Growing Wheat of Your Own

Don't assume growing wheat is an activity best suited to the vast plains of Kansas and Nebraska. Planting a few pounds of seeds in your garden can yield eight times as much edible grain.
By Sara Pitzer
February/March 2010
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When you plant your garden, consider going beyond vegetables. Growing wheat is easier than you might think.
PHOTO: ROSALIND CREASY
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If you’re deep into gardening and self-sufficiency, sooner or later you’ll want to try growing wheat. Among other benefits, it allows you to get away from the commercial process that grows a perfectly good grain, then scrapes off the bran, peels out the germ, bleaches the flour, and sells all those things back to you separately.

If you try, you will discover wheat is easy to grow almost anywhere in the United States, even as a wide-row crop in your garden. One gardener in Vermont attests to having planted 30 pounds of winter wheat on one-eighth of an acre and harvesting 250 pounds of grain in July. On a somewhat smaller scale, even if you have a front yard that’s 20 feet by 50 feet, you could plant 6 pounds of wheat and harvest nearly 50 pounds of grain.

Before you enthusiastically plan to put in enough wheat to make all your bread for the next year, start with a small trial area the first year. This test run will allow you to learn how the grain behaves, what its cultivation problems are, how long it takes you to handle it, how it’s affected by varying climate conditions, and more.

Different Types of Wheat

After you’ve decided how much wheat to plant, you’ll need to decide which type to plant. It’s easy to get confused about types of wheat. Winter wheat is planted in the fall and harvested from mid-May in the South to late July in the North. Spring wheat is planted in the spring and harvested in the fall. Both spring and winter wheat are further divided into soft wheat (lacking a high gluten content and used primarily for pastries and crackers), hard wheat (with a high gluten content and used for breads), and durum wheat (used for pasta). The variety you select will depend on where you live. Check with your local cooperative extension agent to learn which varieties are best for your region. (To find sources for small quantities of wheat seeds, try our Seed and Plant Finder, or check with your local farm stores.)

Planting Wheat

Plant winter wheat in fall to allow for six to eight weeks of growth before the soil freezes. This allows time for good root development. If the wheat is planted too early, it may smother itself the following spring and it could be vulnerable to some late-summer insects that won’t be an issue in the cooler fall weather. If winter wheat is planted too late, it will not overwinter well.

Spring wheat should be planted as early as the ground can be worked in spring. Do the initial plowing in the fall, then till and sow in the spring. To ensure an evenly distributed crop, figure out the amount of seed you’ll need, divide it into two piles, and broadcast one part in one direction, such as from east to west. Then broadcast the remainder from north to south. A cyclone crank seeder will do an even job, but broadcasting by hand is fine for a small plot. You also can plant it in rows like other crops.

Cover the seed by rototilling or raking it in to a depth of 2 to 2 1⁄2 inches for winter wheat and 1 to 1 1⁄2 inches for spring wheat. For best results, roll or otherwise firm the bed to ensure good seed-soil contact.

Harvesting Grain

As you admire your wheat stand, you’ll notice in midsummer (later for spring wheat) that the color of the stalks turns from green to yellow or brown. The heads, heavy with grain, tip toward the earth. This means it’s time to test the grain. Choose a head, pick out a few grains, and pop them into your mouth. If they are soft and doughy, the grain is not yet ready. Keep testing. One day the grains will be firm and crunchy, and it will be time to harvest.

At harvest, how should you cut the wheat? If you have a small enough plot, you’ll just snip the heads of wheat off the stems. It goes quickly if your wheat field is no larger than about 6 feet wide by 25 feet long.

Using a scythe. If you like the old-time way of doing things and are going to harvest a larger amount of grain, you might use a scythe and cradle. The cradle is a series of long wooden fingers mounted above the scythe blade. The scythe cuts the wheat, and then the cradle carries the cut wheat to the end of each swing and deposits it in a neat pile, stacked with all the heads grouped together. You could cut with the scythe alone, but you would spend a lot of time picking up the cut wheat and arranging it for easier handling.

Harvesting with a sickle. Another possible tool for cutting small amounts of grain is the sickle. It’s a matter of grab and cut, grab and cut. Hold a handful of wheat in your left hand and swing the sickle with your right to cut the plants at nearly ground level. It’s possible to kneel or crouch in various positions to avoid getting too tired. As you cut handfuls, lay them in small piles with all the heads pointed in the same direction.

