Grains make a great addition to the home garden. Although it is difficult to grow enough grains in a small plot to achieve total food sufficiency, dedicating 1000 square feet of garden space to grain production can yield 50-60 pounds of whole grains.
Grains must be reaped, threshed and winnowed before they can be processed into flour, meal or flakes. Large scale operations have heavy equipment for fast and efficient grain processing. Small scale equipment is available for minor operations and home growers (see resources), but most of us use old-fashioned hand methods to process grain.
When to plant grains
Whether you plant in fall or spring depends on the grain you wish to grow. Here in hardiness zone 6, we plant fall grains from late summer to mid-fall, allowing enough time for grains to sprout before cold weather sets in. Grains go dormant in winter, and emerge in spring. Fall planted grains are harvested mid-summer.
Grains to plant in fall: winter wheats, rye, spelt
Less hardy, short season grains are planted in spring and harvested late summer to mid-fall.
Grains to plant in early spring: spring wheats, millet, barley, oats
Grains to plant in late spring/summer: buckwheat, sorghum, quinoa, amaranth
*I recommend hulless grain varieties for the home garden.
Cover crops and intercropping
Cover crops revitalize soil health and improve tilth. Some grains make good cover crops. Rye is my favorite cover crop to overwinter. Overwintered cover crops are typically tilled into the soil in spring. I leave a small portion of rye to grow to full maturity and harvest for grain in mid-summer.
Intercropping grain between rows of vegetables benefits gardeners in 2 ways: as a cover crop and as a grain crop to harvest at summers end. Short season grains like barley work best for intercropping. I plant barley in early spring alongside veges, and harvest for grain late summer. I till plant residue into the soil the following spring.
How to harvest and process grains
Harvesting and processing grains by hand is a tedious process, but a good learning experience that will deepen your appreciation for the grain farmers who provide your daily bread.
- Use a hand scythe or other cutting tool to cut stems close to the ground.
- Tie in sheaves (bundles).
- Hand sheaves upside-down or prop upright in a well-ventilated area. It’s a good idea to place a sheet underneath to catch fallen seed.
- Separate grain from stem. You can create your own threshing system by spreading dried stems over a sheet, covering with another sheet, then stomping and beating grains loose. Another method to dislodge grains is filling a pillowcase and smacking it with a bat like a piñata, or beating it against a wall.
Plants with larger seeds like popping sorghum and quinoa are easily removed by hand.
- Remove the hull from hulled varieties. The easiest way to remove the hull is a dehuller machine. Home growers who don’t have or wish to purchase milling equipment can run toasted grains through a hand grinder on the largest setting to crack hulls.
- Toss to remove chaff (paper-like coating), hulls and/or debris from grain. A plastic strainer in front of a box fan worked for me. I sift the strainer, gently working hulls to the top, then hand sort.
- Store in airtight containers until use.
How to use homegrown grains
Home grown grains taste delicious in everyday dishes. Use them in baked goods and home brewing projects.
- Mill grains into flour using a coffee grinder, food processor, or specialty grain mill.
- Roll oats by steaming groats and then rolling flat. Dry completely.
- To make your own instant grains: soak at least 3 hours and then drain. Dry in a food dehydrator at 100 degrees Fahrenheit. This reduces cook time significantly.
- To finely flake oats without a flaker, run through food processor shredder.
- Crack grains by chopping in a food processor.
- Sprout grains by soaking overnight, draining, then rinsing and draining 2x daily until sprouts emerge. Sprouted grains are highly nutritious and easy to digest.
- Ferment grains by soaking in room temperature water with an acidic medium such as whey or vinegar for 2-3 days. Drain and rinse.
- Toast grains in the oven at 200 degrees Fahrenheit to enhance color and flavor, and prolong shelf life.
Your local feed store is the best local source for traditional grains: rye, wheats, oats, buckwheat, millet, and barley.
Small scale grain processing equipment
- Pleasant Hill Grain
- Small-Scale Grain Raising by Gene Logsdon is an informative and entertaining guide book for beginning grain growers.
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