Green Man Publishing

Wheat

Triticum aestivum syn T. vulgare

Introduction: Wheat is thought to have originated in the Near East around 12,000 years ago and provided such a valuable source of nutrition that it quickly became an important crop and eventually revolutionized the way people lived.

The large scale cultivation of wheat was responsible for the start of civilization in that area. This happened because it provided such a surplus of food that some people could cease to be farmers and could go and build cities (the word civilized means living in cities). This eventually led to the creation of different classes of people: peasants, slaves, laborers, soldiers, craftsmen, traders, priests, generals, aristocrats and kings. In turn this led to centralized government, organized religion, taxes, tithes and the creation of professional armies and – err, maybe it wasn’t such a great idea after all!

The cultivation of wheat was so successful that it spread to almost every area that was suitable for growing it (it was being grown as far away as England 5000 years ago). Wheat is a staple food for most of the people likely to read this book and is second only to rice in importance as a human food crop.

Nutritional content: Wheat seed is rich in protein, as well as complex carbohydrates and fiber. It also contains iron, manganese, selenium, zinc, niacin, riboflavin and thiamin. It is also a fantastic energy source, containing about 1500 calories per pound.

About Wheat  
Germination time: 2 – 21 days
Germination temp 55 – 75°F
Growing temp: 55 (70 – 75) 85°F
Days to maturity: 110 – 170
Seed viability: 5 years
Yield: 1 lb in 10 sq ft  

Crop use: Most people don’t even consider growing wheat as a garden crop and some of those that do reject the idea. Generally the reason for this is not that it’s hard to grow, but rather that big Midwestern wheat growers are so efficient and have such an ideal climate that somehow we can’t “compete” with them. In fact home wheat growing can be quite practical and certainly isn’t a competition. I’m not suggesting that you grow wheat instead of more conventional crops, but if you are already growing everything else you need and are looking for a new challenge (and if you have the space) then it could be an interesting and rewarding project. If you eat a lot of bread it would certainly be an important step towards food self-sufficiency.

An important bonus crop when growing wheat is the considerable amount of straw. This can be invaluable for building up the fertility of the soil.

Ease of growing: Wheat is a relatively easy crop to grow, but it requires a fair bit of processing to transform it into something edible. You need to be a little creative to use the wheat you grow.

The biggest problem with growing wheat is that it needs quite a lot of space to produce a worthwhile amount. This isn’t a crop for the square foot garden.

Climate: Wheat prefers a fairly cool, moist climate for growth, but warm, dry weather is best for ripening the grain.

Soil

pH 5.5 (6.5) 7.0

To grow good wheat you need a good soil. It should be well-drained, fertile and moisture retentive. The type of soil doesn’t matter too much, so long as it contains plenty of nutrients.

Bed preparation: Wheat has deep penetrating roots, so a thoroughly double dug bed is ideal for maximum yields. If you would rather have slightly lower yield and a lot less work you can just loosen the soil with a fork (it all depends upon how much effort you are prepared to make).

While cultivating the soil you should add a 2˝ layer of compost or aged manure, as well as greensand or wood ashes (for potassium) and colloidal phosphate for phosphorus).

Planning

Finding seed: Wheat seed isn’t found in your typical garden center vegetable seed display, so you may have to search to find a suitable type for planting. You can buy named varieties in small quantities from some mail order seed companies. If you live in a rural area you may be able to get wheat seed from a farm supply store (though it may be treated with fungicide). If all else fails you can simply plant winter wheat berries from a food store. The problem with this is that you won’t know what variety it is.

Where: Wheat needs good soil and full sun for maximum productivity and of course enough space.

The biggest problem with growing wheat is the space it requires. Its been estimated that it takes 1000 sq ft to grow a bushel (60 lb) of wheat, so a family of 4 might need 4000 sq ft (an area 50 ft x 80 ft).

How practical this is will depend upon where you live. In urban areas few people have a spare thousand square feet of unused sunny space, though you might be able to plant a 100 sq ft wide growing bed and harvest up to 10 pounds of grain (there is probably no point growing much less than this, except perhaps as an experimental or seed crop). In many suburban and rural areas lawns often cover thousands of square feet and in such places growing wheat can be relatively practical.

Crop rotation: You should rotate your wheat crop annually (easier said than done if you need 4000 sq ft though), or only grow it once every three years.

