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 the anatomy of grain, so that you can get a good start on planning your grain garden.
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Before You Grow
The first step in growing grains is to get up close and personal with the grain plant itself.
Wheat, rye and other grains are all members of the grass family. Thousands of years ago, our ancestors chose the grass plants with the largest seeds and, instead of eating these seeds, planted them to grow the next season’s crop. After many, many seasons, this selective breeding process resulted in the grain plants we see today.
A grain seed, or kernel, is made up of the bran layers (15 percent of the seed but 80 percent of its nutrients), the germ (5 percent of the seed)and the endosperm, which contains most of the seed’s carbohydrates and proteins. The smallest part of the kernel, the germ, contains most of the antioxidants, vitamin E and essential oils. Any chemical inputs used to grow the grain, such as herbicides and pesticides, become concentrated in the germ.
If a grain seed is exposed to the right amount of moisture and warmth, the seed germinates. The plant’s embryo (the germ) feeds off the nutrients stored in the rest of the seed (the endosperm) and starts to grow, first sending a little root through the protective bran layers.
Surrounding the grain kernel is a thin layer called the hull, or husk. Just as nuts have protective inedible shells, grain seeds have hulls. Like a nut’s shell, the hull must be removed to make the seed kernel palatable and digestible for humans.
Some grains, such as rye and most wheats, can be easily separated from their hull. This separation process is called “threshing,” and it can be as simple as beating the grains with a baseball bat. Other grains, including emmer and spelt, require mechanical processing to remove the hull.
Some grain plants have “awns” or “beards,” the barbed, pointy spears that grow from the seed head. These awns deter deer and other grain-loving animals from eating the seeds, and can make it more challenging for humans to handle the grains when harvesting. The barbed awns can prick and work their way into your skin, so caution (and a good pair of gloves)is recommended when handling bearded grains.
Each seed head grows on a stalk. When these stalks are dried they become straw, which is useful for feeding livestock, thatching a roof, mulching your garden or using as warm bedding for animals. Straw is hollow inside, which allows it to hold in heat.
Planning A Grain Garden
There are tens of thousands of varieties of wheat alone, each with its own subtle flavor, soil and climate preferences, and pros and cons depending on your particular needs in the garden or kitchen. You could grow grains every season for the rest of your life and never have to plant the same variety twice.
One small seed of grain can produce hundreds of seeds in a single season, which means that you can start with a mere tablespoon of seeds and grow that tablespoon out to a pound, then tons, over a number of years. In this way, heritage varieties such as Red Fife wheat have been brought back from near extinction into mainstream production. This ability to exponentially grow out grain seed makes it possible to start with a few packets of purchased seeds and be able to grow enough grain to feed yourself within a few seasons.
Growing grain and saving some for next year’s seed allows you to encourage certain traits, as humans have done for centuries. You can choose which plants to save the seed from each year, and thereby encourage the traits you want (e.g., stalk height, disease resistance, kernel size). Selective seed saving can ultimately develop that original variety into one that reliably meets your particular needs. Some grains, notably those known as landraces, adapt to different growing conditions easily and, over the seasons, can be influenced by the soil, local climate and even your personal growing practices to develop a distinctive flavor. This flavor is called “terroir,” a term more commonly used for grapes or wine.
When growing grains on a small scale for food, the most important factor is whether the grain kernel can be easily removed from its hull or not. Some hulls can be very difficult to remove without machinery. Most wheats, barley and rye kernels are easily separated from their hulls, but spelt, buckwheat and emmer are impossible to hull without machinery or time-consuming hand processing. So-called hull-less or naked varieties of oats are available, but are still not always easy to process.
You will also want to think about what grains you use in your kitchen. If you often buy wheat flour, quinoa and whole grain rye at the grocery store, for example, it makes sense to grow these grains because you’re more likely to eat them.
For the Love of Your Soil
Grains aren’t just grown for food. All grains help your soil while they’re growing, too.
A grain plant’s roots can go deep into the soil, collecting excess nutrients (most notably nitrogen) and storing them for the next crop to use.
Roots also break up the soil when they grow, improving the soil structure and helping water find its way deeper into the soil through cracks.
As grains grow they send out “tillers” or side-shoots that grow into separate plants. In this way, a single plant can quickly occupy a square foot or so of growing space and make it harder for weeds and other plants to grow.
The tall grain stalks also block out sunlight, shading any weeds or competitor plants.
Finally, grain stalks soften the impact of rain and wind, while their strong roots hold on to the soil. In both these ways, grains prevent erosion and the loss of nutrients from your soil.
Read more: Check out Know the Different Types of Grain to learn 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.