Amazing Grains

If you like ornamental grasses, you'll adore the brighter colors and cool textures of amaranth, millet, and wheat.

November 26, 2010

In recent years, gardeners have embraced ornamental grasses because their long, swaying stems and seedheads add a graceful touch to the landscape, especially in autumn. Millet, wheat, amaranth, and the other attractive grain plants you see on these pages also stand out in fall—and, like the ornamental grasses, they sport plump seedheads that nourish the birds when the season is over. Ornamental grains are as easy to grow and problem free as grasses, and they often add more color to the garden. And the grains add a unique look to dried flower arrangements and other seasonal indoor decorations. Look for decorative grains in your local farmers' market and craft stores this season as you plan which of these standout beauties you will sow next spring.



Awesome Amaranth
Practical as well as pretty, amaranth (Amaranthus spp.) is an easy-to-grow annual that typically reaches 4 to 8 feet tall, with a sturdy, upright stem topped by plumes of seedheads from late summer through fall. The plants also produce an abundance of tiny seeds that are prized as a high-protein grain crop, and the leaves are edible throughout the growing season.

Dramatic in the garden, the showy seed clusters are also terrific when cut for autumn arrangements. 'Orange Giant' produces green leaves and huge orange plumes; 'Hot Biscuit' is similar but has more-spikelike, rusty orange heads. For an even more dramatic color impact, try one of the red-leaved selections, such as 'Hopi Red Dye'. "There's no waiting for it to flower to look good," enthuses Mayo Underwood, owner of Underwood Gardens in Illinois. "In fact, the flowers on 'Hopi Red Dye' are inconsequential. What really stands out is the intense burgundy color of the entire plant."

Red-leaved 'Polish' amaranth left a strong impression on our own Pam Ruch, who manages the Organic Gardening Test Garden in Pennsylvania, where she grew a few different amaranth varieties in 2004. 'Polish' stood out, she says, "because of its striking dark foliage and huge red heads on tall, sturdy plants."

Growing Tips: To get this heat-loving grain started in your garden, sow seeds indoors in early to midspring or out in the garden in late spring, and barely cover them. Space transplants or thin directly sown seedlings to stand 12 to 18 inches apart. Most amaranths drop seeds where they grow, so after the first year, you probably won't need to plant them again. Just thin out the volunteer seedlings and enjoy their trouble-free beauty year after year.

Special Note: Let amaranth drop its seeds, and you'll be rewarded with loads of beautiful seedlings next year.

Mad About Millet
Organic Gardening first grew burgundy-leaved 'Purple Majesty' millet (Pennisetum glaucum) in our test garden when it was introduced a few seasons ago, and we still love it. Its 8-to-12-inch purple spikes captivate, both in the garden and in arrangements. 'Lime Light' spray millet (Setaria italica) threatened a coup against 'Purple Majesty' in our 2004 garden. Its long-lasting, arching, yellow-green seedheads on sturdy, upright stems made it a real attention-grabber. Both of these millets grow 3 to 5 feet tall, suiting them best for back-of-the-border planting.

Growing Tips: Sow the seeds directly outdoors in late spring, scattering them evenly over the ground and barely covering them with soil. Or give 'Purple Majesty' a head start by sowing it indoors in mid to late spring, then setting out the plants 6 to 12 inches apart after the danger of frost is past. Just be sure to get the plants into the garden while they're still small. Allowing them to mature in cell packs reduces their performance.

Special Note: Prevent stunted plants by transplanting seedlings when they're still small.

Sweet Wheat
Avid crafters adore the spiky heads of wheat for wreaths, arrangements, and other decorations, particularly because they make such an appealing contrast to the rounded forms of many dried flowers. 'Silver Tip' (which is actually a variety of triticale, a wheat-rye cross) has long, silvery white whiskers, while the long green bristles of 'Black Tip' turn dark as they dry.

Wait until the plants are just starting to dry to get the typical golden brown wheat color, or try harvesting earlier, after the heads are formed but while the stems are still green. "They'll keep the green color as they dry," notes Ellen Spector Platt, author of Natural Crafts from America's Backyards (Rodale, 1997), "so you can use them in arrangements all year long—not just for fall." If you wait too long to harvest, the seeds will be loose, and they'll tend to fall out of the heads as you work with them.

Growing Tips: Unlike many other grains, wheat isn't a good choice for ornamental beds. "We had trouble distinguishing it from the weedy grasses in our garden," Ruch says. To minimize the confusion, plant wheat in rows in its own bed. You can sow the seeds directly outdoors in early spring and rake them in.

Special Note: Plant wheat in rows so that you can distinguish it from weedy grasses. Sow in early spring.

Creative Corn
Sure, corn is a classic crop for the vegetable garden, but these distinctive varieties make corn equally at home in your flower garden.

