Grains were some of the first crops to be domesticated, and yet for some reason growing them holds an air of mystery for home gardeners. Thankfully, people are beginning to discover that grains, particularly the heritage varieties that grow tall and produce many seed heads per plant, are a beautiful and delicious addition to the garden. (Here are the 11 healthiest whole grains you should be eating.)
“Growing your own wheat is a natural progression of the local food movement,” says Jacob Cowgill of Prairie Heritage Farm in Power, Montana, where he and his wife Courtney have grown more 250 modern and ancient grains, some of which can be traced back thousands of years to the beginnings of human domestication. “From a plant perspective taller is better,” explains Cowgill, because those roots dig deep within the soil to keep the plant upright, ultimately pulling more nutrients from the soil.
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They also have higher protein contents than many modern varieties and a more complex nutrient profile. For example, Khorasan, or Oriental wheat, is known for its high selenium content and subsequent antioxidant properties. Some of the ancient grains are also better tolerated by many people who normally can’t eat wheat. This is not to say that someone with Celiac disease can consume them, but many people who have an intolerance to modern wheat often feel fine when consuming older varieties.
For example, Khorasan wheat, which is similar to durum, is exceptional for pastas and breads. It has a sweet, nutty flavor. And even if you don’t grind it into flour, you can cook the wheat berries for a delicious side dish. With its large kennels and black beard, it is also a beautiful addition to the garden. White Sonora is a heritage soft, white wheat from the American Southwest that works very well when making tortillas because it creates a stretchy dough. “It was grown in California extensively in the 19th century,” says Cowgill. It’s also a very drought tolerant variety, which is a huge plus in many parts of the country. And out of Scotland comes Red Fife, one of the parent varieties of modern Canadian wheat. It’s a hard red wheat that is growing in popularity, particularly among bread bakers.
Here's what you need to know about seeding, harvesting, and threshing your own grains.
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A 20-by-20-foot plot yields roughly 15 to 20 pounds of grain—probably not a year’s worth but more than enough to grind into flour for special occasions or to have whole grains for cooking. And the good news is you don’t have to heavily amend the area before planting. Grains typically don’t have high nutrient requirements and are often planted in fields after other crops. “They tend to be light feeders, although it depends on the variety,” says Cowgill. “The more fertile it is, the taller the plant, and it can fall over more easily.” He notes that if the soil is very rich, you should consider seeding less to give the plants more room to grow since they are bound to be larger.
In most of the country wheat and other grains can be sown in the fall. However, spring seeding may work better for gardeners. The seed germinates best when the soil temperature reaches 40 degrees. Consider planting wheat at the same time as potatoes or when the dandelions are blooming in open fields.
The traditional way to plant wheat is by broadcast seeding, although this tends to be the least efficient means as you must use more seed. After seeding, go over the area with a shallow rototiller, or work the seeds into the soil with a vigorous raking. You can also plant it by hand by creating furrows roughly an inch deep and placing the seeds 5 inches apart, which can be just as easy depending on how much you’re growing. Cover them, and lightly pat down the soil.
It’s particularly important to water earlier in the season while the wheat is growing, although as the plant matures you’ll want to start backing off. You’ll have a good idea the wheat is ready to harvest when the grain is golden and you can’t make a dent in a kernel with your thumbnail. But you don’t want to dawdle before you cut it, as the birds will take advantage of a ripe crop in short order.
There are some parts of the country where the birds barely give the wheat a chance to ripen before they descend upon the field. In these instances, you might want to harvest when the wheat is in what’s called the “dough” stage. This is when it’s turning from green to gold, yet you can still make a mark with your fingernail. If you harvest at this time, cut a longer stalk and stand the wheat in upright bunches (shocks). Then cover them with a light cloth and allow to dry for seven to ten days before threshing.
You don’t need the machinery commercial growers use to do the cutting. Scissors or shears work just fine. A hand sickle works equally well, letting you grasp the heads and slicing the stalks with the blade. Cowgill says he just stuffs the wheat heads into a bag as he goes along.
There are several ways to thresh small amounts of wheat, and many of them can be fun for the family. “Put them in a wooden box with slats on the bottom of the box for friction. Then rub your feet on (the wheat),” says Cowgill. “Or keep the seed heads in the bag, and stomp on it or hit it with a stick.” A plastic baseball bat also works pretty well to knock the seeds out of their hulls.
To blow away the chaff, one of the easiest methods is to slowly pour the threshed grain from one container to another in front of an electric fan. The wheat berries will fall as the debris is blown away, although you still might have to pick through it a little bit afterwards.
Once you have your wheat cleaned, store it in airtight containers such as food grade buckets, or better yet, sealable glass containers.