Growing Wild Rice

Growing Conditions: Under natural conditions, Northern wild rice is found growing along river shores in the shallow water and in lakes. The plant thrives best in rivers that have rushing floodwaters in the spring and water depths of about a foot, although it can grow in water as deep as 3 feet. In deeper water, the plants get spindly, late-flowering, and poor-producing because too much of their energy has to go into stalk. It produces best per acre in water 6-12 inches deep in midsummer. Incidentally, what keeps the grass standing up in all that water is many small air spaces, like tiny balloons, located all through its tissue.

In lakes, wild rice is generally concentrated near the water inlets and outlets because of its need for aerated, clean, moving water. It can grow on bottoms that are mud, sand, or gravel—and even on bare and rocky ones—as long as it can find some small crevices for seedling roots to hold on, but wild rice does best in soft-textured sediments. It won't grow in murky water; water loaded with sewage, industrial wastes, detergents, or floating oil; or water covered with floating algae, scum, or other debris that prevents light from shining down into the water. It likes sunlight under or above the water. A large population of carp can be a problem because the fish's habit of thrashing about in shallow water can uproot wild rice. Powerboats also destroy wild rice stands because of the waves they create.

Wild rice won't grow in brackish water or sea water, nor does it produce well when crowded by other aquatic plants. For that reason, some growers tear out or till up competition like reeds and cattails before introducing wild rice. But it will grow well, even becoming self-seeding, almost anywhere there is fairly fresh, shallow, flowing water that's both temperate and tropical. And it will gradually, naturally spread downstream from where it's introduced— but not upstream.

Thus wild rice is sometimes deliberately introduced to waters it hasn't grown in before, or artificially helped to expand into adjacent areas and there harvested for home use or sale. In recent years, it has been also grown paddy-style, like Asian rice. (This development makes the name "wild rice" less true than ever.) Wild Rice Seed

Buying. Packaged wild rice from the store won't sprout because of processing. You can buy live seed from Wildlife

Nurseries, PO Box 2724, Oshkosh, WI 54903-2724; 920231-3780; fax 920-231-3554. (They also sell wild rice for table use, and a book of 101 wild rice recipes for $9.50.) Or buy your wild rice seed from Richter's, Box 26, Goodwood, ON L0C 1A0, CANADA.

Harvesting. If you're trying to establish wild rice in a new area, the seed will be a problem. It's best to harvest the seed from one place, move it to the new place you want to plant, and promptly throw it in the water there. If you do that, the germination of your seed will be almost 100 percent. If you must wait a few days before planting the seed, first soak it in water because while it waited in dry storage, the hulls absorbed air. If unsoaked, it is likely to float away from where you want it to sink and grow next spring.

When wild rice is allowed to fully ripen on the stalk and then collected, sprouting rates are best. Poor sprouting results if the seeds are taken from the stalk when not fully mature. Ability to sprout is also harmed if the seed is spread out to dry in the sun, maybe because it gets too hot. But if gathered when fully ripe and dry, not subjected to any further drying, and not handled roughly, wild rice seed will retain its sprouting ability for a couple weeks out of water. Storing clean seed that is free of smashed grains and caterpillar bodies also helps avoid decay. But long-term dry storage simply doesn't work. Less than half your seed would germinate after a month of dry storage, about a tenth after 6 weeks, almost none after 7 weeks. You can't plant packaged wild rice from the store. That won't sprout at all because of its processing.

Storing. For temporary, brief storage longer than 2 weeks, scatter wild rice seed in sphagnum moss, sawdust, sand, or mud and refrigerate. To store all winter, place in mud and submerge in water outdoors; it may germinate as well as 100 percent when planted the next spring. It's important that the seeds be scattered in the storage substance and not concentrated. Whatever you have them in, place that in wooden boxes, and sink the boxes into water. If it's water with animals in it, cover the box with a fine-mesh wire to protect your seed from hungry critters. Another way to store wild rice seed all winter is in a porous cloth bag in cold water (about 35°F) that is regularly changed. Changing the water discourages decay. If you can store seed in a natural, strong flow of clean water, that's best of all.

Wild rice seed won't grow too soon. Seeds will not germinate for at least 3 months after harvest, no matter what. They must also experience freezing or near-freezing temperatures to break their dormancy. Freezing solid doesn't hurt them as long as the temperature lowers very gradually. Once spring does approach, you need to get that seed planted because the grains will germinate, and if they aren't safely out of the storage medium and under water when they do, they won't survive.

Planting Conditions: You have to have lots of running water! You also need a field that can be flooded with it. If you have those, wild rice is a possible crop for you, a good new use for marginal bottomland, one that can benefit both you and the nearby wildlife. Turning marshland into wild rice land is one use for wetlands that tends to please both the Soil Conservation Service and the farmer. Wherever you grow wild rice, the bird hunting will be good. Wild rice is also pursued by insect pests, particularly a variety of caterpillar, and is occasionally afflicted with ergot. Most commercial wild rice is not organically grown.

If you can acquire the water and have a way to construct a water channeling system and paddy levees, it can be done. One way is to use a low-lying field adjacent to a river. Cultivate to get rid of other plants. In mid-September, let the water in until it reaches a depth of 1 foot (or at least 6 inches), and immediately seed. The water can be left in place, but it needs to have circulation in and out for a good harvest. After harvest the land can be drained, dried, cultivated, and reflooded for seeding.

planting: Let enough wild rice escape your harvesting to fall into the water and seed next year's crop. Wild rice is an annual grass, of course, and has to be reseeded every year. The seeds drop into the water in late summer, sink quickly to the bottom, and lie there dormant until spring, when they germinate, take root, and grow. Wild rice seeds can't grow unless covered by at least 1 or 2 inches of water. The stalks appear above water about mid-June, eventually growing several feet above its surface.

For artificial planting, you'll want about 20 lb. of wet seed for each acre to plant. Plant in the fall to have wild rice growing the next spring. Take your seed bag out in a very steady boat or raft because you can broadcast it most effectively from a standing position. Or if the water is shallow and the bottom firm enough, you can wade through the areas you want to seed. Or just throw seed from the shore. Large-scale seeding can be done by airplane. Don't harvest at all the first year after you plant. That allows the crop to become seed for an even better crop the following year. In addition, plant more seed in that second year in the places you missed during the first one.

Continue reading here: Harvesting Wild Rice

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    How to grow wild rice?
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