Winter Wheat Cover Crops: Growing Winter Wheat At Home
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By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist
Winter wheat, otherwise known as Triticum aestivum, is a member of the Paceae family. It is usually planted in the Great Plains region as a cash grain but is also an excellent green manure cover crop. Native to southwest Asia, winter wheat planting was first introduced by Russian Mennonites during the 19th century. This hardy annual cereal grain provides a host of benefits to compacted and overused soil. Learn how to grow winter wheat to improve soil conditions, repair exposed areas, and minimize erosion.
Benefits of Winter Wheat Cover Crops
Winter wheat cover crops are designed to lessen erosion from runoff of water and wind and to retain the soil. They also contribute to the reduction of mineral leaching and compaction, suppress the amount of weed growth, reduce insect pests and diseases, and increase crop yield.
Commonly used on commercial farms, cover crops can also be beneficial to the home garden where soil structure tends to become damaged due to weeding, tilling, harvesting, and general foot traffic.
Knowing when to plant winter wheat will provide roots that aerate soil and increase water absorption and retention. Once tilled, the plant adds organic matter to buoy the soil composition of the home garden.
Growing Winter Wheat at Home
Winter wheat is less likely to become a weed and is easier to get rid of than barley or rye. Winter wheat matures more slowly than some cereals, so there’s no rush to kill it off in early spring, and thereby, risk compaction of the soil during the wet season.
Winter wheat grasses are also easier to grow as they germinate and establish much more quickly than cover crops such as clover. Cheaper and easier to manage than rye, winter wheat’s popularity as a cover crop is exponentially growing. The grass is not an ornamental species and is best suited for large beds and open grassland.
When to Grow Winter Wheat
The best time for winter wheat planting is from mid September through early December. Plant this hardy annual cereal grain from seeds, which are available at farm suppliers, online, and some garden centers.
Broadcast seeds over a prepared seedbed when growing winter wheat at home. Keep the bed moist until germination and remove competitive weeds.
Common varieties of winter wheat to consider planting as cover crops are Hard Red, Soft Red, Durum, Soft White, and Hard White.
How to Grow Winter Wheat
To plant winter wheat as a cover crop, rake the garden smooth, removing debris and large rocks.
Direct seed winter wheat in dry soil, in rows of 6 to 14 inch (15-36 cm.) widths and 2 inches (5 cm.) deep or simply broadcast seeds, lightly rake in and water winter wheat with a garden hose set on mist.
A couple of cold weeks will induce winter wheat to flower and thereafter become dormant until the spring when it can then be tilled into the garden soil.
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You wouldn’t believe what wheat means to me. I can’t tell you the memories I have of planting it, harvesting, taking it to the elevator for sale, and any number of other things. One of my fondest childhood memories is of sitting in the back of the wheat truck when the combine would come up beside it and dump wheat all over us and bury us. That’s good stuff!
We would chew the wheat for “gum” while we worked hard in the fields at my grandparent’s house during harvest time. After all the wheat was cut, we would go back and cut straw from the stems that were left in the ground.
Farming wheat is in my blood. These fun memories were at my grandparent’s house and they were some of the best times of my life.
Any post on this blog may contain affiliate links that pay me a very small commission for items you purchase using the links but costs you nothing extra.
My grandparents, great grandparents, and great-great grandparents were wheat farmer’s by trade and my uncle and cousin still farm wheat today. It’s an important part of my history. My Mom’s Grandfather ran in the Oklahoma Land Run with his parents to get their family land.
I was raised in the city, but the memories of what went on at the farm always cried out to me in the back of my mind. The cows, horses, sheep, goats, chickens, grandma’s big ole garden, and the wheat and alfalfa grandpa grew are part of my upbringing and are part of who I am today.
My mom is a smart woman and has so many skills from her time growing up on that farm, it’s amazing. She has talents and abilities as do her brothers and sisters that would amaze you.
How to grow flour
You can actually grow flour. Flour is ground from wheat berries and wheat berries can grow in your home garden. We have grown it and ground it and made bread from what we grew.