Binding sheaves. The next step is to bind the grain into sheaves, each about 12 to 14 inches in circumference — a bunch you can hold comfortably in your hands. Bind the same day you cut the wheat. It’s nice to have two people taking turns cutting and binding. You can bind with cord or baler’s twine or even with some of the wheat stems, twisting them in a way that holds the bundle firm.

Curing the grain. Stack sheaves upright in a well-ventilated, dry location safe from grain-eating animals. Our ancestors stacked sheaves to make shocks in the field, but with small quantities, it’s easy to bring the sheaves in out of the weather. The grain has been cured when it is hard, shatters easily, and cannot be dented with your thumbnail.

Threshing. Now it’s time to thresh the grain — to separate the straw and chaff from it. You can go about this in any number of ways. One method is flailing. A flail consists of one piece of wood about 3 feet long — the handle — attached with a leather thong to a shorter piece about 2 feet long. The shorter piece is flung at the heads of grain repeatedly, shattering a few heads each time. If you are using this method, you can expect to produce about 3 pounds of wheat in 20 to 25 minutes. That’s slow work. Also, there’s a trick to learning to swing the tail without rapping yourself on the head.

Another way is to beat the individual sheaves against the inside of a large, clean trash can. In two hours a thresher can produce a can full of wheat, but with a lot of chaff and even solid heads in it. This is faster than flailing, but produces more debris that has to be separated from the wheat.

Winnowing. The usual method for winnowing is pouring the grain from one container to another, letting either the wind or the breeze from an electric fan push the lighter chaff out of the grain. Repeat the process a few times to get the grain as chaff-free as possible.

The Best Ways to Store Wheat

The way you store grain depends on how much you’re dealing with. Storing it properly means protecting it from heat, light, and moisture, as well as from rats, mice, and insects. You can keep a small amount of grain in plastic bags in the freezer practically forever, but it takes more effort to store larger amounts.

The general recommendation is to store hard winter or spring wheat with less than a 10 percent moisture content — a moisture level that is actually difficult to attain without additional drying (see below). Five-gallon metal or plastic buckets with friction lids are ideal for storing all grains. One hundred pounds of grain can be stored in three of these containers. (Garbage cans are not good for storage because making them bug-proof is difficult.)

These cans prevent insects from getting into the grain, but you must take another step to eliminate any eggs or larvae already in the grain. A simple method is to heat the grain in the oven for 30 minutes at 140 degrees Fahrenheit, which also will help reduce the moisture content. If you’re not sure about the accuracy of your oven’s thermostat, check it with an oven thermometer: temperatures higher than 140 degrees may damage the grain.

Grinding Grain

Some books suggest using a blender to grind the grain, but that doesn’t work well. You won’t be able to make nice, fine flour — only a coarse meal with particles of uneven size. At first, buying an inexpensive, hand-cranked mill sounds right and romantic — back to nature all the way! But how much flour are you going to be grinding? You’d have to grind all afternoon to get enough flour for six loaves of bread, and that’s apt to discourage you from baking at all after the first few tries. Using an electric flour mill is a better way to grind large quantities. When you’re selecting a mill, ask the following questions:

  • Will it handle the amount of flour you expect to grind in a reasonable amount of time?
  • Does it grind without overheating the grain?
  • Can it be adjusted to grind different degrees of coarseness?
  • Is it easy to use and clean?
  • Will replacement parts be available if you need them?
  • Is it manufactured by a reputable company that will honor the warranty?

When grinding grain, avoid the temptation to grind large amounts for future use. Grind what you need for perhaps a week, and refrigerate the unused portion in an airtight container. Whole grains can be stored for months without loss of taste or nutrition, but this is not true of whole grain flour.


Adapted from The Backyard Homestead, edited by Carleen Madigan. Originally published in Homegrown Whole Grains by Sara Pitzer. Both books from Storey Publishing, 2009.


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Post a comment below.

 

sameth132
3/21/2014 7:08:37 AM
I live in central Florida near Tampa to be exact and I was wondering if I could even grow wheat here and if so how should I go about doing it.

Danielle
11/29/2013 8:11:24 AM
My husband is interested in growing wheat and harvesting by hand and has asked for a scythe for Christmas. Can you recommend an "entry level" scythe for a left-hander? And do you suggest a cradle to accompany it? I just don't know where to start, what to choose, and how much to spend?

easternshoreboy
6/18/2013 9:16:31 PM

I just harvested winter wheat here on the eastern shore of virginia.  I plant about 2" deep - scatter then disc in with a small, garden tractor disc.  I also sometimes scater then rototill.  Earlier years, I planted too shallow - very poor yields.  My return is about 5 to 1.  Plant 3 lbs, get about 15 lbs of harvest.  This compares to about 30 to one for commercial growers (for non-irrigated they plant about 2 bushels per ace and yield about 50 to 60 bushels per acre).   I have used flailing into a large metal trash can with hand-sized bunches - this is real work but good exercise - no need to do it all at one time if you have a dry storage location fo rthe harvested wheat.  Flailing does require you to cut or pull the wheat stalks rather than cutting just the heads off.  Winnowing is the easiest part - just pour slowly from one container to the other in fron of a strong fan - the wheat berries fall down and the chaff blows away.  I use a grain attachment on my stand mixer that works great and produces very fine flour.


Dean Blissman
9/11/2012 7:50:33 PM
I went to Agway in Greensburg, Pa. and bought hard red wheat. I planted it and followed all the directions in the article. When it came up it was lush and green but as time went on it did not look like the pictures. I dug up a sample and took it back to Agway but they said they did not know what it was (!?!) and suggested I take it to the Penn State Ag extention in the eastern part of town. They had to consult a book, "Weeds of the Eastern United States" and the best match they could come up with was Goose Grass. They recommended that I mow the entire planting using a catcher bag and destroy the cuttings. They said not to compost it as the seeds may not be killed and to rototill the entire area where it had been planted. I am very disappointed with this result and I wonder it anyone else has any thoughts about what went wrong? I will check back on this thread periodically.

THE WOOLY OWL
2/5/2012 5:33:33 PM
I live in Bracebridge Ontario and am serious about growing my own!! What types could you recommend for me in my climate zone? Should I do winter wheat or spring?

Triple C Farm
7/25/2011 2:30:51 PM
Ok, what about fertilizing the wheat? When, how much, what type of fertilizer? Anyone want to tackle these questions, please feel free to shoot me an e-mail. cpcarter07@gmail.com or cph0817@gmail.com. Thanks.

P L
3/1/2011 11:37:21 PM
I bought a 50 lb bag of wheat at the feed store that is meant to feed to animals and just threw it out in the yard where the chicken coop had been last after the chickens ate down all the grass. It grew up tall, green, luscious right away and my chickens and ducks ate it all when they went free range later. The goat also loved it. I plan to get another bag and spread the seed out where the pigs were last this year, a bigger area probably about the size of a good country garden. Or maybe it will be peas, I haven't decided yet. We are seriously low on green stuff in the house and the animals need forage, too. It is cold, so peas may be what I have to do first. I plan to pen in the potbelly pigs (I have 3) all the way down the fenceline on our acre property and then plant something there when they have ate everything down and move on, either for forage for them through winter, and/or food for us. I figured lentils, squash, corn, peas, beans are a good start- high in protien for them, and gives a crop for the humans as well, or has a lot of green stuff they can eat. Only, I am looking for a cheap, free, easy way to keep my goat and my chickens out of it. My goat plain jumps over hog panels and has NO respect for gardens WHATSOEVER. If it looks good, she eats it. This includes my hair if I sit still long enough! lol The chickens are a little better behaved. I have managed to put some of that plastic thick garden netting up and it kinda sorta keeps the chickens out.

Cindy Conner
3/2/2010 11:10:46 AM
I grow grain in my garden. The way I thresh wheat and rye is to lay a sheet on the ground below where I'll be working. I put a piece of plywood on the sheet, leaning it against the picnic table (or a saw horse). I hold the straw with the grain heads pointing down and beat the grain heads with a plastic baseball bat. It is much easier doing it that way than whacking it inside a garbage can. The grain falls onto the sheet. I gather the sheet up and empty the grain into a bucket or canning pot (any large container). I winnow away the chaff by setting up a fan (a box fan will do fine) and pouring the grain from one container down in front of the fan to another container on the ground. It is amazing how well that works. All this is shown in my video Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden, which shows how to manage those crops in your garden using only hand tools. It is available from www.HomeplaceEarth.com.