When: Wheat prefers cool weather and in warmer areas it is most often planted in fall, to mature in early summer the following year. In colder areas you have to plant in spring.

Types of wheat

Winter wheat: This is the hardiest type. It is fall sown (September – October) in areas with fairly mild winters, where the temperature doesn’t go much below 20°F. It needs to be well established with a good root system by the time cold weather arrives. The plants go dormant over the winter, but start growing again as soon as spring arrives and mature in early summer. The crop is out of the ground early enough that another crop can follow it.

Good timing is important with winter wheat, because you don’t want the plants to be too advanced when cold weather arrives. If they have grown too big they may lodge (fall over) the following spring and won’t yield well.

Winter wheat needs 4 – 6 weeks of cold temperatures (32 – 45°F) to vernalize it before it will flower and produce seed.

Spring wheat: This is generally grown where winters are too severe for winter wheat. It is planted in early spring as soon as the soil can be worked and matures in mid to late summer. It isn’t as hardy or productive as winter wheat.

Spring wheat doesn’t need to be vernalized before it can flower, it merely needs to get big enough.

In very mild winter areas spring wheat is sometimes planted in fall, so it can mature in early summer before the weather gets too hot.

Hard and soft: Both winter and spring wheat come in hard and soft types. Hard wheat is high in gluten and is preferred for baking bread. Soft wheat is lower in gluten and higher in starch and is commonly used for making pastry and crackers (though it can make good bread too).

Planting

Raising transplants: Some people actually grow wheat from transplants. Apparently it can increase yields by up to 50%, but it seems like a lot of work. I would only transplant if I had a small number of valuable seeds I wanted to multiply.

You can start the seed indoors in flats, about 6 weeks before the last frost. When the plants are about 2˝ high they are transplanted outside. This should be about a month before the last frost date.

Direct sowing: This is the usual (more rational) way to plant wheat and is pretty easy (just like planting a green manure crop). Broadcasting the seed onto the prepared seedbed is the traditional and most picturesque method, but it is quite wasteful of seed unless you are good at it and can do it lightly. You certainly don’t want to have to thin your wheat.

The most efficient way to plant is in rows with a seed drill, set to plant the seed to a depth of 1½ – 3˝ (2˝ typically). Cover with a couple of inches of straw mulch after planting to suppress weeds and reduce the need for watering.

Spacing: Wheat doesn’t like to be crowded and can be planted a lot further apart than you might imagine. It was once said that you should be able to walk across a wheat field and only stand on one plant with each step. The reason that wider spacing works is because the plants tiller freely, which means they send out multiple stems. A spacing of 4 – 5˝ is good when growing in wide beds (each plant will tiller, or send up multiple stems).


Researchers found that when wheat was sown in rows spaced 14˝ apart, they only yielded 6% less than rows spaced 7˝ apart (yet only required half as much seed for planting).

Conventional farmers aim for around 25 plants per square foot, which works out to be 5 – 6 sq inches per seed, or about 2 ½˝ apart. They crowd their plants somewhat because it tends to increase uniformity of size and maturation time, which is good for machine harvesting.

Care

Water: Generally wheat doesn’t require a lot of water, so it is only watered in very dry conditions. Too much water can cause lodging and disease problems.

Winter wheat will get most of its water from winter rains and will be almost done by the time the soil dries out in summer. Such a crop may not need watering at all, which can be a big deal in drier areas. 

Spring wheat is more drought tolerant, but paradoxically is more likely to need watering because it is growing in the warmest and driest part of the year).

Weeds: Because of the relatively wide spacing and the sparseness of foliage on young plants, weeds were once a big problem for wheat farmers. Some weeds became synonymous with wheat fields (once known as corn), including corn spurrey, corn cockle, corn poppy and cornflower. Once the plants reach a certain size they are able to take care of themselves and crowd out weeds.

It is a lot easier to keep a small area of the young plants weeded if  you plant them in beds with paths between them.

One problem is differentiating grassy weeds from your similar looking crop plants. This is one good reason to sow in rows, rather than broadcasting. Then if a plant isn’t growing in a row then you can assume it’s a weed.

Problems

Lodging: Lodging is another name for falling over and can be a problem when winter wheat is sown too early. If the over-wintering plants get taller than 6˝ you should cut them back a little (it won’t hurt them).

Pests: One advantage of small scale growing is that your plants are unlikely to be seriously bothered by pests or disease. 

