Growing Backyard Wheat

Summer is a progression from Spring Green to hues of gold and brown. Fields of grasses like barley and wheat reach for the sun, turn gold and bow their heads to the summer heat. 

Your yard is, no doubt, full of beautiful plants that similarly demonstrate the passage of time in the choreographed, seasonal flora-dance. But why not accentuate the seasons with a patch of golden wheat?

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I’ll take you through the many reasons to grow wheat, and even share with you some difficulties I have had. Read on!

Reasons to grow:

1. Colour and Texture

2. Fresh, edible grains

3. Can enhance soil structure

4. Major contributor of carbon-rich compost

5. Helps with bio-diversity

6. Protects soil over winter

Why I decided to grow wheat.

I like to grow food, and I like to try new things. My wife likes to create and sell flower arrangements, and grasses (grains) offer a nice colour and texture to both Spring, Summer and Fall arrangements. Check out the colour on this winter rye:

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I had removed this winter wheat to make room for the squash – some remained. Blue/Green

There are few things as beautiful as a dense sea of golden grains. 

I designed my gardens with the principles of intensive planting, succession planting and rotation. So the beds dedicated to grains or grasses would rotate through. In the beds with good soil, I would benefit from a good harvest. In beds with poor soil, the bed would benefit from the deep, fibrous root system left behind to decompose. 

Winter Rye is said to send its root system down as deep as 10 feet or more. Wheat is not as aggressive, but while grasses have primary roots, you’ll find that the root ball is made up almost exclusively of tightly bound small fibrous roots. So consider this: You have a plant that is producing tons (relatively) of carbon-rich plant material (carbon comes from the air), but is sending roots very deep for both nutrients and water. What that means is the grass (which is an annual) is both bringing vitamins and minerals to the surface and leaving this intense root ball to decompose (fixing carbon into the soil). The decomposition leaves organic matter available as nutrients to successive plantings and it also leaves small spaces which allows for the travel of soil organism and provides much needed air to root systems. For an annual, this production is impressive. Indeed, the internet is ripe with photos of excavated cross-sections showing the depth of native prairie grasses with the intent on proving that the environmental focus of saving trees for carbon sequestering should be replicated in saving grass lands.

The key to utilizing these benefits is to not till. The following season, when last year’s grasses have begun to decompose,I pull on the stems left and some of the upper root ball comes up – but very little. I compost this. The rest of the roots will have broken off and remain. All of the stems are also returned to the compost. These steps are essential to reap the benefits of soil structure and wheat’s contribution to nutrients available in your garden. 

The only thing removed from this cycle is the grain. The grain is the original “super food.” Packed in each grain is calories, minerals, vitamins and is partially responsible for the birth of civilization. (Rice and beer being the other major factors).

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This “cerveza” I made with corn I grew last year.

Fresh grains also have fats and other compounds that are otherwise not present in the flours we buy. Fresh grains can be cooked as is (like barley often is) but this is not common in North American cuisine. If you have a blender, (I use a vitamix with a dry grain setting) just bust it up immediately prior to use. 

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Grains can be stored easily. Just make sure they are totally dry before putting it in a jar or tupperwear. Ideally, the grains should “breath,” so use your judgment on weighing the pros and cons of storing in a jar (one extreme) or a burlap sack (the other extreme).

Removing this nutrient heavy food which once allowed for civilization to flourish, is now becoming a potential cause if its decline. Generations of farming, shipping the food, eating the food and the human waste being disposed of elsewhere, is slowly, but surely, stripping-nutrients from our soil. I’ve been thinking of covering this in a different post, so I won’t go into much detail. But the disposal of human waste in the western world hasn’t changed much since the invention of the toilet in France in the 1700’s. Since the result of that invention has been flushing away a valuable resource (two, when you consider how much water is used), maybe it’s time we address that.

I’ll touch on bio-diversity – because it’s my passion. There are few pests of grains that aren’t the big obvious ones (birds, slubs, caterpillars and other things that eat leaves). What you will find, eventually is aphids. But do not panic! Some of the aphids you find will be the aphids on some other plants in the garden. I often get the black aphid that goes from plant to plant. But, thankfully, the predators are already in the garden. Uniquely, grasses can get a species-specific aphid, like oat-aphids. Commercially, this can cause an issue, but in the garden you still don’t have to worry. This aphid can do all it wants on your grains and will not transfer to other non-grasses in your garden. In the meantime, the predators will arrive (and some new parasites) and your grasses will contribute nicely to enhancing aphid predators (many of which WILL transfer to other types of aphids). 

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This is Winter Rye in April. It shoots up quick.

Additionally, grass roots have many pests. Garden rotation is key to prevent major damage, but some damage will never be avoided – especially with so much grass grown in most neighbourhoods. But remember, the roots of these harvestable grains are so extensive that you are simply feeding the bio-diversity underground. Roots mean pest, and pests mean predators and balance will follow. 

Finally, most grains in South, Coastal BC can be planted in the fall. The grains will germinate, send roots and spread out as tuffs of grass before going dormant for the winter. When Spring arrives, the plants have a head start and explode with new, vertical growth. Overwintering crops are important for bio-diversity as it provides habitat for many critters, but more importantly (here at least), it helps slow the flow of water through exposed soil which would otherwise result in nutrient leaching and soil compacting. 

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However, I made a mistake. When researching growing grains I was under the impression that winter wheat (planted in the fall) was given the head start in growth and would finish earlier in the late spring. Spring wheat (planted when soil can be worked) would finish late summer. So my winter wheat was planted in a garden that would be successively planted with Solanaceae (in this case, peppers, cherry tomatoes and tomatillos). However, as spring progressed, I ended up removing some immature wheat to ensure my cherry tomatoes were planted. A few weeks later, more wheat was removed to make room for tomatillos. Finally, when the first of the wheat was ready to harvest, I pulled the whole lot a touch early, as my peppers desperately needed to get out of their 4” pots (and I needed relief from watering them three times a day). 

So I will warn you – Winter wheat and rye are essentially a full year crop. As I redesign my rotations in the coming weeks, I will likely attempt spring plantings of grains, if a different harvestable crop can be overwintered. I will also warn you that grasses are heavy feeders. My wheat looks great, and it followed a crop of Corn and is succeeded by heavy feeding solanaceae, which also seem to be doing fine, so you may not be too concerned. But I will try to work in my light feeding crops for a better rotation. 

Here is some pictures describing the late stage of the life-cycle.

I will also need to read a bit more about interplanting with grains. My experience is that these plants are dense, strong and exclusive to other plants (like grass tends to be), so I can’t imagine interplanting anything that can compete (or live harmoniously). So, in the back of my head, I’ll likely dedicated a bed exclusively to grains, maybe in blocks of Wheat, Rye (for ornamental reasons) and Barley (for beer-making reasons). But again, more research is required, as these plants are related and wind-pollinated, there may be potential for cross pollination. That being said, you can always buy seeds, instead of using your own: I got mine from Saltspring Seeds who specialize in non-GMO, open pollinated seeds that are proven in our region. Which reminds me of a final reason for growing wheat that I forgot to mention: Like many plants, it is entirely worthwhile to maintain heritage breeds. Not only do monocultures threaten some lesser known varieties, but companies are trying to breed-in patentable genetics to control what we grow. I know! Sounds like a dystopian fairy-tale, but it is true. Find seed companies that try to preserve these varieties, support them, and grow the plants – we may need them again in the future. 

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