Growing Food Grains in Your Home Garden — Yes You Can

Sunday June 19, 2011

field of soon-to-be ripe bowing heads of wheat

If you love to bake bread and are a gardener, chances are you’ve wondered about growing a small patch of your own grains.  An increasing number of avid home gardeners are growing, reaping (cutting stalks and binding into sheaves), threshing (shaking the grain from heads), winnowing (separating the grain from chaff and straw bits), and grinding their own grains from a small backyard patch.

Grains end up being one of the easiest crops to grow, a great thrill to observe through their growing cycle, and are beautifully ornamental at the same time.  I notice that my local seed and gardening equipment store is offering classes in home growing techniques for grains.  Here are a few of the easiest grains to grow at home.

corn ears/corn for grinding comes in all sorts of colors and sizes

Is there any home gardener that has not tried their hand at at least a few rows of corn?  Corn, or maize, takes anywhere from 3 to 5 months to mature.  The male flowers form the top stem tassel and the female flowers are on the ears, pollinated by the wind.  The ear is covered by leaves that make the husk with protruding silk, which are the lovely styles or stigmas of the female which will receive the pollen.  Kernels develop in rows on the inner cob.  Plant seeds 1 1/2 inches deep in rich soil.  Many people stake their corn to avoid it falling over when it gets tall as an elephant’s eye (and climbing clear up to the sky) and dries out.  Corn requires lots of nitrogen, water, heat, and full full sun.  Grain corn–dent, flint, or flour corn–are ready to harvest about 6 weeks AFTER you have had your fill of the first sweet eating corn at the “milk stage”, which is immature corn. The cobs will have dried, hard kernels, like your ornamental corn hung on the doors during the holidays.

ear of rye

Rye is an easy homegrown grain, since it grows in almost every type of soil, although it likes acid, sandy soils best, and needs only minimal rain. A grain made in heaven for the poor soils of the earth! It is the first grain to grow as a home gardener.  It is hardy and tufted 1 to 2 meters in height with an intriguing blue-green cast with gray-brown kernels.  They have 2 flower spikelets and long awns.  It is planted, cultivated, and harvested as for wheat.  Sown in August and September (it must be securely in the ground before the first frost), it is harvested in June or July of the next year, and threshed like wheat.  Rye and wheat can be sown together.  It is a great cover crop and is grown in every state.  Never use grains that have turned purple or have small black growths on the head for eating; they may be affected with the ergot fungus that is a nerve poison. Triticale is a genetic cross (not a hybrid) of durum wheat and rye. The grain has similar characteristics to wheat, while the plant has the overall vigor and winter-hardiness of rye.

left to right: eikorn, emmer, spelt, kamut seed heads

Wheat There is definitely something soothing to the spirit in watching a small garden patch of wheat plants rustle in the breeze. A native of the Old World, wheat was introduced to the Southwestern U.S. by Father Kino as he moved north from Sonora establishing the “missionary trail”.  Different species of the annual herbaceous wheat are distinguished by the characteristics of their caryopsis, or dry fruit grain seed.  It contains one seed inside with a starchy storage section that can be hard and flinty, or soft and floury, in consistency.  There are beautiful long hairy awns on some varieties.  Bread wheat has hollow stems and durum stems are thick and solid.  Naked wheats, ones that have grains that easily thresh free, include the bread wheats and durum, and covered hulled spelt wheats include spelt, emmer, and eikorn, which (like wild grasses) had to be parched to be edible.  Figure out what season you want to plant–winter or summer.  Many home gardeners love the heirloom Turkey Red. Red fife is the founder crop of the great flour industry of Minneapolis (Pillsbury, etc.) after the introduction of the roller-mill and the purifier from Hungary (available from KUSA). For some time it stood as the “number one” commercial hard spring wheat of the United States, commanding the highest price. Spelt has become very popular.

  • First fertilize your beds and plant in full sun. Wheat does not like acid soil.

  • Broadcast (nicknamed “Biblical-style” if you split the seed bag and sling it over your shoulder) over raked ground, then rake again to cover with a little soil.  Be sure there is plenty of water.

