Is There A Place For Wheat In Your Garden? Part 1

Spring 2010
Toki Oshima drawing
Toki Oshima drawing

Part I: Types of Wheat, Weed Control, Planting

By Will Bonsall

If you’ve been following world news in the past year or two, you’ve probably heard a lot of predictions of worldwide grain shortages in the near future. Fuel costs, bizarre weather events and financial crises are all seen as pointing to an impending famine of global proportions.

Whether or not such alarm is well founded, I’ve always considered it prudent to be able to produce my own grain right in my own backyard. It’s all very well to grow one’s own mesclun and salsa ingredients, but the basis for most of our diets, going back thousands of years, has been grain in some form. There may be more profit in zucchini and basil, but there is more security in wheat. In fact, I have never grown more than 50 percent of my total grain needs, but even that serves to keep my hand in, honing knowledge and skills that would allow me to expand that capacity if and when the need should arise. A fetish for self-reliance is not my only motivation however. Grains simply “fit” well into my garden scheme. They may dovetail with the other crops’ schedules. They can overlap seasons and in some cases occupy the same ground at the same time. Their soil needs mesh well: Most grains are grasses (monocots) that benefit from rotation with the (hopefully) well-cultivated vegetables (dicots), whereas the grain crop leaves behind lots of soil-building residue (straw and stubble) in proportion to the part eaten.

Wheat (especially awned varieties) even looks great in ornamental plantings: The “visual texture” of all those vertical straws with the nodding heads strikingly complements the other plant forms. And what’s the harm if you get a few loaves of bread out of those annual flower beds? How much area would you have to plant to grow enough wheat for a loaf of bread? Consider that roughly 10 square feet – about the size of the average kitchen table – will produce about a pound of wheat, which makes a pound of flour; and 1 cup of sifted flour weighs about 4 ounces; and a small loaf of bread can be made with 4 cups of flour. So that kitchen-table-size plot should grow enough for a loaf of bread.

Types of Wheat

So far, I’ve been using “grain” and “wheat” interchangeably. We can also grow our own rye, oats and barley in the garden (if we plant so-called “hull-less” varieties), but that’s a discussion for another time. For now let’s focus on wheat, which is, after all, the grain Americans eat far more than the others.

Let’s start by defining the types of wheat. Hard red wheat is for bread baking. The red is from carotene, the hard is from high levels of gluten, a protein that gives bread dough its elasticity and lets it rise nice and light. Soft white wheats are lower in gluten and higher in starch and are used mainly for pastries and crackers. To avoid confusion: A “hard white” flour has been gaining popularity (as “golden wheat”). This is a high-gluten whole wheat flour that merely lacks the carotene pigment. Some believe that bread made from golden wheat is inferior because it doesn’t look like white bread. On the other hand, white flour comes from either red or white wheat that has had the germ and bran milled out of it. On the labels of many ostensibly “health-food” products, it is listed as “wheat flour”; many buyers wrongly infer “whole wheat.” NOT.

A third type of wheat is called “durum” (Latin for “hard”) because its extra-high gluten content makes it harder than “hard red” wheat. Its gluten content is so high that durum is useless for bread baking but is used for couscous and pasta. I’ve grown durum varieties in Maine, but they really prefer warmer summers.

Both red and white wheats are further divided into spring and winter types. Spring wheats are planted in early spring and harvested in September; winter wheats are best sown in late August/early September, when they grow a little before going dormant for the winter. Come early spring, they’re johnny-on-the-spot to benefit from the cool moist soil conditions that young grasses prefer. Winter wheat ripens in midsummer, which is usually more convenient for me than autumn.

Good Weed Control a Must

For small scale grain growing to be anywhere near practical, you need good weed control. Weeds not only cut yields, they also interfere with harvesting and cleaning. Hand weeding is not very cost effective, so weeds should be controlled by soil and crop management. For example, if the soil lacks fertility, I am reluctant to spread compost just before seeding the grain. Even the best compost will contain some weed seed, especially lamb’s quarters. I prefer to apply compost well before sowing (the previous fall, for spring wheat), giving weed seeds time to sprout and get killed by shallow tillage before the crop even goes in. Better yet, I prefer to grow wheat after a short rotation of green manure (such as oats and field peas), which will help with both fertility and weed control.

Of course an excellent method of weed control is mulch, but how do you mulch a crop whose plants are so closely spaced? Not with hay or straw, perhaps, but for years I’ve been mulching my small grains with shredded leaves. Any kind of hardwood leaves will do, but I prefer maple. Raked when dry and crisp and fed through my chipper/shredder, they come out like fluffy confetti. For spring wheat, I store them in a huge rain-proof bin until needed. When the wheat is only a few inches high, I walk through it with a trash barrel full of leaf shreds under my arm and strew a blizzard of the confetti over the entire area. Any flakes that land directly on the plants will usually sift down around them, making a fluffy blanket of mulch everywhere. The first shower will settle the mulch into a tight, felt-like layer, which will repress weeds and retain moisture better than several inches of hay mulch.

This leaf mulch has an added benefit with winter wheat. In Maine, spring wheats are usually preferred, because our cold, open, early winters tend to freeze and thaw the ground, heaving wheat roots and impairing the crop. Aside from this problem, winter wheat has some advantages over spring wheat. Again it fits better into the calendar: It is sown and reaped when other crops are demanding less attention. Also its greatest growth period is during the season of ample moisture and lengthening days. Given the protection of a late fall leaf mulch, winter wheats are more productive in my garden.

Soil Preparation and Planting

If you do plant spring wheat, sow it as early as possible. Grasses are photoperiodic, meaning they make vegetative growth until the days begin to shorten (after June 22), then they begin to focus on making seed, or grain. (Yes, whole wheat berries are nothing more than grass seed.) Therefore, every day of pre-solstice growth adds to the yield.

Compounding this, wheat plants form “tillers,” much as strawberries do. These are side shoots from the original “spreen,” or crown, and these shoots send up several other stalks, each bearing a head of grain. The earlier the seedlings emerge, the more tillers, and thus the more grain, will form per plant. I intend to have my spring grains in the ground by the first week of May at the latest.

Although wheat likes good fertility, especially humus, excessive soil nitrogen tends to cause “lodging,” or falling over of the maturing grain in heavy wind or rain. Wood ashes can help prevent lodging, because they add potassium to soils, which strengthens stems – but wood ashes also raise soil pH, so be sure to test pH before applying them. A very small amount of sodium chloride salt may also help minimize lodging.

The simplest way to sow wheat is the most ancient way: broadcasting by hand. This is also the least effective way, since even with considerable skill, it creates an uneven density of plants. I do broadcast green manures by hand, simply sowing heavier to avoid bare spots and consequently getting more biomass. With food crops, however, this wastes seed – and broadcasting always leaves some thin spots, which are an invitation to weeds. (Something IS going to grow there).

A Cyclone seeder may be a big improvement, but I prefer the small, single row drills, or push seeders, such as Planet Jr. or Earthway. These are meant for sowing vegetables, so none of the feed-plates is quite right for wheat. The plate marked “beets/okra” is the proper hole size, but it would be better if there were more holes. I usually remedy this defect by making two passes per row, not such a big deal when you consider how quickly the whole thing goes.

The seeder makes the furrow, drops the seed and covers it all in one motion, so all I need to do is lay out the ends of the rows, which I do by putting marker stakes 8 inches apart across the ends of each block (40 feet or 80 feet for me). Stretching a string (with a peg at each end) between the marker stakes for the second row at each end of the block, I then push the seeder in a parallel row 8 inches away from the string (by eye), thus planting the first row. If I think I need a greater density, I just return on the same wheel track. I am shooting for a density of 1 seed every 8 or 9 square inches, so seeds are roughly 1 inch apart within the rows. Then I do the same on the other side of the string for the third row. Then, after moving the string to the fifth row, I plant the second row by eye between the wheel tracks for the first and third rows. In the same manner, I sow the fourth, sixth and then fifth rows. This saves a lot of running back and forth, especially if I’m doing this alone.

While planting, you are of course walking all over the ground. Although I generally try to step between the wheel marks, they are only 8 inches apart, so I often tread on newly sown rows. No big deal; in fact, on lighter soils some people like to drag some kind of heavy roller over the just-seeded patch, to level high spots and firm the seedbed. That would also help the leaf mulch stay where you want it.

Before the week is out, lots of tiny, bright green spears should be pushing up in their cute little rows. If your weed management has been effective, that’s ALL you should see. However, if newly sprung weeds look like they might become a problem, there will never be a better time to deal with them. I take a warren hoe (also called a beet- or onion-hoe), the kind that’s shaped like an arrowhead pointing down away from the ferrule, and I work my way down each row (or several rows at a time), chipping out the tiny weeds. Leave them there; they should die on the surface, just from being disturbed. Again, you will step on some young wheat, but remember this is grass, which, like some people, shows its greatest strength when downtrodden.

With good soil preparation and an early hoeing, weeds should be a negligible concern, and you can let everything go for a couple of weeks before mulching, as I described. After that, this crop should require little attention, and you can deal with your more demanding vegetables, casting an occasional glance at the grain crop to appreciate the changes it’s going through.

Part II of this article, covering harvesting, processing and propagating wheat, is available here.

About the author: Will Bonsall lives in Industry, Maine, where he directs Scatterseed Project, a seed saving enterprise. His extensive, bountiful and beautiful gardens are open for tours two days each summer. Dates will be listed in the June-August issue of The MOF&G.

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