The following is an adapted excerpt from Grow Your Own Spices: Harvest homegrown ginger, turmeric, saffron, wasabi, vanilla, cardamom, and other incredible spices -- no matter where you live!
Sesame is often called a survival plant. It tolerates extreme heat, crowding, and poor soil. There are landraces adapted to monsoon conditions and yet other varieties adapted to drought conditions. Also, its fat and protein content plus utility as an oil, paste, and flour meal have also helped subsistence farmers since antiquity survive in harsh climates.
The natural dehiscence, or shattering of the seed pods, also helps ensure this plant’s self-propagation. As a result, wild and naturalized sesame can be found in many warm regions of the world.
Additionally, sesame plants also benefit the soil. They reduce harmful nematodes and fungal pathogens. Its pervasive root structure breaks up soil compaction. Sesame is also beautiful in pollinator and bird gardens. It grows 2-6 feet tall, with bell-shaped flowers that open for weeks.
Dried sesame seeds lack the aromatic, volatile oils associated with spices. That’s because an antioxidant called sesamol prevents its oils from volatizing. Sesame oil is even used to make margarine and ghee shelf stable. Yet, once the seeds are roasted or toasted, all that oil volatility activates revealing sesames’ spicy nature.
In other words, cooking causes the flavor to…open sesame. (You had to see that one coming!)
Grow Sesame at Home
Despite 5,000 years of cultivation, industrial sesame production only became possible in the mid 1900’s. A natural genetic mutation made some seed pods indehiscent (non-shattering). This allowed growers to breed pods that were easier to harvest mechanically.
Still, sesame harvests have remained largely manual worldwide. In fact, most sesame is still grown and harvested on small family farms. If you live in a warm climate or are willing to start plants indoors to get a head start on the growing season, you can grow this beautiful survival plant on your homestead as well.
Here’s what you need to know to have success with your producing your own sesame seeds.
Key Growing Conditions
- Warm season crop, 90 to 130 days to seed harvest
- Optimal seed starting 70 to 85ºFahrenheit; 2 to 5 days for seed germination
- Mature plant tolerance 55-105ºF, Protect from soil temperatures below 65ºF
- Full sun; Fertile, well-draining soil; pH 5.5 to 7.5
- Self-fertile, cross-pollination recommended
Those white sesame seeds you commonly find at the grocery store are hulled and color-sorted to ensure uniformity. At home, though, you don’t need to hull seeds. For example, the delicious black sesame seeds -- prized by gastronomes -- have edible hulls. There are also a range of other possible colors like pale pink, tan, and brown.
Additionally, some sesame grows in a narrow, non-branching fashion suited to rows. Others are branching and require more space. Some varieties need dense planting for production. Others need more space.
You may have to connect with some specialized seed savers to find the less ordinary or more climate specific sesame seeds to plant. But the more of us who seek a diversity of sesame seeds -- and support the seed saver working to maintain this amazing genetic diversity – the more broadly available these seeds will become.
Sesame requires temperatures above 70ºF for good growth. Some sesame varieties tolerate wet conditions while others only thrive in dry conditions. For best results, try to plant seeds sold by sellers who grow their sesame in conditions that are as similar to the conditions on your homestead as possible.
Incorporate 3 to 4 inches of compost into soil before planting. Add feather meal, bat guano, or other slow-release nitrogen sources for best yields.
Indoor Seed Starting
You can direct sow sesame in climates that have a long, hot growing season. For an early start, though, plant seeds indoors 6-8 weeks before ideal outdoor conditions being. Use an electric seed mat to warm soil. Sow seeds ¼-inch deep. Water daily until germination.
In fact, you can start your sesame with your tomatoes, give them similar care, and plant them outside at the same time. With sesame though, do not disturb the roots when transplanting. Treat them like you would other indoor started taprooted plants by planting them in paper pots or soil blocks for safe transplanting.
Plant sesame outdoors when daytime temperatures are mostly at or above 70ºF. In cool climates, use row covers for the first few weeks to allow plants to settle in and stay warmer until consistently warm weather sets in.
Water plants regularly when young. After they are over a foot tall, water when the top two inches of soil is dry. Keep watering consistently during flowering so that plants keep on producing as long as possible.
Since most homegrown sesame varieties are dehiscent and will naturally open to spread seeds once dry, you need to harvest the pods before they dry.
For small production, pick individual pods when they are mostly dry. Finish drying on a baking sheet or drying rack. Let the plant continue to grow. Like okra, pods will keep forming at the top of the plant.
For larger harvests, when 75% of the lower pods show signs of drying, cut the tops. Hang the heads to dry in a paper bag or dry on a tarp to minimize losses when the pods open. Once the heads are dry thresh the pods to release the seeds, sort, and winnow the chaff.
You can see an example of how I do this using a sheet and my bare feet for mustard seeds on my website. But the process is the same for sesame only you will dry the pods off the plants before threshing.
Expect 1 to 3 tablespoons of seeds per plant.
Using Sesame on the Homestead
I personally don’t have enough room to grow sesame as a survival plant such as for pressing oil or making tahini. But I’ve found that growing 12 plants per year provides me my annual supply of sesame seeds to sprinkle on our regular supply of homemade bagels, use as a garnish for Ramon and other Asian noodle dishes, and to toast as a crust for seared tuna or salmon on special occasions.
I’ve also found that growing sesame is a great way to rejuvenate any garden beds that have slowed in productivity. I can’t say exactly why it works. But my guess is that sesame is a good bioaccumulator of the excess phosphorous and potassium that tends to build up in gardens fertilized with livestock manure. Plus, all that biomass left after harvest is great for compost or as a treat for my goats.
Sesame is just one of the many of the amazing spices you can easily grow on your homestead. Ginger, turmeric, paprika, nigella, Sichuan pepper, peppercorns, vanilla, wasabi, and more can all be grown on homesteads everywhere if you are willing to use both your indoor and outdoor spaces to create ideal growing conditions for these fascinating plants.
Tasha Greer is an Epicurean Homesteader, duck lover, and author of Grow Your Own Spices. You can find her at Simplestead. You can also find a list of all her Mother Earth News posts and more on her Other Works page.
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