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Grains for the Garden

Don't have a quarter section to raise grain? Don't worry! Grains grown on a small-scale can yield excellent results.


Grains are fabulous garden crops. If you’re seriously thinking about growing more of your own food, nothing can be easier or more rewarding than grains. They grow like the grass of your lawn—only you allow them to mature instead of mowing them down.

Most people in Canada have forgotten or have never known that grains can be cooked as the whole foods they are. If you don’t mill them or pearl them or roll them, but just cook them, you get all of their goodness. We’re somewhat used to doing this with the rice that we import but not with our own grains. Wheat, barley, oats and spelt are good sources of fibre, niacin, thiamine, iron, phosphorous and calcium.

There is another virtually unknown way of eating whole grains. If you soak them overnight and then rinse them twice a day for two days, you get a raw food with a soft yet crunchy texture and a rich sweet taste. These sprouted berries of grain are bursting with energy and can be used in many delectable ways.

Nothing can compare with the very special treat of whole grain bread or muffins made from your own flour.

Grains grown for food make excellent compost and mulch material. After harvesting the seeds, the straw can be cut down and recycled either in other parts of the garden or on the same bed.

Grain varieties that are most appropriate for backyard and community growers are not easily obtained. Agribusiness has focused on varieties for processing rather than for eating whole. Diverse cultivars for direct consumption have been selected and maintained by cultures around the world for thousands of years.

In a world of rapidly diminishing grain reserves and rapidly increasing costs of processing and transporting food, it’s time we began to appreciate the food quality and the energy savings locally grown whole grains can provide.

Grains come with the huge bonus of their hardiness. In much of North America this means they can be sown in the fall and over wintered. Thus they can be cover crops and food crops simultaneously. They prevent erosion and condition the soil at a time when you normally wouldn’t think of gardening.

Soil Preference

Grains grow well in ordinary garden soil. Some varieties tend to get quite top heavy in rich soil and fall over (lodge) in wind or rain. This can be quite inefficient for machine combining but is not a big deal for a gardener harvesting by hand. Still, it is best to not add much high nitrogen fertilizer. The root growth of wheat, barley and oats make them excellent conditioners for both clay and sandy soil.

Planting Time

An April or May sowing usually means you’ll be harvesting when the weather is optimally dry in summer. Here on the west coast of B.C., I sometimes sow wheat, barley and oats anytime from late September through early November. They make it through very soggy times as well as nights that go down to 5°F (-15°C). Reports from growers across Canada indicate they can stand a lot colder weather than we have here. My fall-sown grains are usually ready to harvest only a few weeks earlier than my spring-sown ones but they often are more productive.


It’s a good idea for first time garden grain growers to seed in rows in prepared soil. This makes it easier to know what you’ve planted when other grasses start appearing. I walk my row seeder the desired length of row, setting the depth to a seed’s length below the surface. Alternately, you can plant your grains by hand, sowing them an inch or two apart. Although you needn’t worry about thinning, your wheat and barley will do much better if not sown too thickly. After multiplying your crop for a season and learning what to expect, you might opt for planting in wide rows or blocks the next time around.


Weeding isn’t as crucial as it is for other garden crops. Pull out other grasses to avoid confusion when harvesting and eliminate customary bothersome weeds. Grains are quite adept at colonizing areas once they get growing: they put out side shoots called tillers that suppress weed growth.

Watering is also less of a consideration than for other crops. Grains are normally grown at times when there is abundant soil moisture. They are then ready for harvesting by the time it gets hot and dry in late June and July.


Harvest when the seed heads have totally dried. Your fingernail won’t be able to dent a ripe grain kernel. An April sowing will produce a July harvest. My usual method of harvesting is to snap the seed head with thumb and forefinger or to snip the seed head with scissors into a bucket alongside.


All manner of small-scale threshing equipment has been invented in countries where small-scale grain growing is common. But until an inexpensive, efficient thresher appears on North American markets, I’m content to use my feet. I’ve made a wooden box about 2 feet by 3 feet by 1 foot high to the bottom of which I’ve screwed thin wooden slats for extra abrasion. I get into my threshing box with the harvested grain and remove the hulls by the simple process of rubbing the grains against the bottom of the box with my shoes. This same shuffle performed on a tarp on flat ground would serve almost as well. I then blow the chaff away with the blow nozzle attachment on my air compressor. Appropriate screens work almost as well. Any leftover chaff will rise to the water surface prior to cooking grain.


A 50-foot row can easily yield five pounds of grain and wide row plantings can yield much more. Grains multiply themselves very rapidly. A small packet can end up being enough to sow an acre after two years.


Whole grains need to be simmered for about an hour. Prior soaking speeds the process somewhat and renders the seeds more digestible. Cooked whole grains may take some getting used to for those accustomed to soft foods. A bowl of cooked wheat berries does not get eaten very quickly. You might find their chewiness to be a very positive attribute, providing more flavour and expanding meals to a less hurried affair. Learning to savour the longer eating time for cooked whole grains has been a good experience for me, who grew up gulping and gobbling my food.

Saving Your Own Seed

Grain cultivars don’t cross, so saving seed for planting is simply a matter of not eating all the harvest.

Dan Jason owns Salt Spring Seeds. www.saltspringseeds.com

1 cup whole wheat or barley

2 1/2 cups water

Bring grain and water to boil in an appropriate pot or saucepan, then simmer for 1 hour or until all liquid has been absorbed.

After removing the grain from the stove, let it stand, covered, for a few minutes, then add a pinch or two of herbal salt and fluff it with a wooden spoon or fork.

Cooked whole barley or wheat “berries” have a full taste and chewy texture. Their flavour is enhanced by parsley, chives, fennel, garlic, basil, anise, caraway, rosemary and thyme. They enrich soups, stews and salads.

Cracked whole grains are a pleasant alternative if you have a flourmill or food processor. Process the grains until there are no whole ones. Cooking cracked berries takes half the time of whole grain and creates a porridge-like consistency.

Select Grain Varieties

According to Dan Jason, a few grain varieties really stood out in the unusually wet summer of 2007.

Blue Tinge Ethiopian Wheat is a variety of wheat that matures much earlier than standard Canadian bread wheats. In 2007, I harvested it at 90 days. The seed heads have a beautiful blue tinge, as do the dark brown seeds. As a cooked whole grain, Blue Tinge Ethiopian Wheat is delicious.

Faust Barley: Commercial varieties of barley have a tight-fitting hull that is removed by “pearling”. For many years, I have been researching barley cultivars with looser hulls that can be easily removed by hand or foot rubbing. Faust is one of these “hulless” varieties. Most barleys also have long, hair like extensions sticking out of the seed heads that are called awns. These awns can make threshing a bit cumbersome because they latch on to everything. Faust Barley doesn’t have these awns so is a rare barley that is both hulless and awnless. Faust is a fine-flavoured barley that matures in about three months.

Marquis Wheat is a Canadian heritage wheat that was introduced just over 100 years ago. A cross of Red Fife and Dark Red Calcutta, I have found it to be much hardier and earlier than Red Fife. It was the number one wheat on the Prairies for many decades.