Grains: A Growing Guide

A simple guide to planting, growing, and storing your own grains

April 13, 2011

Raising grains such as wheat, spelt, oats, rice, buckwheat, barley, millet, and rye in your backyard doesn’t require any special machinery, and you may be surprised at how little space it takes to grow a substantial supply of homegrown grains.
A typical family uses about a bushel of wheat (60 pounds) a year, plus about ¼ to ½ bushel of other grains. Given reasonably good conditions, you should be able to grow a bushel of wheat in a 20- by 50-foot plot (1,000 square feet).
 
Planting and Growing
Grains are easy to plant: Simply work the soil into a good seedbed and broadcast the seed by hand or with a crank-type seeder. Rake the soil lightly to work the seed into the top 2 inches of ground. Spread a 2- to 4-inch layer of loose straw mulch after seeding to help conserve moisture and control weeds.
 
You can purchase small amounts of common grain seed at most farm stores. Some general garden seed catalogs carry a few types, too.
 
Wheat
Wheat (Triticum spp.) is the most widely consumed grain in North America. It makes excellent bread and pasta, and has tasty whole or cracked kernels. Wheat sprouts also are very tasty. 
 
Wheat prefers a nearly neutral soil (about 6.4 pH), and does best with a cool, moist growing season followed by warm, dry weather for ripening.
 
Winter wheat is planted in fall, stays green until early winter, then goes dormant until spring. The onset of warm weather causes rapid new growth, and seed heads develop within 2 months. Winter wheat ripens about the first week of June in the South, later in the North.
 
Spring wheat is planted at the beginning of the growing season and ripens in mid- to late summer. It tolerates drier conditions than winter wheat, but doesn’t yield as well.
 
Hard red winter and hard red spring wheat are used for bread baking. Soft red winter and white wheat are used primarily for pastry flour. Durum wheat is used for making pastas. Regardless of their commercial use, all the wheats make good bread. There are many cultivars; choose those commonly grown in your area.
 
Plant spring wheat at about the same time as the average last killing frost. Plant winter wheat at about the time of the average first fall frost. If Hessian fly, a common wheat pest, is a problem in your area, be sure to plant after the “fly date.” Check with your local extension office for this date. Use about 4 pounds of seed per 1,000 square feet.
 
Spelt
Spelt (Triticum spelta), also called spelt wheat, is an ancient grain grown for its nutty-tasting, highly nutritious seeds that are easily digested. Spelt is used to make pasta, breads, and flour, and the seeds also are sold for sprouting. Many individuals who are allergic to wheat can tolerate spelt, and spelt contains a different form of gluten than wheat does. If you have a wheat or gluten allergy, check with your doctor before trying spelt products. 
 
Spelt grows successfully in poorer soils than wheat, including heavy clay, and tolerates dryer conditions as well. Grow it as you would winter wheat, planting in fall and harvesting in spring.
 
Rye
Rye (Secale cereale) adds a rich flavor to bread or rolls. Cracked rye can also be used in other baked goods or served as a cooked grain. Rye sprouts are sweet and crunchy. 
 
Rye grows better than wheat in cold, wet climates. It also grows in poor soils that won’t support wheat, but yields about 30 percent less.
 
Plant rye in the same manner and at the same rate as winter wheat any time from late summer to late fall. Rye ripens 7 to 10 days before winter wheat.
 
 
Oats

Oats (Avena sativa) are highest of all cereal grains in protein and lowest in carbohydrates. Oats make tasty table fare, but most cultivars have a tough hull that’s hard to remove. ‘Freedom’ oats are virtually hull free. 
 
Oats need lots of moisture, and favor a cool climate and fertile, well-drained soil. In the South, plant oats in fall for harvest the following summer. But in general, it’s best to plant oats in very early spring. Plant about 2 to 3 pounds of seed per 1,000 square feet.
 
Corn
As home gardeners, we think of corn (Zea mays) as sweet corn, but fresh ground cornmeal is wonderfully fragrant and tasty, too. Choose a dent or flint type for cornmeal, and a flour type for a finer meal, rather than a sweet-corn cultivar. Indian corn and field corn are familiar dry-corn types. 
 
Grow dry corn as you would sweet corn. Remember to separate dry- and sweet-corn cultivars, so they won’t cross-pollinate. Dry corn is normally left on the plant until after frost, but can be picked after the husks begin to dry. Bring husked ears under cover to finish drying.
 
Barley
Barley (Hordeum vulgare) is a delicious, nutty-tasting cereal grain, especially good in casseroles, soups, and pilaf. The grain has an outer hull that should be removed. Pearl barley has been milled to remove the tough husks. Barley flour is low in gluten and is mixed with other flours for making bread. 
 
Plant 4 pounds of seed per 1,000 square feet. Spring-sown barley matures in about 70 days, while fall-planted barley ripens about 60 days after growth resumes in spring.
 
Rice
Although we commonly think of rice (Oriza sativa) as a tropical crop, there are early-maturing cultivars that will grow in most parts of North America. Rice is often grown in flooded fields, but it will also thrive under the same conditions as corn. Wild rice (Zizania aquatica) is native to North America and grows in ponds and slow-moving water. 
 
Soak seed for 24 hours and plant in flats of moist, mucky soil about a month before your last frost. Prepare raised beds with plenty of organic matter and cover with a thick organic mulch. Transplant on 9-inch centers, pushing the mulch aside. Water rice once or twice a week so that it gets about 1 to 1½ inches from rain and irrigation combined. When rice flowers, make sure it gets plenty of water; cut back once the grain starts to harden. Rice is hard to hull.
 
Millet
Millet is a catchall name for at least five different genera and assorted species of cereal grains native to Asia and Africa, where the hulled grain is a staple food in many countries. We are most familiar with it as the shiny, little, round, yellow or orange brown seeds in birdseed mixes. It is higher in essential amino acids than other cereal grains and has a subtle, nutlike flavor when baked or cooked. To bring out its full taste, roast the grain in a pan with a little oil before using. 
 
Millet will tolerate poor soils. The plants mature very quickly—some in just 30 days. You can sow millet almost any time from spring 278through late summer. Plant about 1 pound of seed per 1,000 square feet. 
 
Supergrains
Amaranth and quinoa are both grown extensively in other parts of the world for their seed and edible leaves. Both types of seed contain about 16 percent protein and are high in fiber and in amino acids often absent in cereal grains.
 
Amaranth
Grain amaranth (Amaranthus spp.) is a relative of the familiar ornamental amaranth. Amaranth seed is white to yellow, round, and very small. It makes a tasty porridge and can be toasted to make a crunchy topping. The flour must be mixed with other flour for baking. 
 
Grain amaranth matures in about 120 days. Start the plants indoors, or direct-seed in rows and thin to 1 to 3 inches apart. Seed is ready to harvest when it starts to dry. Cut the whole seed heads and hang them in clusters or in a cloth sack to dry. Thresh by beating the bag; sift chaff from seed with a fine screen.
 
 
Quinoa
Pronounced “ki-NO-uh”, quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) seed is the staple grain of the Andean highlands. It is a close relative of the potherb known as good King Henry (C. bonus-henricus). Quinoa seed is tiny and, when cooked, has a delicate flavor and a fluffy texture. It can be used like rice—just be sure to rinse the raw seed first or it will be bitter. Quinoa flour gives a moist texture to baked goods when mixed with other flours. 
 
Quinoa is adapted to high mountainous areas, and most cultivars will not make seed in areas where temperatures reach 95°F. Plant seed ½ to 1 inch deep in cool soil; the crop is easy to grow. Its culture and appearance is similar to amaranth.
 
Buckwheat
Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum) isn’t a cereal grain. It belongs to the family Polygonaceae, as do rhubarb and garden sorrel. It is commonly grown as a green manure crop and as a bee forage plant. The amino acid composition of the seed surpasses that of all other cereal grains, and the flour’s earthy flavor makes it a welcome addition to treats such as flapjacks and breads. The seed matures in just 70 to 80 days; it makes a good second crop in a two-crop rotation. 
 
You can plant buckwheat almost any time from spring to late summer, in almost any type of soil. Generally, late-June or July plantings yield the most seed. Sow about 2½ pounds per 1,000 square feet. Buckwheat seeds ripen at varying rates, so watch the crop carefully and harvest when most of the seed is ripe.
 
Harvesting and Using
Harvest cereal grains about 7 to 10 days before they’re fully mature and dry. The grain heads should still be greenish or just turning yellow, the stalks mottled with green. Pinch a kernel with your thumb and index finger. It should be soft enough to be dented by your thumbnail, but not so soft that it squashes. 
 
Cut the stalks just above ground, and gather and tie them into bunches. (The traditional tool for cutting grains is a scythe.) Stack or hang the bunches in the field or under cover to dry. The grain will cure in 10 to 14 days. When you bite a kernel between your teeth, it should be hard and crunchy.
 
Threshing: To thresh, put a bundle or two on a sheet spread over a hard surface, such as a patio or floor. Beat the seed heads with a length of rubber hose or an old mop handle to knock the seeds from the stalks. 
 
Winnowing: Next, clean the grain of chaff and hulls. Pour the grain slowly from one bucket to another in front of a fan. The breeze should be strong enough to blow the chaff away, but not to take the kernels with it. Repeat until clean. 
 
Storing: Keep small quantities of cereal grains in a refrigerator or freezer. You can also store thoroughly dry grain in a cool, dark place in sealed jars to protect it from insects. 
 
Hulling: Hulling grain with tough hulls is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for home gardeners. You can hull small quantities by roasting the grain in an oven at 180°F for 60 to 90 minutes, and then running the kernels lightly though a blender and picking out the cracked hulls. For larger quantities, use a grain grinder. 
 
Milling: Grains can be cracked or ground into flour in a good household blender. Grind ¼ cup at a time, taking care not to let the motor labor too much. If you make a lot of flour, you may want to buy a hand-cranked or electric flour mill. Grind only as much as you will use in a few weeks, and store prepared grains in the refrigerator or freezer; they go rancid rapidly. 
 

 

 

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