It’s coming up on planting time, and while I enjoy a good home-grown tomato or cucumber as much as anyone, I’d like to suggest something different to grow this year in the backyard: wheat.
Growing your own wheat—and other field crops—won’t likely save you money or be tastier than what you can get at the store, but it will be educational, especially if you have young kids. Children raised in cities and suburbs typically have no hands-on understanding of where their bread, muffin, cereal—even their oat milk—comes from, unless we show them.
I speak from experience.
Years ago, when my daughters were little—8 and 5 years old—I realized they had no idea where their food comes from. I wasn’t thinking vegetables; I was thinking bread, the staff of life. So, we ripped up half the lawn in our backyard and planted wheat.
We lived in the city then, on San Gabriel Drive near Cobbs Hill. We had no farm background and no knowledge of agriculture. But with one good book and advice from Cooperative Extension, we figured out how to buy seeds, prepare the ground, plant the wheat, keep the birds away, and then harvest, dry, and thresh the wheat. As needed, we improvised: threshing involved a whiffle ball bat, a lawn chair, and a plastic wading pool.
We named our tiny, 30-by-15-foot backyard farm “San Gabriel Acres.” We had farm hats made.
And then, with a tabletop grinder, we made flour. With their mom’s helpful coaching, the kids turned the handle to see how the grinder crushed the wheat.
Then they baked muffins.
And ate them.
In later years, we grew other field crops too: buckwheat, oats, soybeans, alfalfa, quinoa, broomcorn, amaranth, millet, and flax. One year, we even grew cotton.
That was all back in the early 1990s—mostly pre-internet. Today, there’s information and advice available online for those who want to try growing crops in the backyard.
Growing wheat also gave me a greater appreciation for our human ancestors. When you grow wheat, you see there’s nothing obvious that says the seeds inside the grain head are edible, let alone something you can cook with. You’ve got to dry it, thresh it, winnow it, grind it, and only then combine it with water and yeast and bake it—all before you can eat it as bread. Who figured that out over how many thousands of years? It’s amazing to consider.
In an online post, “A Gentle Plea for Field Crops in the Garden,” entomologist and gardener Aurora Toennisson echoes this historical reason for growing your own grains. “For much of recorded history,” she writes, “growing grain and fiber crops was what the majority of people spent the majority of their time doing. In fact, recorded history is arguably the direct result of the domestication of these plants. By growing them yourself, you will be quite literally be grounding yourself in a part of this history.”
“All we are saying,” she quips on her website, “is give wheat a chance.”
Below, I offer tips on the major steps needed to grow backyard wheat. Two excellent books that will help you grow not only wheat, but other crops too are: “Homegrown Whole Grains” by Sara Pitzer (Storey Publishing 2009) and the book we relied on when we started our backyard farm: “Small-Scale Grain Raising” by Gene Logsdon (Chelsea Green Publishing, second edition, 2009).
Finding seeds: For harvesting in late summer, buy seeds of “spring wheat” (as opposed to “winter wheat”) and choose “hard red” varieties. Aim for about half a pound of seed per 100 square feet of garden. Two good sources for seeds: Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Seeds of Change.
Location and soil: Wheat likes full sun and well-drained soil with balanced nutrients, meaning equal parts of nitrogen and phosphates, and low acidity. Before planting, you can test your soil for nutrients (and also pesticide residues) by sending a small sample to Cornell Cooperative Extension of Monroe County. There are small fees depending on how many tests you request.
Preparing the ground: If the area where you’ll plant is currently a lawn, you’ll first have to remove the grass and most of its roots. You can do this with a shovel or spade, but it can be laborious, especially for all but the tiniest plots. I had good results using a rototiller, which can be rented by the day from garden supply stores. One or two passes with the tiller should help remove grass and roots, then follow with a good raking to level the surface.
Planting: When the threat of frost is over—in Rochester, I use May 15 as a rule of thumb—it’s time to plant. There’s no need to plant in rows; instead, you can just broadcast the seeds. That means grabbing a handful of seeds and swinging your hand in wide arcs over the field, releasing seeds as you do. Rake gently to cover most of the seeds but don’t worry if all seeds are not covered; seeds on top of the ground may grow anyway if it rains or you water soon after planting.
Watering: A quarter inch per week either by rain or irrigation should be enough. Avoid overwatering.
Pest control: I don’t usually think of birds as pests, but they will eat a lot of your wheat seeds during the first couple of weeks unless you keep them away. In the absence of an actual scarecrow, I used a couple of Bird-X Scare Eye Bird Repellent Balloons—bright yellow balloons with giant eyeball images. I supplemented these with a couple of tin plates tied to a stick; in a breeze, the plates sway and make a noise when they hit the stick.
