants are fairly drought tolerant, often out-producing other crops during moderate drought conditions. The deep taproot of the plant helps to obtain moisture from deep in the soil during dry conditions.
Weeds are less of a problem with sunflowers than many other crops. The tall stalks rise above most weeds, and the large size of the plants shade out many weeds, out-competing the weeds for sunlight. The deep roots of the plant mean that weeds with shallow root systems have only limited effect on the root system of sunflowers.
Birds are one of the main pests affecting sunflowers. You can lose much of your sunflower seed crop, if you are not careful. For a small crop, netting can be placed over the plants. For larger crops, “many approaches to disruption of feeding have been tried, including scarecrows, fright owls, aluminum strips that flutter in the wind”, but nothing is 100% effective. Monitor the seed heads for maturity and harvest promptly.
If you are growing food for survival, in a large backyard garden or small farm, sunflowers are one of the top crops that you should consider growing.