Small Grains can be grown in your Garden Too!August 7th, 2008
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Flint and Dent corn are truly the King of American grains. Where ever Corn can be grown, it yields more grain from less seed. It needs fertile soil, and a good amount of water throughout the growing season. It likes at least two months of hot weather. You may have a drier climate, or it may not get hot enough where you live. Then you will have to rely on the small grains. It is always nice to have more variety in your home grown foods too. There are many small grains, and they CAN be grown in garden plots.
There are two major types of small grains. Winter varieties are planted in the late Summer, for a mid summer harvest the following year. The Spring varieties are generally planted in the early Spring for a late Fall harvest. A few cannot be planted until the soil is warmer though. It is important to work the top three inches of soil VERY well, to kill off competing weeds. Small grains are broadcast over an area and worked into the top inch of soil. They are not grown in rows or hills. Once planted, there isn't much of a way to get rid of weeds competing for moisture, nutrition and light. There are a few grains which may be able to mature more than one harvest in the warm months of the year, depending on your local climate.
Small grains need dry weather at harvest time. They also must have dry airy storage conditions until the kernels of grain are completely dormant and dry all the way through. I can't emphasize this enough. Some grains have a hard protective hull which must be removed before they can be eaten. Sunflowers, Oats and Buckwheat are examples. You need to closely watch your plants. For a home grown crop, harvest grain just before it would fall to the ground, and be lost.
Commercially most kinds of grain are harvested by cutting off the plant near ground level. I believe a modern combine cuts and threshes the grain from the plant in the same pass through the field. The old fashioned Farmer would bind [tie] the grain plants together in bundles, and stack them with the grain end off the ground. These would be arranged in the field for further drying. Later they were threshed to separate the grain kernels from the plant or straw. In a small garden plot, for Wheat I cut off the grain heads with heavy EMT style scissors and use my other forearm to make it fall into a small container. Spelt seed heads readily pull from the top of the stalks. To keep both hands free to work with, I support the container with a strap around the back of my neck. It is adjusted to hold the top of the container about elbow high. You will need to lay the grain out in the sun to continue to dry, and cover it before the dew falls each night. If you have an empty green house which is dry, or a sun porch to use, that will make it easier. In dry years or some Western climates you may be able to dry it completely outside.
After the grain is dryer, it is tumbled or walked on, to loosen any soft husk and other plant debris. To Winnow or clean the grain, it is poured slowly from one container into a much lower one on a tarp. You need a stiff breeze to blow away the chaff. You could wait for the right weather, or just use a fan. The lighter husk and stem pieces blow away in the wind, but the seeds fall straight down. You will need to do this process several times, to get the grain clean. Inspect the grain carefully for any signs of mold or disease, which could be very toxic. If it passes the exam, you need to determine when it is dry enough to store. For most grains, just strike some kernels with a hammer while they are on a hard surface. Grain which is dry enough will shatter into sharp, broken pieces. There are a few grains with a lot of oil in them, like Sunflowers, or a soft starch like Oats, which will not become that brittle when dry. Once you think they are very dry, nearly fill a small glass jar and cover it tightly with a screw top. Put it in the refrigerator. Check it carefully for condensation on the INSIDE of the glass. If you find any, it is not dry enough yet.
All grains may contain tiny eggs of pest insects. To prevent them from ever hatching, I store larger amounts of thoroughly dried grain in my barn where it will certainly freeze during our Winters in Connecticut. For smaller amounts [or warmer climates], I treat my grains by putting them in our freezer for a week in a moisture proof container. You need a real freezer which gets down to zero degrees, not a freezer compartment in a refrigerator. 48 hours is normally considered enough, but since I freeze in fairly large containers, I leave it in for a week. When you take them out, allow them to warm up where you can see them. Dry off the condensation or 'frost' which will form on the outsides of the containers. If the grain is only for eating, and you don't need it to sprout, it can also be heated in a shallow oven tray to 140 degrees. It must heat all they way through, and hold that temperature for half an hour. Whether you use heat or cold, allow the grain to return to room temperature before storing it in containers. Protect from moisture and rodents in glass or non-toxic [not galvanized] metal containers. I like Lard cans I get from Lehman's Hardware. If just keeping the grain over the winter, you may be content with food grade plastic buckets. Aluminized plastic bags can also be used as pouches for small quantities, or to line plastic buckets. A metal layer is needed to stop water vapor from slowly moving through plastic.
