Grow Your Own Heirloom Grains

by guest blogger Robyn Jasko, cofounder of Grow Indie

Beautiful to grow and easy to harvest grains: More and more gardeners are discovering just how easy it is to grow sustainable, GMO-free grains at home.

For the home gardener, growing grains has many advantages, whether you have chickens to feed or you just want to have your own organic supply of grains right in your backyard. But where do you start? Although most grains are typically mass-produced and shipped from halfway across the country before they end up on your plate, it’s actually very easy for gardeners to grow their own grains at home.

To get started, I chatted with “Farmer John” Fendley, founder of Sustainable Seed Co., a California-based heirloom seed company that has one of the largest selections of heirloom grains in the country, along with 1,500 other Old World varieties of vegetables, medicinal herbs, and flowers.

According to Fendley, barley is a great first grain to grow. It has a short growing season and doesn’t require as much watering as other grain varieties like wheat. If you start with a hulless variety, it gets even easier.

“Unlike other grains, you don’t need a machine to harvest hulless barley. This helps retain key vitamins and minerals that are normally lost in this process,” says Fendley. “Plus, it’s a total superfood. High in betaglucan, barley is 18 percent protein, and wonderful in soups, stews, salads, homebrews, and for baking.”

Ready to harvest in just 90 days (about half the time wheat takes), barley doesn’t need a whole lot of space in your garden. Fendley estimates that the average homegrower can harvest a pound of barley in a 4×8 raised bed. Fendley’s favorite variety of barley is Ethiopian Hulless, a jet-black variety that’s adaptable to several climates in the U.S.

If you are eating gluten free, amaranth, millet, sorghum, and quinoa are also good additions for the home gardener and can be sown directly as soon as your frost-free date passes. Just check the spacing for the type of grain you are growing, and make sure to give the plants plenty of room.

Amaranth is also extremely ornamental, with feathery plumes of brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows on 6- to 10-feet-tall stalks, making it a stunning backdrop or natural screen for the garden. If you don’t have a lot of space, grains can also be grown in raised beds, or even in very large containers or whiskey barrels.

Fendley has also had great success interplanting grains with other garden vegetables. Some of his favorite pairings are barley and beets or an altered “three-sisters” arrangement (a favored Native American way of growing corn, beans, and squash together) substituting amaranth for the corn; the beans climb up the amaranth while the squash plants create a ground cover that naturally squelches out the weeds.

Cultivated before GMOs entered the scene, Fendley says the taste of heirloom grains far surpasses the commercial varieties you buy at the store.

“In the 1950s and 1960s, grains were highly manipulated,” says Fendley. “Commercial grains may not be as easy for us to process. Plus, you definitely notice the difference in flavor. We get calls from bakers all the time asking for our heirloom grains. I think if more people grew and ate heirlooms, they would know what they were missing out on.”

Have you planted grains before? