Planting and Growing Wheat

Wheat Varieties: Choosing and finding the right wheat variety may be harder than you think. Redwood City offers 9 wheat varieties for small growers—mostly unusual varieties. But in Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades, Steve Solomon warns: "Except in the rain shadow of the Olympics where rainfall amounts to less than 20 inches, I don't think it would be possible for maritime Northwest wheat to form enough gluten/protein for decent yeast bread. Besides becoming relatively soft on my ground, the hard varieties I've tested also develop very thin straw, yield very poorly, and, despite their small seed heads, lodge (fall over) easily. Unfortunately, those very high-yielding, strong-strawed, soft white varieties grown commercially in the Willamette are too low in gluten to even make chapatis that don't crumble like cake. However, I'm very successfully growing a soft red winter wheat from Ohio called Logan that yields very big and has just the right gluten content to make chapatis that don't get too tough to chew (which is what happens when they're made with high-protein bread wheats) and yet don't fall apart. I get an amazingly fine satisfaction from eating home-grown chapatis dipped in homegrown beans, all sustainably producible without irrigation."

Wheat in general is genus Triticum. Most of the wheats are varieties of common wheat (Triticum vulgare), including the "hard" and "soft" wheats, both winter and spring types. The soft wheats are suited to a climate with more rainfall than the hards. There's also the variety T. compactum, or "club wheat," which grows well in the Pacific Northwest. I durum is the durum wheat that has larger kernels than the others and makes good macaroni.

Turkey red (dark hard) winter wheat, dark hard spring wheat, and Marquis wheats store best. Hard red winter wheat, because of its high gluten content, makes the best bread (rises higher and easier). Soft red winter wheat contains slightly less gluten and is used commercially as a pastry flour—makes good piecrusts. But actually you can make acceptable bread out of it too. Soft wheat has a trifle less protein; durum wheat is the highest in protein content and can stretch the farthest when cooked. So that's the best kind for making spaghetti, macaroni, and noodles. Soft white wheat is considered the most inferior type, but it makes manageable noodles and buns. Those are the wheat varieties grown in the United States. Worldwide there are about 15,000 other distinct varieties, some of which will grow in almost any climate, hot or cold, wet or dry. A hard red spring wheat, T. aestivum, is available from Bountiful Gardens. It's a high protein (over 12 percent) grain. Spelt. Spelt (T. spelta) is an old-time variety of hard wheat. My dictionary says it has "lax spikes and spikelets containing two light red kernels." Author Gene Logsdon says it's taller than regular wheat and has a long head, resembling rye. But it's very different from the easy-threshing other wheats, Gene reports, because the seed coat hangs on and has to be dehulled like those of oats or rice, making it less desirable for people food than other wheats because of the difficulty in hulling it. But then again, it's no worse in that regard than oats or rice. It contains gluten and can be baked just like wheat.

Spelt is hardy and reliable as a green manure, a pasture crop, or a livestock feed (in an unthreshed state). The hulls make it hard to separate out weed seed from the harvested grain, so spelt seed tends to carry along weed seeds. And it tends to suffer from smut. Spelt-flour products are hot in the food co-op right now. But I wonder if that's really "spelt" or if they're using Early Stone Age wheat (see below). Plant spelt like wheat, 2V2 bushels per acre. Harvest like oats. Spelt flour, whole hulled kernels, toasted flakes, bread mixes, pastas, The Spelt Cookbook, and Easy Bread Making for Special Diets are available from Purity Foods; 517-3519231; 2871 W Jolly Rd., Okemos, MI 48864; www.purity foods.com. You can buy spelt seed there too: [email protected] foods.com.

Triticale. This is a recently developed, manmade grain, a cross of wheat (Triticum) and rye (Secale). An item for specialty stores. It is not as winter-hardy as wheat, nor does it produce as well. It is also somewhat more susceptible than wheat to developing ergot. It makes better bread than rye. Its protein content is better than older varieties of wheat but not as good as more modern ones. Plant and harvest it just like wheat. Some organic farmers have harvested 55 bushels of triticale per acre, but others get less. Gurney and Bountiful Gardens carry triticale seed. To cook with it, substitute it for rye in rye recipes.

Kamut, a.k.a. Polish wheat or Astraakan wheat, is the most drought-tolerant of wheats. Seed is available from Bountiful Gardens.

Early Stone-Age Wheat. This one is so distantly related that it isn't even a Triticum; its scientific name is Einkhorn hornemanii. It's pretty wonderful stuff, an ancient wheat that may have been first cultivated by humans as much as 10,000 years ago in Europe. It's a high-protein grain (18 percent). There are 2 seed rows on each head, and it's bearded. Most exciting, like rice, it grows numerous seed heads on each plant—as many as 90 if uncrowded. Seed available from Bountiful Gardens and Redwood City. climate: All the North American wheats are very hardy; the hard reds are the hardiest of all. Wheat can stand a cold winter, a short summer, and a relatively dry climate, but it needs a growing season of 150 days and a high probability of a dry harvest season. It thrives on a low-temperature, high-light environment. Excessively high summer temperatures make it mature so fast that its yield is reduced. A moisture shortage also causes a smaller harvest. An area with a short growing season and a cool, damp harvest season is not good for wheat; your crop is likely to spoil in the field. About 15-35 inches of rain per year is just right—if the rainfall pattern is typically a cool, damp growing season followed by dry, warm days for ripening and harvest. Wheat's requirement of a dry harvest season can't be argued with. There isn't much time between when wheat is ripe enough to harvest and when you're too late because the crop has gotten so ripe that the heads have shattered and scattered the kernels or molded in the shocks.

soil: Wheat doesn't like acid, sandy, or soggy soil. Almost as much as corn, wheat needs soil with plenty of manure-type nutrients to do well. Supply enough nitrogen, but not too much, because if there's too much nitrogen in the soil, the wheat may fall over unless you have a strong-strawed kind.

Some Wheat Numbers

• One peck of wheat will feed 1 grown person for 2 weeks.

• Four ounces of wheat seed will plant 10 square feet and yield about 1 lb. wheat.

• There are about 16,000 wheat berries in a pound.

• A bushel of good wheat weighs at least 60 lb.

• For every 10x110-foot area you plant, you'll harvest about 1 bushel of wheat.

When to Plant: Plant winter wheat right around the usual time of your first frost. Plant spring wheat around the usual time of your last killing frost in the spring. Try not to be late. The later you plant wheat after the ideal time, the less your yield may be, because summer heat depresses grain production. Wheat germinates at as low as 39°F, but it does better in the 60s. Because the Hessian fly damages early-planted wheat, don't plant until your extension agent announces the "fly-free date." (The date varies in different areas.) How Much and How: The best amount to plant varies widely according to your particular circumstances and variety, so experiment, and good luck! Try to have the ground free of weeds, especially vetch. Try 3 lb. for 1,000 square feet, 90-120 lb. per acre. Expect a return of 15-90 bushels per acre. (Even 15 is still a lot of wheat!) Durum kernels are larger than spring wheat kernels, so if planting that kind, plant an extra peck per acre. Plant 3-5 pecks per acre of hard red winter wheat, 6 pecks per acre for soft red winter wheat. For sure, plant 1-2 inches deep. To plant in rows with a hand planter, make the rows 4 inches apart. Otherwise, broadcast.

Continue reading here: Harvesting Storing and Using Wheat

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