Wheat is probably the second most widely grown grain in the USA. There are both Spring and Winter varieties, as well as ones grown just for making one product, such as bread, pastry, or pasta. The percentage of protein also varies widely. For home use, you will probably want to make bread out of most of what you grow. All types can be ground into flour to bake bread, but how dense the loaf is will be controlled by the type of wheat you are growing. The kinds grown for bread making are very high in gluten, and when yeast is added, they rise to make light crusty loaves. Yields vary widely among varieties of wheat. On average, you will need about three times as much garden space as corn to harvest the same amount.
Wheat can tolerate low amounts of rain fall. That is essential during the harvest and for maturing and drying the grain. Mold, mildew and disease can ruin your crop. Because there are both Spring and Winter wheat varieties, you can choose the kind which will mature when it is more likely to be dry in your area. It is always risky to grow small grains in damp coastal climates. That is why most of it is grown in the Mid West. If it does go bad, you can mow it, and harrow it back into the soil where it will fortify the ground for a different crop. You should rotate all your garden crops to different sections of your garden each year. All grains keep as seed for years, so I just grow a different kind we like each year.
Wheat is among the top ten common food allergies which people may develop at any age. There are people who develop an intolerance to gluten, which is found in all common grains except corn and rice. I already have had this trouble with wheat myself. It used to be common for people buying a long term supply of food to rely mostly on wheat, some beans and a little salt. I noticed a couple years ago our government emergency agency, FEMA was been recommending equal amounts of corn and wheat with 20% as much beans. Also salt.and Vitamin C, and powdered milk for children and nursing mothers.
Oats need more rain, and richer soil compared to wheat, but the harvest rate is much closer to corn. They are a Spring grain crop which grows quickly. Oats are also used as a cover crop. When planted in the Fall, they grow after other crops are harvested, and then Winter weather kills the plants, but leaves a woody stubble which holds the soil. Because the Oat plants are dead, they harrow in easily in the Spring. They can also be planted to grow for a month or two in the Spring to keep down weeds and harrowed in to build up the soil before a late crop like Fall cabbages, turnips or beets.
Oats for grain normally have a tough protective coat, which can only be removed by machinery. There are now Hulless Oat varieties which can be harvested much like wheat. I have been growing them here for a number of years. You may get a rare kernel of grain which has made a husk. Just throw those to the chickens. Our Hulless Oats can be ground into flour just like other grains. Oats may be Rolled in a different type of mill. It is a way to prepare them to use as a cooked cereal, or to add to meat loaf. Hand Cranked Roller mills are available, and like all small grains Hulless Oats can be sprouted or boiled similar to cooking Rice. At around 14% protein, it is high enough for chickens to grow on, but they need 16% feed for laying eggs. You need to add a bit of something with more protein to bring the average up.
For those people who are intolerant of gluten in there diet, home grown and processed Oats MIGHT be safe for them to eat. For them, Oats which never came in contact with soil, harvesting equipment, storage silos and grains which have gluten on them MAY be an answer. I understand there are some Oats being grown that way in Canada commercially. There are a few different medical reasons why people may not tolerate gluten. Check with your Physician, or a source he recommends, BEFORE trying Oats if you have a problem with gluten.
Spelt is a high protein grain which is quite low in gluten. That means bread made from it will not rise with yeast. It will rise a little with baking powder, but not much. A loaf of 100% Spelt bread will weigh almost twice as much as the same size loaf of whole wheat bread. Freshly ground Spelt flour makes a hearty, nutty flavored bread. It is very filling, and 'sticks to your ribs'. Protein is listed between 18 and 23%, which is quite high for a grain. It was always in the chicken 'scratch feed' when I was a kid, and hens would lay on that. Some added to cracked corn it makes a good ration for a laying flock. The yield is even lower than wheat, but you need less of it to feed you with the higher protein. That also means less to dry, thresh, and winnow too.
Rye is a very hardy Winter grain. It will grow when ever it is a bit above freezing during the Winter. The roots give off something most weeds don't like, so it is a very popular grain to broadcast under corn the last time corn can be cultivated. The mature corn stalks can be cut and carried away, allowing the Winter rye to mature the next summer for a grain harvest. It is also a good Winter cover crop, choking out weeds right into Spring. If planted late in the Fall, it probably won't mature the next year, but it might. As a grain crop, it is planted in September and harvested the next August in Connecticut. It can have a very toxic disease, so don't harvest in wet weather. It is low in gluten, so 100% rye breads are heavy, with there distinct Rye flavor. Traditional Pumpernickel breads use only rye flour, and are flavored with coffee and cocoa too. 'Rye' bread from a modern grocery store will probably have more wheat than rye flour in it. Breads made of all or even mostly rye flour stick to regular bread pans. Bake them on a greased flat cookie sheet, on a thin layer of course corn meal. Than is why loaves of real rye bread are oval, instead of having straight sides.