It’s always exciting to add a new personality to your garden and many of us love to bake and eat bread. Growing wheat is one of those things that could seem daunting from afar, but the truth is it’s almost as easy as growing grass. Regardless of if you lack enough extra space, the value of the experience unravels the mystery of how bread and other flour products come to be. It’s an exciting crop with loads to teach, so why not give it a shot?
Not too much space is necessary to get started. Similar to if you have a modest garden plot and only get some of this and that, you’ll probably need something like 20’x 20′ to grow enough for a loaf of bread. But much of the reward is gained through shining a hands-on light onto how grains live and grow, which I believe is worth experiencing no matter the space restrictions. And every year you grow it you’re adapting and building up your seedbank to boot.
Growing wheat is the simpler part however its processing is a bit more involved. There’s a bit of a rhythm and experience that goes into it transitioning from plant to muffin, or cookie, or bread which we’ll get into when the time comes but it’s a good argument for starting your first plot small.
There are many different types of seed to choose from. Consider your ultimate purpose when choosing. And do make sure get your seeds from a good source so they may be free of annoying disease.
Hard Red Winter – High-protein used from bread and other baked goods, commonly used for all-purpose flour.
Hard Red Spring – Highest protein and thus best grain for bread and other leavened products.
Soft Red – Low-protein and often used for pastry flour to make cakes, pies, and other baked goods.
Soft White – Very low-protein used for pastry flours and unleavened baked goods.
Do some research on the seed before you buy it. Many winter varieties require a vernalization period, meaning they need to experience temperatures below ~40 degrees for up to 45 or so days in order to produce a seedhead that same year. Winter varieties tend to be planted in the fall to grow up a bit before winter halts them into dormancy until spring. Some winter varieties can be facultative, meaning they can be planted in either the fall or spring.
Generally speaking fall grains produce more tillers (seed-bearing stalks) and thus have a higher yield, while spring grain is higher in protein and thus higher in gluten and better bread bakeability.
When to plant
Winter wheat is planted in the northeast sometime between late September and early October. The goal is to give the grain enough time to sprout up and establish itself before winter settles in, however not so much time that it begins it’s upward growth stages. Then it will hang out in the field ready to take off at the first sign of warm weather.
Spring wheat can be planted in early spring from late March to early April. In the picture below you’ll see them side-by-side. A benefit to planting in the fall is the jump the wheat gets on out-competing the weeds.
Wheat is a heavy feeder so you’ll want adequate fertility in your soil. Nitrogen is directly related to the protein in the kernel so if you’re trying to make a quality bread you’ll want to feed it well. We always grow a field of beans the season before wheat for their nitrogen fixing characteristics. A spring sown dry bean goes through its growth cycle just in time for winter wheat to be planted. We also broadcast red clover in late winter. The goal is for after we cut down the wheat we’ll be left with a field of nitrogen-fixing clover.
We’ve learned that some ancient grains like einkorn and emmer thrive on lower fertility and in fact too high could cause them to grow up so big they just fall over, which is referred to as lodging.
Seed spacing really depends on your specific seed. We’ve grown a winter emmer that reaches 6′ tall and amasses a wide girth and can handle generous spacing of 10″ or so and still form a tight canopy. Conversely, our red fife wheat stays super compact. Finding a sweet spot that doesn’t overcrowd your grain but encourages a full cover when mature helps keep the competing weeds at bay and your yield at its best. Perhaps a good place to start is 6″ spacing in rows with 8″ between rows, or enough space to work your hoe between rows.
Broadcasting is fun to do but doesn’t provide you with an opportunity to control weeds. Perhaps in that case broadcasting is better suited for fall planting.
Stay on top of those weeds as best you can. It’ll be competitive for spring grains which can easily get gobbled up by all the other eager seeds. Hoe persistently before the grain grows out and you’re no longer able to pass through the rows. Winter grain will help keeps weeds away due to its early jump in the spring. However a broadcasting of red clover in late winter may halt any future cultivation plans. Either way when it comes to harvest time it’s nice to cut down handfuls of wheat rather than handfuls of, say, thistle.
Some varieties such as einkorn are allelopathic, which means they produce chemicals that repress other plants trying to grow around them.
After the grain sprouts it will go into tillering phase. This is when the plant starts producing young future seed-bearing stalks and look just like grass. It’s a great time to show off your super spotty “lawn” to your friends for a good laugh. Yet each of these tillers will potentially grow up to produce a seedhead.
Soon the energy is focused upward as the stalks start climbing led by the flagleaf. When it reaches a sort of terminus, from beneath the lead leaf a bulge begins in the stalk. A little seedhead head then pokes out and gets lifted higher yet into the sky.
Then emerges what looks like little white dust dangling from the seedhead which is the plant’s flowering. Wheat is pollinated romantically enough by the summer breezes. When the flowers fall away, now begins the ripening of the grain.
At this point the grain chamber seems empty but with a little time it fills in and starts taking shape. The seed starts with what’s called the milky stage. This is when if you squeeze the seed it will ooze a milky substance. Next it will firm up into the soft dough stage. It’s basically as it sounds, when the kernel is chewed between the teeth it will feel like just that- a soft dough. Then with continued ripening the kernel hardens into a hard dough stage. The grain is rapidly loosing moisture and preparing for its future germination as a seed.
When to harvest
Once the transition node between the seedhead and the stalk has browned the seed is no longer receiving nutrients from the plant. Additionally, the longer the seed remains on the plant the higher the percentage of germ will be in each kernel. The germ assists in the germination of the seed into a new plant. However if you want to for instance to make bread then you’ll want to maximize the starch and minimize the germ. In that case you will harvest about two weeks early, when the kernel is in soft dough. If you’re harvesting for seed, simply allow the plant to fully ripen, just making sure to get it before the birds do.
Harvest by either clipping the grain heads off or cutting the somewhere along the stalk with a sickle or machete. You’ll want to store them somewhere they can finish drying- so a well-ventilated space safe from the weather, but also somewhere away from where birds, rodents, and other rascals might be able to reach them. Tying them off into sheaves is beautiful and helpful for transporting them if you grew enough, though not really necessary.
Once your grain is dried enough that it doesn’t dent beneath your thumbnail it is storable and ready for the threshing floor.
What follows is the threshing, winnowing and storing, plus milling, etc. We’ll have resources for those topics along shortly. Stay tuned and give wheat a try!