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Growing Rice in the Home Garden

Starting Rice 

Rice is the quintessential food plant around the world and it provides a significant amount of brown biomass for composting, esp. in a biointensive system. Yet people who grow grains in the home garden (and they are already an elite crew) tend to choose more cold hardy crops such as barley, wheat, rye, triticale, or oats. Rice is only beginning to catch on as a home garden crop.

Rice caught my interest because it is something my family eats on a daily basis and I am always seeking to reach higher levels of self-reliance for food production. It is also an interesting challenge because the seasons really ought to be too short here in Corvallis, Oregon and the nights too cool with summer time night temperatures rarely reaching 60 degrees. For me, this was going to be fun because growing seemingly mal-adapted crops is a specialty of mine.

Choose Between Upland Rice and Lowland Rice Varieties

I first decided to grow rice in 2013. With a little research, I soon found that there are a couple of important sub-categories of rice that need to be taken into consideration. Rice is either an upland type with a greater tolerance to dryer and cooler conditions or it is a lowland “paddy” type.

Upland types can easily be grown on dry land without flooding, but the lowland types need lots of water and are commonly flooded in a paddy. In this case, I needed an upland type. There is also an issue with day length sensitivity. Some varieties are only short-day and some varieties are day neutral. If a short day rice is grown too far from the equator, it will flower at the wrong time after the frosts have already come. This issue of day length sensitivity is easily gotten around because all rice successfully grown at high latitude will be day length neutral. I would define high latitudes as anything above the states of Georgia, Oklahoma, and Southern California.

Where to Buy Rice Seed

Back in 2013, I scoured the internet for sources of rice seed that met my specifications. I pretty much came up empty. There was the ‘Carolina Gold’ heirloom variety but this is a paddy rice. I also found the ‘Blue Bonnet’ variety offered by Baker’s Creek Seeds in Missouri. It seemed to me that Missouri might be far enough north to avoid the day length issue but I wasn’t sure, and the seed description said that it was upland.  I grew this variety that first year. It seemed to grow well at first and it got quite bushy, but by the time the killing frosts came, it had not produced even the vestiges of a flowering stalk. I am not 100% certain what happened, but it does seem likely that there was a day length issue after all.

In 2014, I buckled down and tried even harder. I found some alternative sources of rice seed that I had not found the first year. Sourcepoint Seeds in Hotchkiss Co. sells several different types of rice. Although most of them are distinctly tropical varieties, one variety stood out as northern adapted: ‘Duborskian.’ I ended up buying ‘Duborskian’ seeds off of the Seed Saver’s Exchange from a member in Vermont with the identifier “VT DA S.” I later found that Fedco seeds had just started offerieng ‘Duborskian’ for the first time, and a search of the internet today shows that another seed company, Sherck’s Hierloom Vegetables, has gotten into the act.

Old Landraces and New Varieties

In addition to these sources, I also turned to the USDA collections. It is possible to get seed from them if one has research or educational purposes. I am a professional plant breeder and I intend to make crosses and develop new varieties that are adapted to northern climates, so I had a pitch to make to the USDA and they sent me the seeds in return. (I am doing this breeding work on a very small scale in my own gardens.) When I reviewed the several thousand varieties – a.k.a. accessions – in the USDA collection, I looked for old landraces or new varieties that were grown and developed at high latitudes. I picked out 7 varieties from Mongolia, Russia, Uzbekistan, and Poland. Specifically, they were ‘Amaura’ PI439617, ‘Nigrescens’ PI439629, ‘Kyzyl Shala’ PI439686, ‘Daido’ GSOR310077, ‘Kon Suito’ GSOR310079, ‘Zerawchanica’ GSOR310208, and another ‘Amaura’ GSOR311320.

When I finally got these USDA seeds plus the ‘Duborskian’ type planted in little pots for later transplanting, it was already the beginning of June. This brought up the whole issue of when to plant rice in the garden. It is actually a complicated question. There isn’t much information out there for North American gardeners. The one resource that I have is a Grow Biointensive working paper on growing grains (mini-series #33, December 2008) that is sold by Bountiful Gardens on the internet. It doesn’t say much about rice, but it does state that rice should be direct seeded on approximately June 1 and that maturity takes about 4 and a half months with a seed spacing of about 5 inches. The statistical first frost at my location according to the Victory Seeds chart on the internet is 10/8 and the statistical last frost is May 11. With the first frost on October 8, it would be difficult getting a mature crop by starting on June 1.

Consider Starting Rice Indoors

In hindsight, I think it would be best to plant rice indoors 6 weeks before the last statistical frost along with the tomatoes and peppers. Rice is commonly transplanted all over the world, including the tropics, so transplanting it should not be considered bad.

My 8 varieties of rice in 2014 grew quite well in the garden after I transplanted them into a heavily fertilized raised bed with a high organic content in the soil. I forgot to notate exactly when I transplanted them but I think it was the end of June. I ended up watering them heavily because they tended to wilt fairly easily.

Successes and Failures

The ‘Kon Suito’ variety stood out for its vigor, although it got some of the worst rust disease (an orange colored fungal discoloration of the leaves) of all the rice varieties planted. The least vigorous was probably ‘Daido’. One plant of ‘Zerawchanica’ stood out as the most vigorous plant of the entire plot. In the end, there really wasn’t enough time for a mature crop. All the varieties flowered except for ‘Daido’ and ‘Kyzyl shala’, but almost none of the flowers produced mature grains. Nearly all the seed heads by the end of the season had immature and non-viable seeds with empty seed heads or very light weight seeds.

Only two individual plants actually produced mature, heavy seeds that were viable. Let me say that these rice varieties are not absolutely genetically uniform, and not all the individual plants responded the same.  Of course, these differences of response are just as likely environmental differences (soil etc.) as genetic differences, but I was willing to take the chance.

In short, I had one plant of ‘Zerawchanica’ and one plant of ‘Kon Suito’ that beat the odds and produced actual grain despite the cool nights, the short season, and all the rest of it. I was elated because I was trying to develop more cold hardy, short season rice varieties and I had two plants that might perhaps be genetically superior in my climate barring confounding environmental effects.

This spring, I planted the same 8 varieties of rice indoors in organic potting soil with 12 seeds planted in a grid in each 4 inch pot on about 3/12. I have a fancy grow tent and mulit-spectrum LED grow light to start my vegetables indoors and also to grow vegetables year round indoors. It is important to plant the same varieties all over again and even to plant separate rows of the same variety in the garden to better assess the true differences between the varieties because seemingly small differences in soil, shading, watering, insect damage, or rust damage can give the false appearance of a genetic difference between the varieties. I also planted seeds on 3/21 from the two plants that survived last season, which I intend to plant in the garden to assess once more their performance and also to cross them to develop new varieties.

I will keep you posted on how it turns out. The picture shows my seedlings right now inside my grow tent. I think they are a little too big and perhaps in the future I will plant them a little later indoors so that they are a more appropriate size for transplanting as it gets warmer.

Photos by Maricel Wallace

Read all of Lyle's blog posts by clicking here.

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