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All About Grains

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 North America 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 rye 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.

And 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 seedheads, the oat, wheat, barley or rye straw can be cut down and be recycled either in other parts of the garden or on the same bed.

Grain varieties that are most appropriate for backyard growers are not easily obtained. As has been the case with soybeans, agribusiness has focussed on varieties for processing rather than for eating whole. But 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, rapidly increasing population and rapidly increasing costs of processing and transporting food, it's high time we began to appreciate not only the food quality homegrown whole grains provide but the energy savings as well.

Grains come with the huge bonus of their hardiness. In much of North America this means they can be sown in the fall and overwintered. 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 growing anything.

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, I usually sow my grains in my least fertile ground. The root growth of wheat, barley, oats and rye make them excellent conditioners for both clay and sandy soil.

Varieties. Seeds of all cultivars are coated by hulls but some have a thin, easy-to-remove hull and so have been given a "hulless" designation. Hulless grains are easily cleaned by hand or foot rubbing. Most commercial cultivars of oats and barley have tight hard hulls that need to be threshed by machines. Varieties of spelt as well as some of the old wheats also require mechanical processing but most modern day wheats have loose-fitting hulls. Rye has a very easy-to-remove hull.

Planting Time. Here on the west coast of B.C., I sow some of my grains 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 customers across Canada indicate they can stand a lot colder weather than we have here. But I have yet to compile enough information to know specific limitations for specific varieties. If not fall planted, I recommend planting them as soon as the ground can be worked in the spring. Grains appreciate an extended cooler season for growing and don't produce well in spring planting where summer follows right on the heels of winter. My fall-sown grains outyield my spring-sown ones, even though they are ready to harvest only a couple of weeks earlier.

Sowing. I think it 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 a few finger widths apart. You needn't worry about thinning. 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.

Maintenance. Weeding isn't as crucial as it is for other garden crops. You'll probably want to pull out other grasses to avoid confusion when harvesting and I certainly wouldn't say to stop eliminating customary bothersome weeds. But grains are quite adept at colonizing areas once they get growing.

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.

Harvesting. Harvest when the seedheads have totally dried. Your fingernail won't be able to dent a ripe grain kernel. With an early April sowing, my barleys are usually ready by late June or early July and my oat,wheat and rye crops a few weeks later. My preferred method of harvesting is to snip the seedhead with scissors into a bucket alongside.

Threshing. 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 (which will probably be soon), 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 in a Rubbermaid tub or 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. A hair dryer, fan or the wind work also as do appropriate screens. Any leftover chaff will also rise to the water surface prior to cooking grain.

Yields. A 50-foot row can easily yield ten 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.

Cooking. Whole grains take about one hour’s simmering to be cooked. Prior soaking speeds the process somewhat and renders the seeds more digestible for people who so desire. Even with longer cooking, their texture will seem quite chewy to people used to soft rice, pearled barley or rolled oats. A bowl of cooked wheat berries does not get eaten very quickly. Cooked whole grains may take some getting used to for those accustomed to soft foods. I find their chewiness 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!

Outlook. I think small-scale grain growing is going to really catch on as gardeners realize how easy it is to grow such high quality food. Harvesting and threshing the seed are somewhat labour intensive but the rest takes almost no time at all. We grow grains on a huge scale in North America but have somehow missed the possibiliites inherent in growing them in gardens and eating them as whole foods. After only a few years' research I've already discovered a wonderful diversity of colours, tastes and textures in grains.


Basic Stove-Top Whole Grain

1 cup         whole wheat, barley, oats or rye
                           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 my grain from the stove, I usually let it stand, covered, for a few minutes, then add a titch of salt and fluff it with a wooden spoon or fork.

Cooked whole oat, rye, barley or wheat “berries” are a satisfying meal with a little flax oil, butter, soy sauce or other seasoning. Their flavour is enhanced by parsley, chives, fennel, garlic, basil, anise, caraway, rosemary and thyme. They enrich soups, stews and salads. Because of their full taste and chewy texture, they are best used as side dishes to meat, fish or dairy foods, rather than mixed with them. They make a pleasant addition to cooked rice in the proportion of 1 grain to 3 rice.

Cracked whole grains are a pleasant alternative if you have a flour mill 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.

Berry Yummy Pilaf

  1 cup         rye, barley, oat or wheat berries
2 3/4 cups         water or vegetable stock
2 Tbsp         oil
1        onion, sliced
1        celery stalk, chopped fine
2 cups         mushrooms, sliced
2 cloves         garlic, chopped fine
1/4 tsp         thyme
1 Tbsp         soy sauce
salt to taste

Simmer the whole grain in the water or stock for 1 hour as per basic recipe. (The extra 1/4 cup liquid will ensure sufficient moisture when combining.) Sauté the onion and celery in oil for about 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms, garlic and thyme, then sauté until the onion and celery are transparent and the mushrooms are slightly soft. Add the cooked grain to the sauté or vice versa and gently sauté or simmer the pilaf 5 to 10 more minutes until the liquid is absorbed and the flavours blended. Season with soy sauce and salt.

Variations: Other vegetables such as carrots, parsnips, peppers, zucchini or squash may be substituted. Vary sautéeing time as necessary.

Toasted pumpkin or sunflower seeds make a crunchy and zesty topping.

Serves 4.