How to Grow and Harvest Grains in Your Backyard
Fruits, herbs, and vegetables get all the attention among gardeners.
Backyard poultry and goats provide eggs and dairy (and perhaps meat) for some, but what about the staple foods? Wheat, oats, millet, and other grains are actually much easier to grow than most fruits and vegetables, yet we tend to leave those foods to large farms and buy our flour and cornmeal at the grocery store. There is a bit of specialized knowledge needed to grow grains, but there are a couple myths that have turned people off from the idea.
The first is is that you need acres and acres to produce even a few pounds of flour. The truth is that 1,000 square feet—the size of an average backyard—is enough space to grow a bushel of wheat. A bushel of wheat equals 60 pounds of grain, which is enough to bake 90 loaves of bread. Even devoting a row in your vegetable garden to a grain will yield enough to make it worthwhile.
The second myth is that you need special equipment to harvest grains and turn them into something you want to eat. Not so. Traditionally grains are harvested with a scythe, but you can also cut the stalks down with pair of pruning shears or a hedge trimmer. Threshing—removing the grain from the seedheads—is as simple as beating the stalks with a stick. Winnowing—removing the chaff (the papery covering around the grain)—is easily accomplished with a small household fan. A good quality blender passes as a mill for turning grains into flour.
Start a Grain Patch
Grains are divided between those that like to grow in warm weather and those that prefer cool temperatures. The majority fall in the latter group, which includes oats, rye, spelt, and most types of wheat. These are typically planted in early fall and are harvested in late spring the following year. (They overwinter under the snow in cold climates.) Buckwheat, millet, and certain wheat varieties need hot weather to mature and are planted in spring. Some feed stores sell grain seed suitable for kitchen use, but it’s often easier to find it online. We recommend Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Sustainable Seed Company, and Peaceful Valley Farm Supply.
All grains need a sunny location. Till up the area to be planted to a depth of at least 6 inches. Most grains have low fertility requirements, but if the soil is extremely poor, spread a couple inches of compost over the surface and till it in before planting. In order to distribute the grain seed evenly over the surface of the soil, it’s best to use a seed spreader to sow the seed, rather than try to distribute it by hand. Follow the instructions on the package for the appropriate seeding rate—this will usually be given in pounds per 1,000 square feet.
After spreading the seed, lightly rake the area with a hard metal rake to mix it into the surface layer of soil. Spread a thin layer of straw over the soil to deter birds from feasting on the seed and to conserve soil moisture. Soak the area with a sprinkler to encourage germination and continue to keep the area moist (but not soggy) until the seedlings have emerged. When planting in the fall, cool weather may preclude the need for additional irrigation. Spring plantings will need about an inch of water per week. If in doubt, water whenever the top inch of soil is dry.
Harvesting and Processing
Some warm-season grains mature in as little as 30 days after germination, while grains that are overwintered may need up to nine months before they are ready to harvest. Here are the basic steps to bring your crop from the field to the pantry.
- Harvest the grains when the stalks are just beginning to go from green to brown, using a scythe or other tool. Cut them just above the ground.
- Tie the stalks into bunches with twine and let them dry for about two weeks in a location that is protected from rain. They may be left to dry on the floor or hung from the ceiling of a barn or porch. You’ll know the grain is sufficiently dry if it’s hard and crunchy when you bite into it.
- Spread a tarp or sheet over the floor,and beat the stalks with a wooden dowel to release the grain from the seedheads. (This is called threshing.)
- Collect the grain in a large bowl or bucket. Set up a fan at a medium speed (strong enough to blow away the chaff, but not so strong to blow away the grain. This isn’t terribly difficult since the chaff—the papery covering around the grain—is much lighter than the grain.) Drop handfuls of the grain into a second container, allowing the breeze to blow off the chaff as they fall. (This is called winnowing.)
- Store the cleaned grain in glass jars in a cool dark place.
- Mill the grain as needed with heavy duty blender (like a Vitamix) or a countertop grain mill.
One extra step is required before some grains can be milled, which is to remove the hull. Rice, buckwheat, and oats are examples of grains with a hard outer hull. One method, which is a bit tedious for large quantities, is to run the grain lightly through a blender to crack the hulls and separate them from the grain. You can then sift the hulls out with your fingers or find the right size metal mesh that allows the grain to fall through, but removes the hulls. Fortunately, most grain mills are capable of removing the hulls and some even come with a special attachment for the purpose.
Additional details for growing some of the most common grains.
- Choose from winter or spring wheat varieties, depending on the planting season; ‘hard red’ wheat varieties are most commonly used for baking and are available in both cool- and warm-season cultivars
- Grows well in poor soil and matures in as little as 30 days; plant at any time in spring or summer
- Same growing requirements as winter wheat, but grows well in poor soil and is more cold-tolerant than wheat
- A cool weather grain similar to wheat; tolerates poor soil and dry conditions
- In the South, plant in fall for a spring harvest; in cold climates, plant in early spring for a summer harvest; most oat varieties have a tough hull that takes extra effort to remove, so look for hull-less varieties, such as ‘Freedom’
- Varieties for grinding into corn meal or corn flour are often referred to as Indian corn or field corn; like sweet corn, they need a long hot growing season and rich soil; no need for threshing or winnowing, just push the kernels off the cob by hand and store
- Plant in early spring for a late spring harvest or in fall for harvest the following spring; has a tough hull that makes home processing difficult
- A warm weather grain that grows well in poor soil and matures in just 75 days
- There is no need to have a flooded rice paddy, but the soil needs to be kept constantly moist; otherwise, rice grows in the same manner as most other grains, but it does have a tough hull