A wheat grain is made up mostly of starchy endosperm. In this close-up, the extruded endosperm appears as a whitish mass at the tip of the grain in the center of the head. (Photo by Peggy Greb)

  • Harvesting Plants turn golden and the seed heads hard and brittle when ripe.  This is the place to use your grandfather’s sickle (if you don’t own a combine) to cut the stalks.  If you can find an old-fashioned grain cradle, go for it; it lets the stalks fall into a nice sheave as you cut.  The sheaves are tied near the bottom into beautiful shocks (the subject of many dried wheat arrangements) to dry.
  • To thresh, or separate the grain, use a stick and flail, or dance over it on a clean sheet.  To winnow, or remove the grain from the chaff, use a fan to blow the hulls out of the grain.  Store in a cool dark place in a container with a tight lid (to discourage bugs from munching) until grinding your flour.  For specifics, Bountiful Gardens offers spring or winter Hard Red (best for bread) and rare Early Stone Age grain seed grown at the Common Ground Minifarm in Willits, California, and a staff that will answer any questions from home gardeners.

I was quite surprised that quinoa is a hardy, high-yielding home crop; well, it was a weed before an annual herb.  When choosing seed, make certain you get a variety that is suitable for your elevation.  Quinoa needs a dry climate that slowly cools, which triggers the setting of the seed.  Sow in early spring, harvest in October, and definitely do not over water.  It has beautiful arrow-shaped leaves, like a goose foot, with brilliant-colored clustered seed heads that yields between a quarter and third pound of grain.  The seeds vary in size.  It grows from three to six feet high.  Home grown quinoa has lots of saponin, so rinsing is a must before cooking.  Seeds sprout real easy; if it rains on the mature seed heads, they’ll sprout right on the stalk.  A multi-hued variety, perfected in Willits, California, from Bountiful Gardens, or a broad-spectrum sea level quinoa like Faro or Temuco are good first tries.

field of multi-colored quinoa/Bolivian highlands

Buckwheat grows like a weed and can flourish where other grains fail, and is used as a premium

flowering buckwheat/note the heart shaped leaves

green manure to improve soil. Bees love this plant and it makes for excellent flour and a cooked whole grain. It can be grown as a summer annual in rocky, cold climates and harvested in twelve weeks to fourteen weeks.  In home gardens, it will flourish and grow 2 to 4 feet high.  Sow three months before the first frost so it can flower in the cool months.  The stalks are dried in the field and then threshed by hitting them against the insides of a clean garbage can.  Since the hulls are so strong, they are sifted through a mesh after grinding in a grain mill.  The major varieties are Japanese (easy to find), Common Gray, and Silverhull, and they are stalk-dried in the field before being threshed like wheat.  Seeds of Change offer Medawaska buckwheat, a hearty heirloom strain from Maine.

Amaranth has broad, wide leaves and some seed heads can exceed a few feet in length and six inches in width.  It is listed under vegetables in catalogs and is considered an annual herb. Long before the advent of corn (and that is domesticated around 2000BC), tiny black amaranth seed was a vital grain the most abundant grain grown by the Aztecs and the nutritional foundation of their culture. It is still a common food crop in Latin America.

The richer the soil, the more lush the crop.  Do not over water.  Amaranth thrives in hot, arid conditions as well as more

edible amaranth leaves/prepare like spinach

temperate ones and gives a fantastic yield, usually late August.  The seeds are broadcasted during the spring rains and thinned to a foot apart in full sun.  Plants can grow up to eight feet tall and easily reseed themselves.  Amaranth has continually developing flowers.  Gardeners place paper bags over the heads when the seeds begin to shatter, then cut off the head and beat the seeds into the bag before the first frost.  Rub with your palms any seeds that remain.  They are easily winnowed from the chaff by blowing through a mesh like a 1/2-inch hardware screen, yielding up to a pound per head.  Thresh like for wheat after letting the seeds dry a few days.  A cruentus, or Mexican grain, is a popular home crop similar to Plainsman.  The ornamentals are easily found in any garden shop; plant a garden reminiscent of a colonial American cutting garden.

amaranth in stunning bloom

For more information of the growing and processing of grains in the mini home garden, refer to the wonderful book by Rosalind Creasy, Cooking From the Garden (Sierra Club Books, 1988), who lives in my area and transformed every inch of her suburban home plot into an edible garden. Homegrown Whole Grains (Storey Books), by Sara Pitzer includes complete growing, harvesting, and threshing instructions for barley,  corn, wheat, millet, oats, rice, rye, spelt, and quinoa, and lighter coverage of several specialty grains. Readers will also find helpful tips on processing whole grains, from what to look for in a home mill to how to dry corn and remove the hulls from barley and rice.

field of Japanese millet

If the seeds are organic, opposed to untreated, they can be used for edible sprouting and used in your breads before they go into the ground for seeding. Be sure you buy seeds that are not GMO.

