When we think of growing wheat, many of us think of the open spaces in the Great Plains, with golden fields blowing in the breeze. We don’t typically think of raising wheat in our gardens, but it’s totally possible.
Wheat has been an important crop since its domestication in 9600 BCE. Many cultures have relied on it for food and used it to develop some of the staples we eat every day. We also use wheat for animal feed and bedding.
Wheat is a beautiful crop, on top of being useful. Just look a Van Gogh’s wheatfields.
Types and Varieties of Wheat
Not only are their several types of wheat, but different varieties grow in different seasons. Fall wheat is planted in the fall, starts to grow, goes dormant, and then renews and completes its growth in the spring. Kind of like garlic.
Spring wheat is planted in the spring and harvested in the late summer. It’s grown in areas that have cold winters. Spring wheat has lower yields.
There are lots of different varieties within each type of wheat and they all grow better in some areas over others. You may want to experiment to see what works best in your region.
You can also check with your local extension to see which types they recommend.
Hard Red Wheat
Hard red varieties are mostly grown west of the Mississippi River and are the top commercial bread type.
Bolles: This open-pollinated, hard red spring wheat is great for home gardeners. It matures in late August from an early spring planting. Bolles needs 90-120 days to reach maturity. It’s resistant to leaf rust.
Glenn: Another open-pollinated spring wheat, Glenn is hull-less which makes it easy to thresh out. Perfect for the homestead. It’s extremely disease resistant and tolerant to scab. Takes 90-120 days till maturity.
Black Eagle: This open-pollinated variety is stunning with black and white details on the grain spikes. It looks like ornamental wheat, but it’s delicious and great for baking. It gets three feet tall and also produces good straw.
Soft Red Wheat
This type is grown east of the Mississippi River and is considered a pastry flour although it makes excellent bread as well. Red is the color of the kernels and does not mean the bread flour is red.
Medina Winter Wheat: This soft winter wheat is cold hardy, resistant to scab, mosaic virus, and powdery mildew. This variety makes delicious pastry flour and wheat beer.
White wheat is grown predominantly in the Pacific Northwest and is used as bread flour. It tends to have a sweeter flavor than reds.
LCS Ghost: This is a high-yielding winter variety, particularly in areas that get a lot of rain. It’s resistant to rust.
Durum wheat is most often grown n the upper Great Plains states such as the Dakotas. It’s famous as a pasta flour.
Divide: This spring durum is moderately resistant to scab and has high yields.
How Much to Plant
Fedco seeds states that you can harvest up to ten pounds of wheat from 100 plants in a small plot of 100 square feet.
In a larger planting of 1000 square feet, you could raise a bushel of wheat. That’s about 60 pounds or enough for 90 loaves of bread.
That makes growing wheat a worthwhile venture. Growing vegetables, fruits, and grains together will really move you to become more self-sufficient. When I started growing grains it felt like I had reached true self-sufficiency because I could make a complete meal.
How to Plant Wheat
Wheat is a grass. Think of it a bit like planting a lawn. You can plant it in a raised bed or a traditional garden space.
The Right Location
Wheat grows best in a sunny location in soil that drains well. Wheat doesn’t like to have wet feet. Shoot for a pH of around 6.5.
All wheat appreciates a tilled bed that is free of rocks and plant debris. Try to minimize competition with other plants. Work well-rotted manure into the ground before planting.
Sow wheat by broadcasting. Spread the seed on the ground then take a rake and mix it into the top layer of your soil. If your soil is dry, moisten before broadcasting your seeds.
You can also use a grain drill to plant wheat. This is useful if you have a bigger plot.
When to Plant Spring Wheat
Sow spring wheat as early in the year as possible as it likes the cool weather. Preparing your bed in fall helps you to be ready as soon as spring rains clear out. Getting a late start can mean a lower yield.
Sow your spring wheat at the rate of about four pounds for every 1,000 square feet.
When to Plant Fall Wheat
Plant fall wheat in mid-September through mid-October. A good estimate is about three weeks before your first frost date.
Care should be taken not to plant too early. If your plants grow too much in the fall and start developing a stalk then they are more prone to damage in the winter.
Sow at a similar rate to spring wheat.
How to Care for Wheat
Wheat doesn’t take much care once it is established.
Wheat’s not a big glutton for fertilizer, so the well-rotted manure you applied when planting should be sufficient.
Because it’s so undemanding in terms of fertilizer, commercial farmers often follow corn or soybeans with wheat. The wheat is fine with the leftover nutrients.
