By T. Eric Nightingale, UC Master Gardener of Napa County
If you are like me, you have occasionally daydreamed of a life on a farm. Open skies, fresh air and working the land all add up to a pretty idyllic-sounding situation until I remember that I would have to start each day before the sun comes up.
One thing that has always enticed me about farming is the possibility of growing grains. There are so many kinds, with a variety of uses; how could I not be intrigued? So, I set out to discover if I could grow grains in a more urban setting.
I wondered if I had sufficient space to grow enough grain to use. How many stalks of wheat does a loaf of bread require? Having seen many large wheat farms, I had the idea that wheat could only be grown effectively on vast tracts of land. But this is not so. An average backyard can yield enough grain to make a loaf of bread every week for a year and still leave room for a patio set.
Grain can be sown almost anywhere that a lawn will grow. Grains are grasses, after all. There are cool- and warm-weather species, just as with vegetables. Winter types can take three to four months to be ready for harvest; planting in fall and early December is ideal. Grains are fairly low maintenance, tolerant of poor soils, weather fluctuations and watering irregularities. Most species also germinate quickly, outpacing many weeds and smothering them.
Harvesting grain requires some unique techniques. First, you must cut the stalks. If you're feeling dramatic you can purchase a scythe, but hand pruners will do just fine. Then gather the stalks into bunches, a few stalks per bunch, and tie them together.
Next the bunches must be threshed to remove the seeds from the stalks. Threshing is as easy as shaking the bundles around in a large bucket or, alternatively, holding them over a piece of cloth and hitting them with a stick. The seed will easily fall from fully ripened grain. The stalks can now become a great addition to your compost pile.
During threshing, some small bits of stalk and other plant material will fall with the grain. A stiff breeze will carry off this chaff, but a home fan will work in a pinch. Just spread the material on a tray, or pour it back and forth between two buckets, in front of the fan. The undesired material is lighter than the grain and will blow away.
Perhaps the most intimidating part of growing grains at home is the milling. It is possible to mill grain in a blender, but home grain mills are preferable. My wife and I recently purchased one, and the results have been fantastic.
Growing grains at home is not yet a fad, so grain seed can be challenging to find. Most local sources supply bulk seed to large growers; they may be willing to sell you a small quantity. Some smaller feed-and-seed stores are also potential sources of grain. Of course, there are numerous sources online.
Consumer interest in food quality and species diversity has grown in recent years, which is making more types of grain available. Some of these grains are ancient species, grown for centuries by civilizations that are now long gone.
Amaranth, a primary crop of the Aztecs, is a tall purple plant. I find it attractive in the garden, but the flour also makes great pancakes. White Sonora Wheat, native to North America, was popular in the days before agriculture was mechanized. Even with manual methods, it reportedly gave high yields and was hardy and drought tolerant. Today, a few farmers are planting this grain again and attempting to bring it back into the mainstream.
If growing grain still seems daunting, remember that people have been doing it for millennia. As an incentive, think about all the post-harvest delights that will be at your fingertips: pasta, bread, pastries and even beer.
Workshops: U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County will conduct 2 January workshops:
"Rose Pruning" on Saturday, January 5 from 10-12 noon at the UCCE Meeting room, 1710 Soscol Ave, Napa. Get all your Rose pruning questions answered at this interactive workshop. Topics include rose types, how and when to prune, what tools to use along with tool care, safety, and sanitation. For registration Online Registration (credit card only) or Mail-in/Walk-in registration (check only or drop off cash payment).
“How to Plan and Plant a Home Vineyard” on Saturday, January 12, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., in Yountville. Join our Integrated Grape Team members to learn techniques for planning and planting a home vineyard. The workshop will be held at a new home vineyard planted last year. Learn the necessary planning steps, become familiar with the checklist of activities, methods of determining the proper rootstock, selection of wine grape varietals for specific locations and estimated yield calculations. Review our calendar timeline for planning, site preparation, initial planting and timing of the first harvest for a new home vineyard. Online registration (credit card only); Mail-in/Walk-in registration (check only or drop off cash payment).
Master Gardeners are volunteers who help the University of California reach the gardening public with home gardening information. U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County at http:/napamg.ucanr.edu) are available to answer gardening questions in person or by phone, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to Noon, at the U. C. Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa, 707-253-4143, or from outside City of Napa toll-free at 877-279-3065. Or e-mail your garden questions by following the guidelines on our web site. Click on Napa, then on Have Garden Questions? Find us on Facebook under UC Master Gardeners of Napa County.