Resources for Seeds, Books, and Everything to Do with Grain Gardening

harvested millet/millions of seeds

The following sources offer seed listings for some of the most unique, as well as reliable old-fashioned home garden grain crop nurseries.  Look for ancient varieties such as Medawaska buckwheat from the Himalayas, Hungarian blue bread poppyseeds, and Bolivian faro quinoa. Staple crops include foxtail millet, Casados blue corn, durum black tip wheat, and bearded barley.  Small plots of Manna de Montana amaranth with their brilliant plumes or tall spikes of Aroostook winter rye make beautiful, and later edible, landscapes.  KUSA (Sanskrit for sacred grass) seedbanks rare, ancient grains such as Japanese barnyard millet and teff.  Bountiful Gardens has hulless oats and barley, tritcale and multi-hued quinoa for the enthusiast.  Seeds of Change is known for their wide variety of corn.  I get all of the catalogs and love to look through them.

Bountiful Gardens

Not only a fabulous listing of high quality seeds for home gardening from Biobio Quinoa to Broomcorn Sorghum and all the wheats, but essential books such as Flour Power (the guide for grinding whole grains) and Small Scale Grain Raising (all round gardening tips for grains).

KUSA Seed Society

KUSA is one of the most interesting seed banks and websites. KUSA Seed Society is based in Ojai, California, and is one of the most fascinating of the seed sources. There are not only seeds and literature, but an online study, a newsletter The Cerealist, and if you are serious, an expert will come to your home and help you with your crop. KUSA says growing grains is actually easier than growing vegetables and requires much less land than you might think. In just the space of a two-car garage and its driveway (1,000 sq.ft.), you can produce enough grain to bake two loaves of bread every week for the entire year. A full range of the world’s barley, wheat, millet, and lentils. Special seed combo packs are Establishment Wheat for first timers, Wheat Ancestors with spelt, and Tibetan barleys.

Native Seed/SEARCH

Native Seeds/SEARCH (Southwestern Endangered Aridlands Resource Clearing House) is a regionally-based seed conservation organization. Early efforts focused primarily on visiting indigenous farming communities in the southwestern US and northwestern Mexico, locating seeds of heirloom crops and making them available to indigenous, and other gardeners and farmers. Their online seed catalog is fascinating.

Today, NS/S is a major regional seed bank, dedicated to conserving the seeds of domesticated crops utilized by the cultures whose homelands include the arid deserts, coastal deltas, lowland plains, bajadas(lower slopes) and high mountain plateaus comprising the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico. The seed bank maintains more than 1800 different collections representative
of traditional crops. Also amaranth and special wheats.

Redwood City Seed Company

This is the go-to source for seed corn: amarillo, Chulpi, Cuzco, Giant Incan, and Maiz Morado. Pick up some hot chile pepper seeds while you are shopping; they have dozens of varieties. 

Seeds of Change

Buckwheat and tricale

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Another wonderful source for heirloom and grain crops. Located near Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in the gently rolling foothills of Central Virginia, we emphasize varieties adapted to the Mid-Atlantic region, we serve gardeners throughout the United States and Canada. The seed company started in 1982 as an outgrowth of a love affair with heirloom varieties and in seed saving expanded from a kitchen garden to numerous growing areas supplemented by a nationwide seed grower network with a germination testing facility and environmentally controlled seed storage areas. Amaranth, Mennonite Sorghum, rice, Dragon’s Claw Millet, Buckwheats, and the delicious hardy Abruzzi Rye from Italy.

sickle in the hay from time immemorial

Excerpted and expanded from The Bread Lover’s Bread Machine Cookbook, by Beth Hensperger. (c) 2000, used by permission from the Harvard Common Press.

Your Comments

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  1. robert hausler 02/03/2012 at 12:20 am

    I am interested in buying some cuzso corn seed for my small ranch in Nevada

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