If your soil is poor or you are planting in a new garden space you can give plants some fish emulsion as wheat plants green up in the spring. Be careful not to over-fertilize. Too much nitrogen can lead to lodging and fungal diseases.
Wheat doesn’t need to be mulched because it needs good air circulation around the stalks. In fact, mulching with straw from another location can spread disease.
Wheat isn’t a water-intensive crop. Plants need between 18-21 inches of water a year, with less water needed after heading and flowering.
Too much water at the end of the season can cause lodging. Avoid saturating the soil and don’t irrigate during windy times.
Different varieties have different water requirements, and your needs will vary depending on where you are growing. It’s best to check with your local extension for specific advice, but in general, water when the soil gets dry down to one inch.
I know out west, the fields of wheat go on forever and don’t appear to have any confinement. But I’m here to tell you that you should grow your wheat in a protected or fenced-in area because deer or livestock are particularly drawn to a wheat crop.
The first year I grew wheat, I was so proud and happy of my crop. I had a 20×10 plot in a garden area with an older fence.
My horse, thinking that this magnificent crop was grown for him, led a posse of goats from their field and into my garden. Yup. They devastated that year’s hard work and made me sad, and mad, and had me spending the fall repairing the fence.
Problems and Solutions to Growing Wheat
There aren’t a ton of problems that can plague wheat crops.
The hessian fly targets cereal crops and can be especially harmful to wheat. The larvae eat the stems and leaves, interrupting the plant’s ability to make nutrients.
They adapt well to management controls like insecticides and can be a severe problem for commercial growers. Home gardeners can control hessian fly using crop rotation, not over-fertilizing, and by planting resistant varieties.
Rusts and blights can be a problem for wheat. Ask your extension agent what diseases wheat are prone to in your area. Then look for resistant varieties.
You should also avoid watering from overhead or overwatering. Keep your garden well-weeded and don’t mulch around plants. Also, try to keep plants thinned out so they don’t get overcrowded.
Weeds can be a problem in wheat fields. Since wheat is typically planted by broadcasting, it doesn’t grow in nice even rows. This makes weed control harder.
The best way to handle weeds is to control them before they start. Crop rotation and tilling help to disrupt weed growth. You can also use solarization to kill weeds seeds before planting wheat.
Birds can sometimes be a problem when you’re broadcasting your seeds. They land in your garden plot and help themselves to lunch.
If birds are a problem for you then cover your seedbed with a floating row cover. Remove the cover once your seeds have sprouted and are about an inch tall.
Lodging happens when the wheat plant becomes too heavy and gets flattened by the wind. This makes it more difficult to harvest, gets the seeds wet and dirty, and can make the plant vulnerable to diseases.
Lodging is caused by too much nitrogen and/or water. Larger varieties are more susceptible to lodging.
When your wheat is ready the ends turn a dusty yellow or brownish-red color, depending on the variety. Typically the heads bend over and point towards the ground when they are ripe.
You can use a scythe to cut the wheat, but you don’t need fancy tools. You can also use a pair of clippers. Carefully cut the plants, leaving enough of the stalk so that you can bind them together without disturbing the head.
Then you can bind the plants together in together bundles about eight inches in circumference. Place three or four bundles together upright to stand and dry out.
You can leave them in the field if you have sunny weather or move to them into a protected area like a barn. Leave them to dry for about two weeks. The grain will be hard and crunchy once it’s dry enough.
Wheat’s easy to thresh by hand. Spread the bundles out a sheet or tarp that is on a hard surface such as a cement patio. Layout one bundle of wheat at a time down on the cloth. Then beat the crap out of it.
As you can imagine, this is great family fun. Use a broomstick, a baseball bat, a wood dowel, or something similar. The grain will shatter out of the heads.
Remove the larger pieces of stalk and fold up the cloth so you can pour the grain into a bucket.
The next step is winnowing. This separates the grains from the chaff, or hull and the straw stubble.
Get two clean buckets and set up a box fan in your threshing area. Pour the wheat remains into the first bucket. Turn the fan on low and place it so it faces the second bucket.
Now pour. The heavier grains will go into the bucket and the lighter mixture will float away. Repeat this until you are left with just grains.
Store your wheat in airtight insect-proof glass jars or plastic containers. Freezing wheat is the best way to keep it fresh, however, that may take up too much precious freezer space.
Keep in mind that weevils may have laid eggs in the wheat before you harvested it. Keep an eye on your stored wheat to make sure you don’t have any eggs that hatch. You can control the weevils with food-grade diatomaceous earth.