Lucinda_7
2/16/2010 12:41:30 AM
Hi Jeanna! When I plant my wheat, I plant it in rows. When it first comes up, it looks like a grassy weed that I have growing around. If it is in the row, I can tell it is the wheat and not the weedy imitator. I use a regular blender to grind it up. It really is not as good as a mill which I am thinking of buying. When I make bread, I mix my flour with whole wheat flour and it works well. If I only use my wheat, it is a little more textured that regular whole wheat flour - read gritty! I have a lot of trees so my garden on a north facing slope is shaded from the late afternoon sun. The wheat seems to grow just fine in 8 or so hours of sun. It might be OK as a tall landscaping plant because it is green, and when it is mature it is a lovely golden color. Deer have moved into my neighborhood in the last year and a half. They have not bothered the wheat or the oats - but I do use a motion sensor with a ultra high frequency that they are not supposed to like plus I regular spray several of those repellent sprays. The hull less oats are Avena nuda species. Oats normally have a really tight hull - and this particular species does not. The oat seed is easy to get - I do it the same as wheat. Give wheat a try. It just grows itself. It is fun and gives one a chance to have a little bit of garden bragging rights! So have fun!

GinaMO
2/15/2010 9:05:46 AM
Lucinda- I was interested to see your post. Actually I have a pretty small garden, like 40' x 30', but I'm trying to add more small gardens around our yard so I can get a bigger variety of things growing. We have a big yard but lots of shade. Still, I would love to find a spot to try it. Of course I have more questions. Did you spread your wheat seed or plant in rows? Any trouble with deer or other critters? Uou say you planted oats? Tell me about that. What is involved in getting the oats ready to eat. And you said you make your flour in a blender? Just an ordinary blender? And, do you use a combination of this "whole wheat" and all purpose flour or just bake bread from only the flour you are making in your blender? Sorry for the questions. I am just really interested in all this. I would love to get a wheat grinder but am not sure where to even find local wheat although I live slap dab in the middle of Missouri where I know wheat is grown. But, I'm not sure how to get wheat from a farmer who is selling to grain elevators and doesn't usually sell locally for "family use". Thanks for all of the info on this! VERY INTERESTING SUBJECT! Jeanna

Lucinda_7
2/13/2010 10:24:45 PM
I have grown wheat for the last two years on my 1/4 acre or so garden. Last year I added hull less oats. It is very gratifying to be able to serve up a loaf of bread and say, "I grew the wheat!" I get about 5 loaves of whole wheat bread from one bed of about 75 to 100 sq. ft. I cut my grains with scissors, let it dry, put it in a pillow case and then beat it to death with a baseball bat and wait for a nice delta breeze in the evening. I was a skeptic about winnowing, but it really works - when you pour the grain in a breeze, the chaff blows away and the grain falls in your basket/bucket/bowl. Several repetitions are needed. And I do make my flour in a blender, also my oat meal/flour and cornmeal. This is cool stuff to grow. I get my hard red Spring wheat seeds from Bountiful Gardens - a great place to get open pollinated seeds. This is a great use for one's sustainability - and you can eat only so much zucchini!

Kevin_1
2/12/2010 9:47:13 AM
We buy a lot of bulk wheat and go through a couple hundred lbs a year. I am going to try a test planting of spring wheat this year to see how it does. One of the benefits would be that the left over straw could also be used for animal bedding. The one problem I've heard about is that "hard wheat" sown in the warmer climates, like where we are in Virginia, turns out to be "soft wheat" when harvested. I would like to hear some more about this, as soft wheat is just about useless for making bread except as a small percentage of the recipe.

GinaMO
1/27/2010 11:44:35 AM
Has anyone actually done this on a small scale? I guess I can handle all of it but the actual part where I'm suppose to dump it from one container to the next in front of a fan to blow the sinnow away? I'm just not seeing how that works. Where do you do this? And the wheat lands back in your can or does it fly all over with the sinnow? I would like to hear another person's opinion of how this all works for a home gardener. Sounds like a fun project but I'm not sure how practical it is. Thanks.








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