A few years ago, I dubbed myself the #CrazyGrainLady. Though I had very little experience growing traditional agricultural crops, I was fascinated by the idea of incorporating grains into my suburban foodscape. Now, a few seasons later, my novel approach has turned into a year-round obsession. In my new book, Gardening with Grains, you can learn everything you need to know to grow grains.
What Are Grains?
From soil improvement and crop rotations to nutrient scavenging roots and feeding birds, grains offer a lot to home gardeners. But what makes a plant a grain versus a fruit or vegetable? Simply put, a grain is a fruit harvested from plants in the grass family, Poaceae. There are two main types of grains: cereals, like wheat and corn, and legumes such as peanuts or soybeans. And then you have pseudo-cereals, like quinoa and amaranth. Those are not in the grass family; therefore, they are not technically grains.
All grains like to be grown in full sun, with moist, well-drained soil that has a neutral pH. Basically, I just described the ideal condition for almost every single garden plant. Of course, grains are well adapted to adverse conditions, but the advantage of growing them in your home landscape is that you can provide the cultural conditions to maximize their growth. Trust me, compared to a petunia or tomato, grains are the easiest plant in the world to cultivate.
What Grains to Grow Now?
Timing is the biggest challenge to overcome when growing a plant that you have no experience growing. Grains are no exception. I have split these into two growing categories: warm season and cool season. At this time of year, we will focus on warm-season options, but don’t worry, I will have another article featuring cool season crops this fall.
Warm-season grains include corn, millet, rice, and sorghum, and they prefer the heat, especially soil temperatures above 55°F for seed germination and root development. These plants are frost-sensitive and will suffer from temperatures below 40°F and will die when it drops below 32°F. Here in the Triangle, I plant these varieties from May to June and harvest in early to mid-fall.
Corn is the grain that most people know. I have always thought corn was a beautiful plant and have used it in summer plantings for several decades. From fresh eating corn on the cob varieties to dent corn selections ideal for grinding into grits, corn is a practical, easy grain to use in your landscape. Think of it as an exclamation mark that adds interest to a sunny border.
The first question everyone asks is “Doesn’t rice have to be grown in water?” No! Rice does not require saturated soils. That is a simple way to reduce weed pressure. Rice is an ideal landscape plant for central North Carolina gardens thriving in the heat. Rice does appreciate supplemental water, so grow it in an area that is irrigated or stays wet, like at the base of a downspout. Or grow it in a container with no holes. This is an awesome way to display it on a patio.
This is a plant that everyone should know, as it was the original source of sugar for early settlers. This African native is the most heat and drought tolerant of the grains, and because of these qualities will continue to rise in importance in global agriculture for years to come. Think of sorghum as corn on steroids, growing to 14 feet tall (some varieties are smaller) and setting large bundles of seed that will feed local birds to their heart’s delight.
Companion Plants for Grains
As landscape elements, grains are well suited to be incorporated with other plants, both edibles and ornamentals. Warm-season annual combinations include cosmos, marigolds, sesame, sunflowers, and zinnias. I pair grains alongside my favorite flowering perennials like Baptisia, Phlox, and Salvia. The greatest advantage of grains is how easy they are to grow. Low maintenance has become a driving force in my gardening approach as I find myself traveling more and more and having less time in my garden. Grains require very little effort, including fertility, making them a great option for gardeners looking for less work.
I hope you will be inspired to try sowing some grain seed and experimenting like me.
Featured image: Different types of corn / Brie Arthur
Brie Arthur is an author, horticulturist and international speaker living in Fuquay-Varina, NC. She has been dubbed a revolutionary for her leadership in the suburban foodscape movement. For more information, visit BrieGrows.com or email Brie@BrieGrows.com.