I make all the bread I feed my kids from scratch and I make it from freshly ground flour. I use local, top quality wheat berries to make my flour so my kids get the very best I can give them.
Many people talk about gluten intolerance and grain free food, especially gluten free, but I really feel that what makes a lot of people sick and tired is not the gluten or the wheat itself, but the massive amounts of chemicals in the bread products that wheat is made into and you have a recipe for some pretty serious diseases and illnesses.
I’m not sure it’s the gluten for all people, although I KNOW it is for some. I think much of it is the process we’ve done to the wheat.
Growing wheat at home
I wanted to show my kids where those wheat berries come from. Although I don’t plan to grow all of our wheat as cleaning it is quite a chore that we don’t have the equipment for, I wanted to grow some wheat to show them the source of those beautiful golden nuggets of flavor.
Any post on this blog may contain affiliate links that pay me a very small commission for items you purchase using the links but costs you nothing extra.
We took some of our wheat berries we grind for flour and planted them back in November. Previously, I tried to grow wheat with the kids, but I didn’t remember that you grow it throughout the winter here in Oklahoma (no natural instincts for growing), so I talked to my cousin Joe about what could have gone wrong.
How to plant wheat
He said to have your wheat in the ground by November 30 th . This is called winter wheat and it’s the only wheat you can grow in Oklahoma. It’s too hot here for anything else.
Winter wheat or hard wheat is good for making bread or other products that are made with yeast, spring wheat or soft wheat is good for pancakes, muffins, and things that don’t contain yeast.
Last year, we met that goal and watched our tiny wheatgrass grow throughout the winter a tiny bit at a time. Once the days started getting longer, our wheat took off and now it’s making seed heads.
Our rows aren’t straight like on the farm, but we are farming this wheat nonetheless. We have a 3 x 10 bed of it growing and will harvest it when it turns golden and the seeds will shake out of it. I’ll come back and update the blog when that happens.
Steps to grow wheat:
Find your wheat berry seeds. Research what type of wheat will grow in your area and when it needs to be planted. If you are in or around Oklahoma get winter wheat in the ground by the end of November.
Prepare your soil and make a trench about 2- 2 ½ inches deep. If you have a huge area to cover, you can broadcast your wheat seeds and then til them into the ground to about 2 inches. If you are planting spring wheat, you will need to plant it around 1 inch deep instead. Cover the seeds with dirt and pat down the earth gently to remove any air pockets.
Water weekly until grain stalks and heads begin to turn golden and heads droop toward the ground.
Check your mature grain weekly. Shake a few seeds out of the head and taste them. If they are doughy, they are not ready. If they are firm and you can chew them for a while without them disintegrating, they are ready. Remember the “wheat gum”?
Store them for a few weeks in a dry place until they are ready to clean. They will be dry and won’t dent with your fingernail when ready.
Beat the heads on the inside of a trash can until all of the seeds fall out of the heads. Then winnow the seeds by pouring them from one container to another in the breeze or in front of a fan until all the chaff blows out of the seeds. Get them as clean as possible before use.
Store them in an airtight container so moisture or bugs won’t be able to reach them.
How to grow your own wheat
I can’t wait to see how excited the kids are and how much they learn when we harvest our little wheat patch. We’ll grind it up into flour to make bread. What a wonderful learning experience for them that will stimulate all of their senses.
Sensory learning for kids
Sensory experiences are the best way for kids birth to three to learn, and can you think of anything else that smells as good as homemade bread coming out of the oven? It can carry you away.
Need more help getting started in the garden?
8 Grains You Can Grow in Your Own Garden
A lot of people grow fruits and vegetables in their backyards, but for some reason, most of those gardeners think that growing their own grains would be too difficult and stick to purchasing grains from the local grocery store.
When we think of grains like wheat, oats, barley, or rye, we usually picture large farms with fields and fields of tall, flowing plants. Although growing grains in your own backyard takes a bit of specialized knowledge, it's actually not as difficult as you might think.
