A few years ago, I dubbed myself the #CrazyGrainLady. Though I had very little experience growing traditional agricultural crops, I was fascinated by the idea of incorporating grains into my suburban foodscape. Now, a few seasons later my novel approach has turned into a year-round obsession. In my new book, Gardening with Grains, you can learn everything you need to know to grow grains.
So, just what makes a plant a grain versus a fruit or vegetable?
The easiest way to explain is, a grain is actually a fruit harvested from plants in the grass family, Poaceae. There are two main types of grains: cereals, like wheat and corn, and legumes such as peanuts or soybeans. The main advantage grains offer as a nutritional source is their durability and long shelf life. Compared to starchy foods and tubers such as potatoes, grains are better suited for industrial agriculture because they can be mechanically planted and harvested. They can be stored for long periods of time in large quantities and shipped across the globe without spoiling. Grains can also be pressed into oil and milled into flour. Global commodity markets exist for all grains but not for tubers, vegetables, and fruits. The bottom line is grains are the most important staple food in the world.
Grains are a food staple in every culture on earth.
This means they are eaten frequently, often multiple times a day. Did you know that grains provide 48% of human caloric intake, or “food energy”? Rice, corn, and wheat are the most common staple foods, and all can be grown in your sunny home landscape!
Excellent source of carbohydrates and vitamins
One of the reasons grains are so important is because they are a valuable source of carbohydrates and vitamins. When paired with a protein-rich legume, you can create a very healthy diet. Some examples include corn and beans, rice and tofu and my favorite childhood meal, wheat bread, and peanut butter.
Grow in one season
Like many of our favorite garden plants, grains are annuals, meaning they have one growing season per year, yielding one crop. The term annual indicates that a plant will go through every life stage in one season: growth, maturity, seed set, and death. In the case of grains, unlike fruiting crops like tomatoes and peppers, you harvest after the plant dies.
Easy growing condition
Grains like to be grown in full sun, with moist, well-drained soil that has a neutral pH. Basically, I just described the ideal condition for almost every single garden plant. Of course, they are well adapted to adverse conditions, but the advantage of growing them in your home landscape is that you can provide the cultural conditions to maximize their growth. Trust me compared to a petunia or tomato, grains are the easiest plant in the world to cultivate!
Grains can grow in almost any climate
Timing is the biggest challenge to overcome when growing a plant, you have no experience with. The good news is grains can grow in almost every climate! Some grains prefer cool weather others prefer hot, tropical regions. That is why I have essentially split the 6 grains featured in this book in two categories: cool season/short-day crops and warm-season/long day crops.
Since I live in a subtropical climate (USDA Hardiness Zone 7) with 4 distinct seasons and mild winters I can cultivate grains 12 months of the year. In northern regions, the growing season is more condensed and planting dates vary from early spring through mid-fall. As is the case with all plants, it is best to do some research on your specific growing area. I try to pay attention to what the farmers around me are doing. They earn their livings from successfully cultivating crops, so they know when to plant and harvest.
Cold weather grains
Let’s start by discussing the grains that are tolerant of cold, wet climates, which often coincide with winter when the days are short. This category includes Barley, Oats and Wheat, all winter crops in my North Carolina foodscape. They prefer to grow in cool soil and air temperatures. They ripen as the days turn hot and long. In the Northern US and Canada, these are frequently sown in very early spring and can grow through the duration of summer with a fall harvest. In contrast, some varieties of these plants are seeded in the fall. They germinate but remain mostly dormant through winter and ultimately harvested in late spring. Every region is different, which is why consulting a local authority is the very best advice I can offer.
Warm weather grains
Warm-season grains, such as Corn, Rice and Sorghum prefer hotter soil and air temperatures. In North America that is the condition of the long days of summer. In tropical regions, however, these plants can thrive year-round if adequate water is available. Most importantly, warm-season crops need a soil temperature above 55F for seed germination and root development. These plants are frost-sensitive and will suffer from temperatures below 40F and will die when it drops below 32F. In my North Carolina garden, I plant these varieties in May-June and harvest in early-mid fall.
As landscape elements, grains are well suited to be incorporated with other plants, both edibles, and ornamentals. I love pairing my cool-season grains with flowering annuals such as larkspur, poppies, nigella, bachelor buttons, and snapdragons. Warm-season combinations include cosmos, marigolds, sesame, sunflowers, and zinnias. Truly the sky is the limit when it comes to pairing your grains with other garden specimens. Have no fear I will go into greater detail in the following chapters to help clarify when you should plant and the best companions to pair together.
Grains = Less Work
Low maintenance is one of the biggest selling features for me, as I find myself traveling more and more and have less time in my garden. Grains require very little effort, including fertility, making them a great option for gardeners looking for less work.
Healthy soil results in happy plants
Soil health is always an important consideration. Grains produce a lot of biomass which can be mowed back into place as a “green mulch”. This practice, which is similar to cover cropping, offers a quick and easy solution for computed ground, hardpan clay and even dry, sandy soil by adding essential organic matter into the ground layer. Decomposition is really the key to feeding the soil’s biology, and that will, in turn, feed your plants. If I have said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: healthy soil results in happy plants, less disease, and insect pressure and higher yields for you and your loved ones to enjoy.
Grains make ideal cover crops
To that end, cereal grains are ideal cover crops because their deep roots literally scavenge for nutrients. Essentially as the grain develops the roots seek out nutrients deep in the earth and draw them back to the surface through the stems and leaves. Barley, oats and wheat are particularly useful scavengers providing natural fertility for the next season.