An important book from authors Sarah Simpson and Heather McLeod, Uprisings (New Society Publishers, 2013) shows how communities can take back their power by reviving local grain production to improve the local economy and food security, as well as the environment. Growing your own wheat, rye, and other grains can be a big part of this process. In this excerpt from “Grains 101: The Basics,” the authors explain traits of different types of grains, so that you can get a good start on planning your grain garden.
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While many grains look similar, they each have different benefits and qualities that can help your garden and open the door to new experiments in your kitchen. To help you choose which grains to grow, here’s the general lowdown on your options.
1 bushel = 60 pounds
Wheat has fed human beings for thousands of years — it really is the “staff of life.” It’s a household staple, useful for bread, pasta and pastries. The whole grains, called “berries,” can also be cooked like rice, or even sprouted.
Wheat varieties are often described as “winter” or “spring” wheat, which indicates the time of year when that variety is meant to be planted. Winter wheat varieties, for example, are planted in the fall and harvested the next summer. Spring wheat varieties are planted around the time of the last spring frost, then harvested in late summer. Generally, winter-planted wheat can be harvested earlier and will result in a larger yield than spring-planted wheat.
The color of the seed’s outer bran layer determines whether it’s referred to as “red” or “white.” Red wheats are said to have better, stronger flavor than white wheats.
Grains are further described as “hard” or “soft,” which refers to the amount and types of gluten in the grain seed’s endosperm. Hard wheat sare higher in gluten; commercial bakers prefer them because the flour can take in more oxygen to create a lighter bread loaf. Hard wheats also hold more liquid than soft wheats, so less flour is needed when making bread. According to the Kootenay Grain CSA, 80 percent of all wheat grown in Western Canada is a variety of hard red spring wheat. The hardest wheats are called durum wheats. They are very high in gluten and are used to make pasta.
Soft wheat flours produce denser bread than what is typically produced by the mainstream bread industry, but are preferred for pastries, cookies and other non-yeast baking, such as crackers and flatbreads.
Wheat grows best in dry, heavy loam or clay soil that isn’t too fertile. Otherwise, the plants may grow too tall and risk falling over, or “lodging,” which makes harvesting more difficult and can compromise the grain kernels’ quality. A cool, moist spring and dry, hot summer are ideal.
About 1/40 of an acre (approximately 1,100 square feet) of sown wheat can be expected to yield roughly 60 pounds at harvest time. It’s easy to grow a few pounds of wheat on a garden scale, and the kernels can be separated (“threshed”) from the less palatable hulls and plant matter (“chaff”)using objects found around the home, such as pillowcases, baseball bats and shoes. Grain kernel size varies depending on the variety: for example, khorasan grains are noticeably larger than other wheat grains. The height of the stalk also varies, so if you want more straw consider growing a longstalked variety such as Red Fife.
Khorasan is sometimes referred to as Kamut, which is a trademarked brand name for organically grown khorasan. It is an ancient wheat variety, and is rumored to have been found in King Tut’s tomb. (The brand name Kamut is from an old Egyptian word for wheat.) Khorasan is very high in gluten. According to the Speerville Flour Mill, khorasan is actually an old variety of durum wheat. It makes great pasta, and can also be used for bread and pastries.
Spelt is one of the oldest cultivated grains and is higher in protein than many other wheats. It is quite similar to modern hard red wheat, but is said to be easier to digest. That may be because it is such an old variety, and/or because it is lower in gluten than many other wheats. It also needs less kneading than other wheats because its gluten is so fragile: bread machines can easily over-knead spelt dough. To avoid over-kneading, gently work the dough until it’s elastic and smooth. Spelt flour is wonderful for sourdough baking.
Spelt sounds like a miracle wheat for anyone with gluten sensitivities, but be warned before you attempt to grow it on a small scale. It is very difficult to thoroughly remove the hull from spelt grains without machinery. You may end up with inedible, teeth-cracking, bitter-tasting grains. As well, the mechanical threshing process can damage the grain kernel and make it difficult to sprout, which limits its uses in the kitchen.
Many wheats, especially the modern varieties, are anonymous — instead of having a proper name like Turkey Red or White Sonora, they are simply described. For example, you can grow “soft white spring wheat” or“ hard red winter wheat.”
A notable difference between modern wheats and the older varieties is consistency. Because modern wheats have been bred to be harvested with the combine, they are usually a consistent shorter height. For example, afield of modern wheat plants may stand at an even two-foot height, while a field of Red Fife wheat has stalks from three to five feet tall. Consistent heights make it easier to harvest by hand too.