For starters, you don't need any special machinery or even a lot of space. In fact, a little bit of garden space, even a spot as small as a single row in your vegetable garden, will do. With just a little bit of research, you will be able to grow these grains in your own backyard.
Growing grains is simple. First, you have to work the soil into a seedbed and broadcast the seed by hand. Then you have to rake the soil to work the seed into the ground about 2 inches deep. Next, spread a 2-inch or 4-inch layer of loose straw over top to help keep in moisture and keep out weeds.
And that's basically it for starting, but every type of grain is different in when you plant it and when you harvest it. Here are eight types of grains that you can grow in your own garden with just a little bit of research and effort.
There are several varieties of wheat you can either choose a winter or spring variety. The hard red wheat varieties are most commonly used for baking and can grow in both cool and warm seasons. Hard red winter and hard red spring wheats are used for baking bread soft red winter and white wheat are usually used for pastry flour.
Winter wheat is planted in fall, stays green throughout the early winter, and can be harvest in the spring. The quick warm weather helps speed up the new growth. If you decide to go with a spring variety, plant it at the beginning of the growing season and harvest in the late summer.
Barley is a delicious grain commonly cooked in soups, pilafs, and casseroles. It can also be made into flour and is low in gluten.
Home processing is difficult because of barley's tough hull that needs to be removed. However, you can plant barley in either early spring for a late spring harvest, or in the fall for a spring harvest.
Growing corn in your garden is easy, but it does take a long time to grow. Usually when gardeners think about growing corn, they consider growing sweet corn, the kind you would eat cooked as corn on the cob. But if you want to grind it up into corn meal or flour, you will have to grow dry corn.
Dry corn is grown the exact same way as sweet corn, but they cannot grow near each other or they will cross-pollinate. Corn needs a long, hot growing season and rich soil to grow.
Oats are considered a superfood they are high in protein and low in carbohydrates. Oats often have a tough hull that is difficult to remove, but you can find hull-less varieties to grow such as “Freedom.”
If you live in the South, it's best to plant oats in the fall for a spring harvest, but in cold climates, oats should be planted in early spring for a summer harvest. They need a lot of moisture and prefer a cool climate and fertile, well-drained soil.
Although buckwheat isn't actually a cereal grain, but instead a member of the Polygonaceae family among rhubarb and garden sorrel, it is a tasty grain often added to bread.
Buckwheat can be planted any time from spring to late summer and only takes about 75 days to grow. It can also grow well in poor soil.
Rye grows better than wheat in cold, wet climates and can grow well in poor soil. Otherwise, you can plant rye in the same manner and rate as winter wheat in either late summer or late fall.
Millet is a common name for at least five different genera and species of cereal grains in Asia and Africa. However, we usually refer to millet as the small, shiny, yellow seeds in birdseed mixes. It is high in essential amino acids and has a subtle nutty flavor when cooked.
Millet matures in as few as 30 days, and you can plant it at any time in the spring or summer. It can also tolerate growing in poor soils.
This grain is also similar to wheat. It has a nutty flavor and are highly nutritious seeds that are easily digested. Spelt is used to make breads, flour. and pasta. It contains a different gluten than wheat does and many people who are allergic to wheat can tolerate spelt.
Spelt can grow well in poorer soil than wheat, even in heavy clay or dry conditions. It should be planted in the fall and harvested in the spring.
Wheat seeds are often available at gardening and DIY stores or online. Check that the seeds are the right ones for the time of year you’re planting:
- Winter wheat is planted in the autumn and harvested from mid-May.
- Spring wheat is planted in the spring and harvested in autumn.
Both spring and winter wheat are divided into:
- Soft wheat, which has a low gluten content and is used for pastries and crackers,
- Hard wheat which is high in gluten and used for bread, and durum wheat which is used for pasta.
The type that’s best for you will depend on where you live. It’s worth asking for advice in the gardening store you buy your seeds from.
A whole lot of grains
One bushel of wheat contains around a million individual whole grain kernels.
War On Whole Grain
Amaranth is a whole grain that was incredibly important to the Aztecs. So when the Spanish invaded, their leader, Cortez, tried to destroy the Aztecs by not allowing them to grow it - anyone caught was put to death!
1. It’s all about timing
Wheat should be planted in the spring or the autumn – timing is important, so it’s a good idea to make a note on your calendar of when you need to start planting your seeds.
2. Prepare the soil
You’ll need some good rich soil, so it’s best to dig in some compost. (You can buy bags of compost at garden centres and DIY stores. Or you could make your own by throwing all your food waste into a compost bin. It takes a few months for it to be ready to use, but it’s worth the wait.) Make sure the ground is fairly even - you can use a shovel and rake to do this. Most children love digging and raking – so sit back and let them play!
3. Get planting
Sprinkle the seeds over the soil - you need 3 oz for every 100 square feet (85 g for every 10 square meters). It’s best to help your child do this – just in case you get wheat in your flower beds!
4. Rake it out
Rake over the soil to cover the seeds. Help your child out with this job as it needs a gentle touch.
5. Scare the crows!
You probably won’t need a scarecrow – but if you’re planting outside you’ll need to cover the seeds to protect them from birds.
6. Just add water
Make sure the seeds get enough water - if it doesn’t rain, water them once a day. (Why not get your child their own little watering can?) If you go away, instead of asking a neighbour to water your crop, you could use an automatic watering system. You can pick up an inexpensive and easy to use kit from your local DIY stores or garden centre.
7. See how they grow!
Be patient, and before long you’ll see the first green shoots. By midsummer (or a bit later for spring wheat) the colour of the stalks will turn from green to yellow or brown. And the heads will become heavy with grain and start to bend forward. So now you have your own crop of golden wheat, what are you going to do with it? Well, you could harvest it and make your own wheat flour. Alternatively, you could sit back and admire your beautiful golden wheat – it really does look fantastic and is an unusual addition to your garden or outside area.
Many varieties are cold hardy to -10F (- 23C) when well rooted in the garden. Grow varieties described as soft spring wheat in spring, but choose hard winter wheat for fall.
When using wheat to improve very poor soil, mixing a balanced organic fertilizer into the soil before planting will give better results.
Winter Field Beans, Hairy Vetch and Winter Peas.
Single Plants: 3″ (10cm) each way (minimum)
Rows: 3″ (10cm) with 3″ (10cm) row gap (minimum)
Sow and Plant
Sow in late summer or early fall for an overwintered crop. Spring wheat can be planted while the soil is still cool. Broadcast seed into cultivated soil so that the seeds are about 3 inches (7 cm) apart and one-half inch (1 cm) deep. No thinning is required. Increase spacing to 8 inches (20cm) apart when growing wheat with other cover crops.
Primarily grown to increase organic matter, break up dense subsoil and crowd out weeds. Makes a beautiful show in spring.
Mow down plants in spring, before they develop seeds. Or, gather the immature seed tops and dry them for arrangements, and then pull up the plants. They can be used as mulch or composted.
How to Plant Wheat
Last Updated: March 4, 2021 References Approved
This article was co-authored by Lauren Kurtz. Lauren Kurtz is a Naturalist and Horticultural Specialist. Lauren has worked for Aurora, Colorado managing the Water-Wise Garden at Aurora Municipal Center for the Water Conservation Department. She earned a BA in Environmental and Sustainability Studies from Western Michigan University in 2014.
There are 10 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page.
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You don’t need a lot of space to plant wheat, but you do need to plan for the crop carefully. Planning and timing the planting of your crop gives it the best chance of flourishing. You also need to prepare the area where you’ll plant the wheat, and make sure it takes to the ground and grows well.
The Tools You’ll Need to Grow and Process Wheat
Searching for equipment for small-scale grain growing and processing? Browse these resources to locate what you need, plus acquire more know-how.
Planting and Harvesting
Threshing, Dehulling and Milling
Stan Cox is a sustainable-living activist and plant breeder at The Land Institute in Salina, Kan. He has worked as a USDA wheat geneticist and his most recent book is Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing.