If you’re a homebrewer, you’ve probably considered growing barley. But there’s so much more to this wonder grain than that.
Although barley is sometimes used as a cover crop, it can also make soups, main dishes, breakfasts, and bread. You can eat the sprouts as microgreens or use it as animal fodder.
Barley is much more versatile than many people realize. If you’re ready to use it on your homestead, let’s get started.
What Is Barley?
Barley (Hordeum vulgare) is a cereal grain that grows in temperate climates, in USDA Growing Zones 8 or above.
Barley is usually grown in massive fields in the monoculture style in order to create food for animals and humans. A vast majority of the barley in the US is used to make malt.
Barley has a hard outer hull around the middle barley kernel, much like other cereal grains like oats or wheat. This hull protects it from harsh elements.
Home growers don’t need a large field of barley. You can grow just a bit for supplementing your diet or making beer. Or plant a whole field to feed your animals. Just remember to rotate your crops every few years for the health of your soil and plants.
There are two types of barley plants: two-row and six-row. Two-row kernels are equal in size along the head and germinate at the same time. Six-row kernels differ in size and germinate at different times. It’s also more difficult to mill.
Six-row is usually grown for animal use, though it is also used in the US to make beer.
The two different types are the result of a genetic mutation a long time ago, but the two plants are genetically the same.
You may have heard of pearl and hulled barley. These aren’t types of barley, but ways of processing the grain. It’s similar to how rolled and steel-cut oats are ways of processing the oat seed.
Pearled barley has the hull removed and is then polished to remove the bran layer. Hulled barley only has the hull removed, making it more nutritious. You can also find barley flakes and grits.
Best Barley Varieties
Commercial growers can usually be found growing hybrid barleys such as ‘Thunderbolt,’ ‘Belmont,’ ‘Bazooka,’ and ‘Libra.’ These tend to have higher yields or the ability to suppress competing weeds. However, they may not be a part of an organic gardener’s strategy.
Home growers have many options.
‘Conlon’ is a two-row that matures early and resists lodging.
‘Lacey’ resists lodging and is excellent as forage.
‘Quest’ is a six-row that is resistant to disease and is high yielding.
‘Robust’ is a six-rowed type that is high-yielding.
Plant as soon as you can work the soil in the spring or in the fall. The seeds will stay dormant and germinate when the weather warms in the spring. The germination time for barley is around 1-2 days at a temperature of 34-36°F. Expect to have a harvest in about 90 days.
The earlier you start, the better chance the barley will have at outcompeting weeds.
Pick a sunny location with well-draining soil. The soil should also be loose and weed-free. Use a pitchfork or tiller to loosen and aerate the soil.
Regardless of what time of year you’re growing barely, sow each square foot of soil with .003 pounds of seeds (about 35 seeds). You’ll need about 200 square feet if you want to make your own malt to make five gallons of beer. Broadcast or direct-seed.
Leave 6-12 inches between each row to make harvesting easier.
Caring for Barley
Your biggest job will be to cut back any weeds. You can remove the weeds by hand, or spray an organic or conventional herbicide over the crop if you choose.
Unless you live in a dry area that doesn’t see any rain during the summer, barley won’t need much supplemental water. Irrigate if you don’t receive fairly regular rain.
Barley (and many cereal crops) tend to fall over in high winds or severe storms (this is called lodging). You can’t do anything about this once it happens except prop the plants back up, if possible.
Common Pests and Diseases to Look Out For
Barley is generally healthy, especially if you practice good garden hygiene and regularly rotate your crops. Still, you might run into some problems when growing barley.
For pests, look out for aphids, grasshoppers, armyworms, and Hessian flies.
Hessian flies (Mayetiola destructor) lay eggs in the young leaves. Maggots devour seedlings and live on the plant through the summer until the flies mature and leave. There can be several generations per season.
You can’t control them once they infest your crop. That’s why crop rotation, tilling your fields, and encouraging beneficial insects in your garden are important.
To learn how to identify and eradicate aphids, grasshoppers, and armyworms, head to our guides on these common pests.
As far as diseases go, watch out for powdery mildew. Proper spacing and good water management go a long way to keeping this problem at bay.
After about 90 days, of growing time, you’ll have a lovely crop barely ready for harvesting. You need to make sure the grain is ready before you dig in. It should be so hard that you can’t dent it with your fingernail. The heads will also be hanging down rather than upright.
Don’t wait until the seeds sprout on the plant. Then it’s too late. If the seeds are about ready and rain is coming, get out there and harvest. It’s better to harvest a bit too early than a bit too late.
You can also try cutting a stalk and inspecting the center to see if it’s hollow. If it is, it’s harvest time. Grab your tools and get to work.
You can cut each stalk at the base by hand using clippers, a sickle, or a scythe. The latter is best for large areas.
The best way to cure the stalk is to make a cut at the base and gather a clump of stalks together into a bundle. Tie a piece of string around the separate bundles, as it makes it easier to transport them indoors or to a different location.
Then, you can leave your harvest for a week or two to dry out.
The Basics of Threshing and Winnowing
If this is your first time growing barley, then there are some basics you should know during the harvesting phase. To keep it simple, threshing refers to the action of separating grain from the stalk. Winnowing is when you remove the pieces of stalk and leftover debris.
Threshing is the initial task and takes some real force. Winnowing happens next, and it takes more patience.
There are lots of ways to thresh, and it somewhat depends on how much grain you need to deal with. For a small amount, clip off the seed heads and place them in a cotton bag or on a sheet. Fold up the sheet or close the bag and place it on hard ground.
Smash it repeatedly with a broom handle or baseball bat to knock the seedheads from the rest of the plant.
After you have threshed your barley, place it in a bucket. Turn on a fan and pour the seeds between the buckets. This blows away all that chaff and will eventually leave you with clean seeds ready to be used.
How to Use Barley
There are lots of ways to use barley besides making beer or feeding animals. Barley soup or lemon barley water, for instance, are both fantastic.
Not only does barley make an excellent addition to your home-cooked meals and drinks, but it’s good for you. Barley is an excellent source of fiber.
Here is a refreshing recipe for a sweet drink to get you inspired for using up all that barley that you’re growing:
- 3/4 cup of pearl barley
- 2 medium-sized lemons (zested and juiced)
- 6 cups of water
- 1/2 cup of honey
Wash the barley and combine with the lemon zest and water. Bring the mixture to a boil and leave to cool. Stir in honey and place the juice in the refrigerator. Let it sit for an hour, strain, and drink up!