Growing grain in your garden is great for both your soil and for you. Your soil gets the benefit of the roots left from the cover crop, the straw goes to the compost pile which ultimately gets returned to the soil, and you have seeds to grind for flour or to save for another planting. I grow both wheat and rye, but since I wrote about cutting rye early to lay down for mulch on 5/17/11, I’ll direct my comments today to wheat. The process I’ll write about is the same for both. Gene Logsdon is the first person I knew of talking about growing wheat back in the ‘70’s when he wrote about growing a “pancake patch”. His book, Small–Scale Grain Raising, was published in 1979 by Rodale Press. It promptly went out of print, which is why I was thrilled when the second edition was published in 2009 by Chelsea Green. Gene Logsdon’s writings had a huge effect on my evolution as a gardener in the 1970’s-80’s. I encourage all of you to read as many of his books as you can, both the new and the old, and visit his blog at http://thecontraryfarmer.wordpress.com/
I plant winter wheat in the fall, trying to have it in by mid-October. I broadcast it into a prepared seedbed and gently chop it in with a cultivator or rake. It could also be sown in furrows. Whenever I’ve tried transplanting it, the results were not as good, so I don’t transplant small grains. The time to harvest here in zone 7 is about the second week of June for wheat and the next week for rye. I cut it with the same Japanese-style sickle that I told you about in the post about the rye. Keeping all the grain heads going the same way, I put it in bundles, tying each with a wheat straw. My video, Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden, shows me doing that. The grain needs some more drying time before it is threshed. You could store it in a building, but make sure to protect it from birds and mice. I’ve gotten better at putting the bundles into shocks, so I do that and leave the shocks in the garden for about a week, then thresh. It’s okay if it gets rained on, and of course, the dew will fall each night. This weathering is all for the good and the changes in the grain make it better for your body to digest. I believe one of the reasons so many people have problems digesting wheat is because of how it is handled in our industrial food system. All the more reason to grow your own.
Until now, my favorite way to thresh wheat and rye has been with a plastic baseball bat. I lay an old sheet on the ground and put a piece of plywood on top, with the other end leaning against the picnic table. From a standing position, I hold the wheat, heads down, against the plywood and hit the seedheads with the bat. The grain falls down to the sheet. I gather the sheet and can pull off a lot of the larger chaff with my hand. Everything else gets poured into a container for winnowing. That way is shown in my cover crop video.
My newest method allows me to sit down on the job and use my feet. I use an old bread tray and insert a piece of 1/2 “ hardware cloth, but you could make a frame of 2×4’s with a 1/2′” hardware cloth bottom. I lean the tray against the picnic table bench as shown, sit in the chair in front of it, and use my feet to shuffle against the grain heads. The wheat seeds land all in one spot behind the threshing tray. You can see the bundles of wheat on one side of the chair and the threshed straw on the other. I wear clean shoes that I save for that job only. As before, I also used a sheet under everything so that I could gather it up and pour the grain and chaff into a container for winnowing. That frame with the hardware cloth will come in handy to hold vegetables for rinsing right in the garden. You can just spray them off and let them drain.
The easiest way to winnow (separate the grain from the chaff) is to pour it from one container to another in front of a fan, making sure the bottom container is a deep one so the grain doesn’t bounce out. Do that a couple times. Don’t worry if every bit of chaff doesn’t come out, because it will all come out in the wash.
I’ve never read of anyone washing their grain, but I do. I’m not a clean freak when it comes to food, it’s just a practical management technique for me. I put the grain in a large bowl and add water. Any remaining chaff, underweight seed, insects, etc. will float to the top. You might even find a bird dropping that you threshed out of the straw. It happens. Pour off what has gathered on top and fill again, giving the grain a stir to release more stuff. Once you are rid of what floats off, you may notice some grit in the bottom of your bowl. That is from dirt you’ve harvested with the grain. Pour it all through a strainer or colander that will keep the grain in and let that grit out. Having different sizes of sieves and colanders is good for using with many seed saving activities. Watch for them at yard sales and thrift stores and build your collection so you can accommodate the different sizes of seeds you will be saving in the future.
Now for the drying. I first pour the grain out onto towels to air dry, then I put it in large cake pans or wooden bowls and let it set out until I’m sure it’s good and dry, stirring it around when I think about it. When I’m sure it’s dry, I put it in glass jars. There are faster drying methods, but that’s how I do it. I put the jars of grain in the freezer for three days to ensure there will be no insect problems. Then I store the jars in the pantry.
Grains are an important part of GROW BIOINTENSIVE Sustainable Mini-farming. John Jeavons of Ecology Action has posted some GROW BIOINTENSIVE videos on his website at www.johnjeavons.info/video.html. In Session 6, part B, you can see my friend Dan harvesting and threshing rye. The Ecology Action Booklet 33: Grow Your Own Grains: Raising, Harvesting and Uses by Carol Cox is full of good information. You can find that in the Bountiful Gardens catalog. The best yield I’ve gotten for wheat in my garden is 4.4 lbs. per 100 sq. ft. and for rye it’s 6.3 lb. per 100 sq. ft. It’s usually less than that, but I know I can do better and I’m always looking at different varieties. No matter what you’re growing, it’s important to find the varieties that do well for your particular climate and soil.
Growing your own grain adds a new dimension to your garden. Even if you don’t want to grow it to eat, you could let some of your rye grow out to seed to save for your next cover crop. Growing even a small amount of wheat is especially fun with children. One year when my grandson was helping me thresh, we decided to read up on The Little Red Hen and were surprised to find several different versions of the same story at the library. We read them all. Make your garden an adventure and have some fun. Maybe you can use some of your wheat for pizza dough. I have some tomatoes and peppers in the garden. Now if I could just grow some cheese.