Edible Gardening

Growing Grains: The Suburban Experiment

Wheat grain

Recently, grains became an obsession for me. Already an avid gardener, I am always looking for ways to extend the purpose of the land I cultivate in my suburban Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina, landscape.

After examining my daily diet followed by a strong desire to reduce my food miles, I realized that there was one big, important aspect of my consumption not being addressed in my vast seasonal approach to growing food. I started asking at local restaurants and bakeries and quickly realized carbohydrates are almost always missing from the local foods movement.

Googling “wheat” changed my world forever. I discovered that ancient strains of Triticum aestivum were the crop that literally transformed humanity’s course from hunting and gathering to creating communities based around farming. For more than seven thousand years wheat has been a part of our daily consumption, both directly and as feed for livestock. I started wondering how in the last twenty years problems with gluten intolerances were so profound, and sadly started to uncover the reality of how our everyday grains are grown in commercial production.

Wheat grain

Wheat grain in Brie’s front yard / Brie Arthur

Considering my options to ensure an organic, sustainable and locally based daily diet, I got my hands on three pounds of raw wheat seed and started sowing. I had never grown wheat, but figured it couldn’t be that difficult considering farmers in the area had recently sown crops and the bright green sprigs were happily germinating in fields only a few miles from my home.

I know, growing grains in a suburban landscape sounds unusual, even impractical, but I couldn’t help myself. I figured at the least, it would be a fun experiment growing a plant I had no experience with. What did I have to loose? After all, wheat is a monocot, just like grass, so it couldn’t be that hard. And considering it is a grass, it would mimic the common ornamental varieties that dot the everyday landscape. Only difference, this “grass” could feed me.

As I prepped the soil in my front yard, I dreamt about the amber waves of grain that could grow from this experimental effort. My mind wandered farther, thinking about the potential of the vast suburban landscapes across the U.S. and beyond. If every yard in my neighborhood had 850 square-feet of open mulch space devoted to cultivating seasonal grains, how could that impact the sources for our essential carbohydrates? Could we grow enough to support our local bakery with all of their flour needs?

Having no expectations, every day was an adventure watching the suburban grain experiment germinate in December and grow through the cold season. As the spring temperatures started to rise, the grains grew inches every week and by mid-May had started to bolt, showing off that classic wheat seed head. As Memorial Day weekend festivities passed and the Carolina temperatures rose to near 100 degrees, my first ever wheat harvest was ready. Waving in the breeze, the amber-colored seed heads were the most beautiful site I had ever witnessed. I was officially hooked on growing grains.

Wheat grain harvest

Wheat harvest / Brie Arthur

Admittedly, growing is the easy part. Without mechanization it can be a laborious process to harvest, thresh and grind. It is an intense experience in the Carolina heat. You can skip the gym for the week.

However, wheat as a landscape plant checks all of the value boxes. It is low maintenance and easy to grow. Wheat provides great winter interest and is aesthetically pleasing in addition to its edible component. The dried stalks are perfect for flower arrangements and make a unique gift providing ample reason to grow a few clumps and not dive into the processing at all.

Fast forward a year, and I am now growing grains of all sorts in a traditional suburban setting with no mechanics, just passion and curiosity. Grains such as barley, oat and wheat are ideal for the cool season, while varieties of rice, sorghum and amaranth are perfect for the Carolina heat. All contribute beauty and utility while requiring limited resources and maintenance through the growing season.

I encourage everyone I meet to consider investing a few dollars in grain seed. It can be designed into landscapes in multiple ways. For those who are attracted to mixed meadow plantings, sow the seed directly in the landscape with other flowering plants such as poppies, larkspur and nigella. If you desire a more formal look, sow the seed in communal flats and pluck out clumps, which can be planted in patterns as you would an ornamental grass. The clumps will mature into lovely 3 feet tall specimens that can add seasonal interest to any border.

The next time you break bread over dinner, consider how and where that flour was sourced. Contemplate the historical significance of wheat and how humanity has evolved as a result of cultivating this food to develop communities. Appreciate the advancement of mechanized farming which makes processing grains possible. And finally, indulge in a bit of extra patriotism, knowing that amber waves of grain can add grace and glory to your home landscape.

Listen to our podcast and hear Brie explain how you can grow grains in your landscape.

Ancient Grain Seed Sources

Black Tip, German Spelt and Ornamental Oats – Seedman.

Black Emmer, Ghirka, Hungarian White, Huron, and Spring (awned bulk) Wheat – Backyard Seed Savers.

Emmer and White Sonora Wheat – Baker Creek Heirloom Seed.

Red Turkey Winter Wheat – Seed Savers Exchange.

The modern variety Glenn contact Chip Hope at Western Piedmont Community College.


Featured image  by Brie Arthur.

Brie Arthur is a designer and garden industry communicator living in Fuquay-Varina. Her book, The Foodscape Revolution, will be available in March 2017. Follow Brie’s experiment at #CrazyGrainLady, #SuburbanGrainExperiment and #AncientGrainTrial or see images at www.facebook.com/brienne.gluvna.

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