All About Growing Winter Grains

Grow wheat, rye, oats and barley to build soil fertility and provide forage for your animals as well as whole grains and flour for your kitchen.
By Barbara Pleasant
August/September 2011
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Among their potential uses on your homestead, winter grains can be a homegrown source of soil-improving mulch.
ILLUSTRATION: KEITH WARD
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If grown from fall to spring, cold-hardy grains safeguard soil from erosion, suppress weeds and add organic matter to your soil. You can harvest and eat your homegrown whole grains — especially winter wheat — or use them as forage for poultry and other livestock.

Types to Try

Oats quickly produce lush, grassy foliage, which is typically killed by temperatures below 10 degrees Fahrenheit. In regions where the oats die in winter, the dead foliage becomes maintenance-free mulch that you can leave in place and plant through in spring.

Winter barley is slightly hardier than oats and winterkills when temperatures drop below zero. Alive or dead, winter barley makes great mulch or poultry forage.

Triticale is a cross between wheat and rye, and can tolerate subzero temperatures. Triticale’s abundant greens and nutritious seeds make it good animal forage.

Wheat varies in its cold tolerance. You can produce a wheat crop in late spring if you sow a hardy variety in fall.

Spelt, a primitive wheat, produces berries with a unique, nutty flavor.

Cereal rye has renowned cold tolerance, and will grow in lean, sandy soils, so it’s ideal for improving new garden plots.

Check out our chart of winter grains for more details on oats, winter barley, triticale, wheat and cereal rye. Fedco Organic Growers Supply offers an excellent selection of grains at better prices than most sources. 

When to Plant Winter Grains

You should plant the least hardy grains first, followed by hardier species as the first frost approaches. (Find your frost dates on our What to Plant Now pages.)

Ten to 12 weeks before your first fall frost, start sowing seeds of oats or winter barley. In areas with mild winters, they can be planted up to six weeks before the first fall frost date.

Eight to 10 weeks before your first fall frost date, sow seeds of triticale, wheat and spelt. (Many state extension services publish recommended dates for growing wheat, which often has a tight interval for seed sowing.) In areas with mild winters, you can plant these grains up to four weeks before the first fall frost date.

Four to eight weeks before your first fall frost date, sow seeds of cereal rye. Cereal rye can be planted until the first fall frost date in areas with mild winters.

How to Plant Winter Grains

All grains need fertile, well-drained soil and a near-neutral pH (about 6.0). If possible, sow winter grains into the stubble of a previous crop instead of planting into a clean bed. Any vegetation at the surface will help block wind and catch snow, which enhances the winter hardiness of all grains. Use a rake or hand trowel to rough up the soil’s surface, then plant seeds about 1 inch deep and 1 to 2 inches apart. Firmly tamp the seeds into place with the back of a rake, then water the area. Keep the soil lightly moist until the seedlings emerge.

Harvesting and Storing Winter Grains

Oats and barley planted in late summer grow into lush, green plants that will regrow if cut back when they are 2 feet tall. Use the greens as mulch, or feed them to animals or your compost pile. Allow wheat, rye and their relatives to grow until late spring. To utilize them as mulch-producing cover crops, cut the plants back to 3 inches when they are knee-high (first cutting), and make a second cutting two weeks later before digging out the plants or turning them under.

With grains you plan to harvest for food, allow the plants to grow uncut. Harvest when the seed heads dry to light brown but still show streaks of green. Use a scythe or heavy scissors to cut off the tops, leaving about 12 inches of stem attached. Bind big handfuls into bundles (called sheaves) using string or rubber bands. Hang your sheaves in a dry place, or arrange them in single layers on a drying table. Depending on weather conditions, the grain will be dry enough to thresh in one to two weeks.

Of the many ways to thresh grain, one of the easiest is to knock the dried tops against the sides of a clean barrel or deep bucket. You could also place the grain tops in a clean pillowcase and crunch them with your hands. Next, winnow the grain by pouring it back and forth between broad bowls or pans in front of a fan, which will blow away the chaff (seed husks and bits of stem).

Tiny insects often hide in harvested grain, but freezing easily kills them. If you can’t permanently store your grain in a freezer, freeze it for a week and then store it in airtight containers in a cool, dry place.

Saving Seeds

Saving grain seeds for replanting is as simple as setting aside some of your harvested grains. As you sort your crop, select the largest, prettiest grains for your planting stock. Stored in cool, dry conditions, grain seeds remain viable for at least two years.

Pests and Diseases

Used in rotation with vegetables, winter grains interrupt the life cycles of soilborne pests and diseases.

The Hessian fly can be a serious threat to fall-planted grains, especially wheat planted in early fall. Your best defense is to delay planting until cool weather ends the Hessian fly’s yearly life cycle.

Insect-vectored viral diseases, including barley yellow dwarf virus and wheat streak mosaic virus, cause plants to become stunted and develop red or yellow streaks. You can best prevent these diseases by planting grains after nearby corn or other grains have been harvested.

Growing Tips

Winter grains make beautiful, edible ornamentals: Try growing them in stands as lawn alternatives in places where you can watch them dance in the wind.

Widely spaced cereal rye plants are stiff enough to support spring peas as a natural trellis.

If you plan to eat your oats or barley, try growing hull-less (also known as “naked”) varieties for easier post-harvest processing.

In colder climates, plant edible grains in early spring to prevent winterkill. Check with your local extension office for recommended planting times.


In the Kitchen

Simmered in lightly salted water for about 45 minutes, wheat or spelt “berries” and hulled oat “groats” become chewy and slightly nutty. Mix cooked whole grains with yogurt or fruit for breakfast, or combine them with vegetables in cold salads. You can grind small amounts of dry whole grain in a coffee mill or food processor, and you can use a grain mill to produce your own high-quality, whole-grain flour. All whole grains can be sprouted — an easy way to eat your homegrown grains if you don’t have a mill. Add sprouted whole grains to salads, or chop them up and use them in breads. Whole grains are a good source of fiber, protein and iron.


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 .


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