One insect pest to watch for is the cut worm, a term for larvae of moths and caterpillars. In the dark, they come out to feed on young plants, chewing on stems and cutting off seedlings at ground level. When I suspected cutworms, I’d go out at night with a flashlight to inspect for them, but I don’t recall finding many and it didn’t amount to a problem. But if they are a problem for you, there are pesticides and natural predators to use in response.
Harvesting: In late summer, when the stalks and grain heads become golden brown and the heavy heads start to tip downward, it’s time to harvest your “amber waves of grain.” To test for ripeness, pick off a few grains and taste them: If soft and doughy, they’re not quite ready; if firm and crunchy, it’s harvest time. Don’t wait too long or the birds, instead of you, will eat the wheat.
If your farm is super tiny, you can cut the stalks with a garden shears, but if it’s a bigger plot, I recommend a scythe (available at garden stores). Learn to scythe by doing: Start with the blade slightly behind you, swing it in a long, easy arc to the other side of your body with the blade cutting the wheat stalks about 3 to 4 inches above the ground. You’ll develop a rhythm as you swing the scythe back and forth.
Collect the cut plants into bundles (sheaves) about 8 to 12 inches around, a size you can hold comfortably. Tie the sheave around the middle using twine. (I used kite string; it worked fine.)
Drying the grain: You’ll need a dry, well-ventilated, and safe place to store your grain for a week to 10 days while it finishes ripening and dries. The storage place, in addition to being protected from rain, should also be safe from hungry animals, such as squirrels. A high shelf in a well-aired garage might work. I used the upper deck of our backyard climbing toy. It was covered with an awning to keep out the rain and worked just fine.
Threshing: Once the wheat has ripened and dried, it’s time to thresh the grain. Threshing means knocking the grain out of the wheat heads. In the absence of agricultural equipment, backyard farmers have found creative ways to thresh. To do this, I was inspired by advice from Gene Logsdon, author of “Small-Scale Grain Raising.” He wrote: “Lay out a large clean cloth (an old bedsheet is fine) on a hard surface, such as a sidewalk or patio or wood floor. Lay a bundle of wheat on the sheet and whack the daylights out of it with an old broom handle, plastic toy bat or other appropriate club.”
In a slight variation, I laid the dried wheat stalks on the plastic straps of the seat of a lawn chair and stood the lawn chair up in our kids’ plastic wading pool. As I “whacked the daylights” out of the wheat stalks with a whiffle ball bat, the motion of the bat against the plastic straps of the lawn chair helped dislodge the seeds from the grain heads, and then the seeds fell into the wading pool. It worked well.
Winnowing: You’ve heard about “separating the wheat from the chaff?” Well, now’s the time to do it. “Chaff” are bits of the seed hull, stem, or leaves of the plant that cling to the seed. You don’t want to mix too much of that in with the wheat flour you’re going to make, so you need to separate it out from the seeds.
Here’s an easy way to do it: Put all your wheat seeds into a bucket and then, from a height of about three or four feet, pour the contents into a second bucket. (I poured it into the plastic wading pool instead). If there’s a good breeze, the wind will blow away much of the lightweight chaff. If not, have a helper hold a fan or hair dryer nearby to create a breeze. Repeat several times to get the grain clean of chaff. But if some chaff remains, not a problem; it will all grind up to flour.
Grinding: This is the fun part. Find yourself a grain mill—both electric and hand-cranked varieties are available. If you’ll be needing only 2 to 3 cups of flour at a time, and especially if kids will be helping, I’d definitely choose a hand-cranked grinder for a first-rate, hands-on education. When we did it, our kids helped turn the handle to see how the grinder crushed the wheat. And no need to grind the whole quantity of grain at once; you can grind only as much as needed for immediate baking.
Baking: With your homegrown, fresh wheat flour, you can make breads, biscuits, rolls, muffins, pasta, pizza, breakfast cereals, and side dishes. We made muffins. My kids’ mom, Marie Lovenheim, a nutritionist, did all the grain grinding, cooking, and baking with our daughters (and later, with their younger brother, Ben). I’m not much of a cook or baker, so I’ll recommend the recipes and baking advice in author Sara Pitzer’s book, “Homegrown Whole Grains.” Bon appetit!
I hope your experience of growing wheat and other grains turns out to be as rewarding as ours was when the kids were little. I asked one daughter what she remembers from that early experience. “It helped me better appreciate where our food comes from, and the amount of work and time that goes into farming. The reward of patience led to some of the best-tasting muffins and pancakes I can recall.”
Peter Lovenheim, journalist and author of “In the Neighborhood” and “The Attachment Effect” is Washington correspondent for the Rochester Beacon. He can be reached at [email protected]. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].