(For details on growing many other vegetables and fruits, visit our Crop at a Glance collection page or check out our Food Gardening Guide app.)
A satisfying variety of grain crops can be grown during the summer months to provide staple foods for people and animals, without the pesticide residues that commonly plague store-bought grain products. Corn has high levels of protein and other nutrients, and pearl millet and hulless oats are easier to harvest and thresh compared with many other grains. The blossoms from sunflower and buckwheat plants provide nectar and pollen for important beneficial insects, and you can eat the seeds or use them to feed chickens and other birds.
Types of Summer Grain Crops to Try
The following warm-season grain crops thrive in a wide range of climates, are easy to store, and have nutritional profiles that make them nourishing staples for people and poultry alike.
Buckwheat is fast to germinate and grow, and can produce a mature seed crop in only two months. Seeds fall away from the plant easily, which simplifies the harvest process.
Grain corn varieties form hard, starchy kernels, and yield more food per acre than any other grain. Dry ears can easily be stored whole, allowing you to harvest and grind the grain as you need it. Plant grain corn later than sweet corn to avoid unwanted cross-pollination.
Pearl millet is a small, round grain produced by a tall annual grass. Plants can be cut for hay and then regrown to yield seeds for feeding chickens. You can roll the seeds like oats, or use them as is in cooking.
Hulless oats lack a hard outer hull, so the seeds are easy to thresh by hand. Oats are delicious as whole-oat groats or rolled oats (oatmeal). When intended for animal feed, oats can be left to dry on the stem in bunches. Oat residue in the soil will suppress weeds and provide an abundance of organic matter.
Sunflowers produce a nutritious seed, and the cheerful flowers will attract birds and beneficial insects. If carefully dried and stored, seeds from mature heads can be enjoyed through winter. Seeds can also be pressed to produce sunflower seed oil (learn more at Growing Nuts and Seed Crops for Homegrown Cooking Oils).
For more information about summer grain crops, see our Summer Grains at a Glance chart.
When to Plant Summer Grain Crops
Growing buckwheat and oats is an excellent practice if your soil is in the early stages of organic improvement, because these crops will grow fast and smother weeds if grown in broad swaths. Start sowing seeds of these summer grain crops in late spring, after your last frost has passed and the soil has warmed. Cultivate the soil to remove weeds and rocks, and mix in a standard application of a balanced organic fertilizer before planting buckwheat or hulless oat seeds about 2 inches apart. When the plants are 4 inches tall, hoe to remove weeds, and thin the plants to 6 inches apart.
Corn, pearl millet and sunflowers grow into large plants that benefit from fertile, well-drained soil. Grow these summer grain crops much as you would sweet corn. Enrich planting furrows with an organic fertilizer, and space rows at least 18 inches apart. Thin corn and sunflower plants to at least 14 inches apart. Grow pearl millet at a tighter spacing, about 10 inches apart.
Harvesting and Storing
Most summer grain crops require close monitoring as the seeds approach ripeness. Tap brown buckwheat seed clusters to see whether any black mature seeds fall free. Corn and pearl millet should be left on the plants to dry as long as dry weather allows. With sunflowers, eager visits by birds will be an indicator that the seeds are ripe. When any grain crop is almost ripe and a prolonged spell of rainy weather is in the forecast, the best strategy is to harvest the crop and allow it to dry in a sheltered, well-ventilated place. Use a fan if necessary. Summer grains are tough, resilient plants, but an extended period of rain that leads to moldy seeds is the worst thing that can happen to any homestead grain.
Harvested grains should be stored in rodent-proof containers, such as garbage cans with secure lids. Store corn ears intact, and wait until just before cracking or milling to twist off the kernels.
Collect the large seeds that fall from dry sunflower heads and set them aside for snacking. Chickens will appreciate the diversion of plucking the smaller leftover seeds from dry sunflower heads.
Seeds collected from buckwheat, pearl millet and oats often contain bits of plant material (chaff) that should be winnowed out before storing. Place the seeds to be cleaned in a large bag or pillowcase, and crush the seeds with your hands. Remove the chaff by passing the seeds back and forth between two containers while standing near a fan outdoors. If using an unheated basement or outbuilding for storage, rotate grains into clean containers monthly. This is the best way to spot pest or moisture problems early.
Choose large, robust seeds for replanting soon after harvest and while you are monitoring the drying process. Allow them to continue drying indoors at room temperature for another week before storing them in airtight containers in a cool, dry place.
Tips for Growing Grains
In addition to being grown as grains, pearl millet and hulless oats can be cut as hay when the plants are about 18 inches tall. The plants will regrow and produce a grain crop. Straw cut from millet or oats makes wonderful vegetable garden mulch or fodder for your compost heap, or you can dry it and feed it to your livestock. Oats and buckwheat do best when grown in cool summer climates, or in fall where summers are hot.
Summer Grains in the Kitchen
You’ll need a grain mill to grind corn into richly flavored grits or flour, or to get buckwheat seeds to shed their dark seed coats. A small, hand-operated grain roller/flaker will turn whole oats into faster-cooking flakes. A grain mill can also crack sunflower hulls. Grind grains in small batches, and store cracked or ground grains in the freezer to preserve nutrition and flavor. As an alternative to grinding, many people sprout whole grains before cooking with them, a step that often increases their nutritional value.
Contributing editor Barbara Pleasant gardens in southwest Virginia, where she grows vegetables, herbs, fruits, flowers and a few lucky chickens. Contact Barbara by visiting her website or finding her on Google+.