Growing Gluten-Free Grains in the Garden

Reader Contribution by Wendy Gregory
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 Linda in her home grain garden.

Linda Simon, RD, was a retired personal chef, registered dietitian, and recipe developer. She passed away in 2012 and is remembered for her love of food, cooking and gardening.

At a recent organic and local food conference, I learned about small grain growing and the idea of trying to grow grains in my garden had me searching for advice on the web. I discovered fellow gluten-free blogger, Linda Simon had not only tried it, she’d shared her experience and photos. I asked Linda to join me here to give other gluten-free gardeners advice on what worked from planting, to harvesting, to eating her homegrown, gluten-free grains.

Do you know anyone
else who has grown any gluten free grains in their backyard garden? No? Neither
did we. That didn’t stop us. In
2009 we planted amaranth, sorghum, teff, and flax. There were
some successes and some we will not repeat.

Even though we have
not planted most of these again, we enjoyed trying them. We knew our grains were
organic and they were not contaminated with wheat. We are in Zone 5, on
the Rock Prairie in Wisconsin. This is some of the most fertile land on the planet.
Our garden has deep, rich, dark soil. My husband composts and improves it even
more. Most things grow so well it seems we often have to stand back, to simply
get out of the way of the rapidly growing plants.

Our usual summer high
temperatures are 75 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. But 2009 was one of the coolest summers ever.
And July was the coldest ever recorded here, with an average temperature of
only 65.7 degrees. 2009 was also the wettest. We sang “Rain, Rain, Go Away,” spring, summer, and fall. Some storms dumped 2 to 4 inches of rain in a day. Some
months had more than 6 total inches of rain.

But the grains grew
anyway, and we delighted in watching them.

Amaranth

Amaranth is the clear
winner here. A small packet of mixed amaranth seeds produced nearly 2 pounds of
seeds, harvested over 2 months. We cook the seeds for hot breakfast cereal. And pop them for a tiny version of popcorn.

Early in the season,
we also harvest the leaves and stems. The leaves are a sturdier version of spinach. Steamed
tender young stems taste just like asparagus! By July, the leaves and stems are
too tough to eat.

Amaranth is also
worthy of planting in the flower garden. Ours grew 5 to 8 feet tall, with striking
flowers of gold, burgundy, and green. The mixed seeds were tan and black
colored. You can purchase single types of amaranth grain if you don’t want black
seeds.

We saved some of our
amaranth seeds and moved them to a large area on the south side of the house in
2010. It is hot, dry, and gravelly there. And the amaranth took off again. This
stuff is very easy to grow. We cut and dried some whole seed heads to put out
for the birds last winter. They were not interested. And I fear this seeded new
areas that I will curse as I pull out what could be a self seeding invasive
plant.

 
 

Flax

I don’t really
consider flax a gluten free grain. It turned out to be the same as flax I had
grown in the flower garden. It has airy leaves, with pretty little sky blue
flowers. The thought of harvesting it hadn’t occurred to me before.

My husband ordered “culinary
flax” from Bountiful Gardens, where it was listed with grains. And
I often add ground flax seed in gluten free baking, so he thinks of it as a
gluten free grain.

We didn’t get much of
a harvest, only 3 ounces. A ground squirrel was well fed though: He ate more than
we did. It is far easier to buy flax seed in the store. And so we do.

 
 

White-Seeded Popping
Sorghum

We love sorghum, both
flour and syrup. The plant looks just like corn stalks with an exploded ear of
corn at the top. In our cold wet
spring, it germinated very poorly. But once it took hold, it was fun to watch.
We harvested over 4 pounds of seeds.

 
 

We cooked the seeds
in a slow cooker. It tastes and smells just like corn. The seeds are smaller,
and creamy white. It makes a pleasant grain side dish, like rice or quinoa.

We tried popping the
sorghum seeds, without success, and despite the name. We tried several times,
and tried several methods. No pops. They did get toasty
tasty though. This could be a crunchy addition to trail mix.

I didn’t try milling
the seeds into flour. It might work if you have a super duper blender, or a
grain mill. I only have a KitchenAid blender and didn’t think it was up to the
task. And cooking syrup out
of the stalks requires special equipment that we don’t have.

So we haven’t grown
these again. We buy sorghum flour and syrup in the store. We can live without the seeds. We ended up giving
most of our sorghum seed crop to the squirrels, who loved it.

 
 

Teff

The teff harvest was
sad. The teff grew well enough. It is short, only 3 feet tall. The leaves are
soft and arching. But the seeds are so
tiny I can’t imagine how they are harvested. They just disappear. There are
seeds in this picture. Really, there are. They are hard to see even up close.

We threshed the teff
and got a whopping 1.2 ounces (1/4 cup) seed. And it is nearly impossible to
clean the chaff away. If you blow on it, it goes, and so does the seed. We buy teff seeds and
flour in the store, too.

I’ve been reading Homegrown Whole Grains and Small-Scale Grain Raising while I make my gardens plans.

Wendy Gregoryspent her career working with children as a culinary and gardening teacher in an arts-based summer camp for at-risk children in Nelsonville, Ohio, and as the director of a children’s museum in Lancaster, Ohio. She is a freelance writer exploring the ways seniors can contribute, grow, and reinvent themselves in a new chapter of life. Read all of Wendy’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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