Variegated corn (Zea mays var. japonica) is a real show- stopper, with purple tassels and green leaves that are prominently striped with white and pink. It also produces ears of deep burgundy red kernels, which are superb for fall and winter decorating.

Small-eared popcorns, such as 'Strawberry' (short, red ears), 'Mini Blue' (deep blue kernels), and 'Mini Pink' (purplish pink kernels), are multipurpose options. The dried ears are ideal for accenting wreaths and other crafts, and you can shell any leftover kernels and pop them for a snack.

But that's not all they are good for. They look lovely in flower arrangements, too! Ellen Spector Platt enjoys combining edibles with flowers in fresh and dried bouquets, so these miniature corns were a natural choice for her to experiment with. "They're wonderful for adding height to an arrangement," she says. "Cut the whole plant at whatever height you need, after its ears have formed. Leave the ears on the stalk, but pull back the husks so you can see the colorful kernels." Harvested while the leaves are still green, these mini corns combine well with fresh cut flowers; picked later on, they'll also dry well for winter use.

Traditional ornamental corns, such as 'Fiesta' and 'Painted Mountain', are prized for their large ears of multicolored kernels. Suzanne Nelson, director of conservation at the Arizona-based desert seed conservation group Native Seeds/SEARCH, points out that most corn plants look pretty similar from the outside, so you'll probably want to grow these somewhere other than your flower borders. Once the plants start to dry, you can pick the ears and pull back the husks to reveal the showy kernels.

Broomcorn (Sorghum bicolor) may not be a true corn, but it looks a lot like corn while it's growing. Instead of producing ears and tassels, broomcorn stems are topped with showy sprays of seeds in a wide range of harvest colors, including gold, copper, and deep brown. Nelson is particularly partial to the red-seeded sorghums, which send up "somewhat drooping panicles that are beautiful against the crisp blue sky of a fall day." They definitely earn a place in the ornamental garden, but you might also want to plant a patch just for crafts. Mayo Underwood enjoys using broomcorn in a variety of ways for fall decorating, including cutting and binding several stems together like a corn shock, using them in arrangements, and hanging bundles of the seedheads from branches in winter. "Birds love the seeds," she says.

Growing Tips: Getting both true corn and broomcorn started couldn't be easier. The key is to wait until the soil warms up to at least 60° F, then sow the seeds 1 to 2 inches deep directly in your garden. Once the seedlings are a few inches tall, thin them to stand 10 to 12 inches apart. To get good ear production, Matt Barthel, garden manager at the Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa, suggests planting your corn in blocks, rather than rows. "An ornamental corn patch appropriate for the home gardener would be four rows that are each 10 feet long, spaced 3 to 4 feet apart." (For tips on growing corn in smaller spaces, see "Sweet Corn" in the June/July issue of Organic Gardening.)

Special Note: Thin broomcorn seedlings to 10 to 12 inches apart. Mature plants can grow to 15 feet tall!

Grains in the Garden
Grains are so easy to grow that if you give them full sun and well-drained soil, they need no more attention from you. They typically don't need extra water or fertilizer—in fact, too much of either can lead to weak, floppy stems—and pests are rarely a problem.

Tall-growing grains such as amaranth and broomcorn are excellent for adding height to the back of a border or for mixing with sunflowers and other tall annuals to create a colorful summer and fall screen around a pool or patio. Variegated corn combines beautifully with tall white and pink cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus), while the deep purple leaves and seed spikes of 'Purple Majesty' millet create an exciting contrast to bright red, orange, or yellow blooms.

If you're growing grains just for a few arrangements, a single row or small corner in your vegetable garden may be all the growing space you need. Once you find out how versatile these plants are, though, you'll probably want to grow a lot more! Setting up a separate area for a "craft garden" will let you harvest to your heart's content without taking space away from your vegetable harvest.

Gathering Grains
Harvesting: Snip the stems as needed for fresh use or harvest the whole patch at one time for drying. When you cut, leave as much stem as possible. You can always trim them down later, but you can't make short stems longer!

Drying: Gather the grains into small bunches, wrapping the end of each bunch with a rubber band. Hang the bunches upside down in a warm, dry, dark place with good air circulation.

To get fresh ideas for using your garden-grown materials in craft projects or to share a few of your own tips, check out the Crafts area in the Gardener to Gardener community.

Nancy J. Ondra is a coauthor of The Perennial Gardener's Design Primer (Storey, 2005).

Sources Johnny's Selected Seeds, Winslow, ME
Native Seeds/SEARCH, Tucson, AZ
Nichols Garden Nursery, Albany, OR
Pinetree Garden Seeds, New Gloucester, ME
Seed Savers Exchange, Decorah, IA
Territorial Seed Co., Cottage Grove, OR
Underwood Gardens, Woodstock, IL