Landraces are wheats that, while they may fall into a general family such as “Red Fife wheat,” can still adapt to different growing conditions and develop some qualities distinct to the place where they’re grown (“terroir”).For example, after a few years of planting, Red Fife wheat grown on a West Coast farm may have a subtly different flavor or appearance than a Red Fife wheat grown on an East Coast farm, even if both crops originated from a single batch of seed harvested on a Saskatchewan farm.
Other Cereal Grains
1 bushel = 50–60 pounds
Just like rye bread, whole rye grains have a very distinctive flavor. Because rye is low in gluten, it is often used in combination with wheat flour when baking to make a lighter loaf. Rye can also be used to make whiskey. One versatile recipe to try is rye berry salad: the whole rye kernels are cooked like rice, then cooled and mixed with olives, sautéed onions and garlic, chopped vegetables, feta cheese and salad dressing.
Rye can be planted in the fall throughout most of North America, around the time of the first frost. It can survive dips in temperature to as low as –40 degrees Celsius, and can even survive under snow. Although its official per-acre yield is less than that of wheat, rye can produce crops on poorer soil than wheat and tolerates cold, drought and dampness better.
In addition to its many food uses, rye is often grown to improve the soil. It offers the usual benefits of preventing soil erosion and suppressing weeds, and rye is also the best grain for collecting excess nitrogen from the soil and storing it on its roots through the winter. As a result, whatever crop you plant next will benefit from having that nitrogen readily available in the soil. Rye is allelopathic — as it grows, the plants produce a natural biochemical that prevents the nearby growth of dandelions and Canada thistle.
Because it’s often planted in poor soils in order to improve them, reported rye yields vary significantly. Nonetheless, it’s reasonable to expect a harvest of 60 pounds per 1,100 square feet, the same as wheat. Rye stalks can grow up to eight feet tall (and yield a lot of straw), producing eight-inch-long seed heads with abundant kernels. Because of its height, there is the risk of the grain lodging in rainy or windy weather. Rye is very, very easy to hand-thresh.
1 bushel = 50 pounds
Barley doesn’t have enough gluten to make bread unless mixed with other flours, but it’s excellent when added to soups and can be used to make beer. “Pearl” or “pearled” barley has had the bran layers removed.
Barley seed heads have six or two rows of kernels, depending on the variety. Six-row varieties have more kernels per plant.
“Bearded” varieties may be deer-resistant once the stalks produce seed heads, since the long pointy awns itch and can stick in an animal’s throat. Beardless varieties are also available and more pleasant to thresh by hand. Barley excels with a long cool ripening season and moderate moisture but adapts well to hot, dry weather. It also tolerates salty and alkaline soils better than most grains. Spring-planted barley ripens faster than wheat. A harvest of 30 pounds of oats from 1,100 square feet is reasonable.
1 bushel = 30–35 pounds
Oats beat out all other cereal grains when it comes to high protein and fat content. They can be rolled, ground into flour, baked whole into cookies or muffins and even soaked to create oat “milk.”
For spring oats, the earlier you can plant the better. As Gene Logsdon says, “Whenever the mud dries enough in spring to be workable, plant your oats.” Aim to plant a week before the last spring frost. Oats like cool weather and don’t need lots of sun. They require more water than other cereal cropst o yield a good harvest, but have fewer insect enemies than corn or wheat.
Now that you’re all excited about oats, here’s the problem: most oats come with a very well-attached hull, and so are difficult to make edible. There are some clever hulling techniques out there, but your best bet is to plant a “hull-less” or “naked” oat variety. These varieties still have a hull, but it is much easier to remove. Before you plant your entire garden to oats, you may want to try out a few different “hull-less” varieties to make sure you can actually thresh and eat what you grow.
Whole oat grains can be fed to chickens, rabbits and pigs, who don’t mind eating hulls, and oat straw is the best straw for feeding livestock — it’s even nutritionally preferable to poor-quality hay (dry grass), according to John Seymour’s A Guide to Self-Sufficiency.
Read More: Check out Growing Wheat, Rye, and Other Grains Yourself for more from Uprisings.
Reprinted with permission from Uprisings: A Hands-On Guide to the Community Grain Revolution by Sarah Simpson and Heather McLeod and published by New Society Publishers, 2013. Buy this book from our store: Uprisings