Birds and small mammals can be pests of wheat at both ends of the growing cycle. They will eat the grain and young plants when it is sown and they may eat the grain when it is ripening. Slugs and snails may eat young seedlings.

Hessian fly is a serious problem for wheat farmers in the east. You can avoid it by planting late (mid September to mid October).

Sawflies and chinch bug can also be problematic.

Disease: These include rust, bunt and mosaic virus.

Harvesting

When: Wheat is ready to harvest when the heads start to droop somewhat and the plants are turning yellow brown, but still have some green coloration. The seed should

be quite hard and you should barely be able to dent it with your fingernail or teeth (it will harden even further as it dries out).

How: For centuries the wheat harvest was a major annual event for country people. It determined whether they lived well for the next year, or faced the prospect of hunger and possible starvation. No wonder the annual harvest festival was a time to give thanks for a good harvest.

Wheat should be harvested later in the day, after the dew has dried out. If you are working on a small scale, you can cut the seed heads with shears and then dry and thresh them.

On a bigger scale the whole plants can be cut with a sickle (remove any weeds as you harvest), propped upright and tied into a shock (or stook) to dry (a shock  is a cluster of sheaves set upright and tied together with wheat stems). After the shocks had thoroughly dried, they were made into a stack and left until threshing time.

Threshing is the process of freeing the seeds from the hulls and the rest of the plant and was traditionally done with a flail (or failing that a piece of rubber hose will work). The seed heads are placed on a flat sheet and pounded energetically to loosen the grain from the husk.

The threshed seed is then winnowed to remove the chaff. This is done by tossing it into the air on a windy day (an electric fan is more reliable), so the light chaff was caught by the wind and blown away. The heavier seeds fall straight back down. A small quantity can be tossed in a flat basket to winnow. This was often done a small quantity at a time as needed.

The cleaned seed can be used immediately or dried further for storage. Drying is a critical step because if the grains aren’t fully dry (less than 13% moisture) they will spoil in storage. A fully dry wheat kernel is hard and will shatter rather than dent.

The dry seed should be stored in an insect and vermin proof container such as a metal bin, in the usual cool dark place (40 – 60°F at less than 40% humidity). If moisture, heat or rodents don’t get at the grain, it should remain edible for years (up to 10). Store your wheat as grain, not flour which is much more perishable (though you can store flour in the freezer).

Seed saving: Wheat is usually self-pollinated so it’s easy to save the seed (you will be collecting it anyway). It isn’t likely there will be many different wheat varieties growing around you, unless you live near a farm.

To improve your seed gather it from the healthiest and best plants in your planting. If you want to maximise genetic variability you could just take a portion of all of the wheat you just grew.

Your seed wheat should probably be stored separately from the bulk of the crop. It must be kept under optimum conditions if it is to remain viable for a long time.

Unusual growing ideas

Clover living mulch: Winter wheat can be under planted with a hardy annual clover, which covers the bed for the winter, suppresses weeds and supplies nitrogen. This improves the soil while growing a crop at the same time.

Cover crop: Winter wheat can provide the soil with many of the same benefits as a winter cover crop (and produce grain as a bonus).

Green manure: Wheat has also been grown as a winter cover crop or green manure.

Organic matter source: After you have harvested the grain crop, the straw is a valuable source of organic matter for enriching the soil (or for use as mulch). This is actually a significant bonus crop and makes wheat growing a more practical proposition.

Varieties

There aren’t many varieties available in small quantities for the home gardener. Usually you just get winter wheat or spring wheat.

Winter Wheat: These tend to be higher yielding than spring wheat.

Spring Wheat: This is usually only grown if it’s not possible to grow the winter types.

Kitchen use

Wheat is most often ground into flour for making breads, cakes, pastry, tortillas and pasta. It can also be cooked for making cereals and even be popped like popcorn.

Sprouted grain “bread”  

Sprout 3 cups of wheat grains until they have shoots about ⅛th inch long. This takes from 12 hours to 2 days, depending upon how warm it is.
When the wheat is ready you put it in a food processor and process until
it turns into a thick, sticky paste.

There are two options for “baking”. One is to spread it out into a thin ¼˝ layer on a greased baking sheet and bake for 35 minutes at 325 F. The
alternative no-bake method is to spread it out into a thicker 1 ½˝ layer
and “bake” it in the sun ideally as 80 F) for 12 hours.  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *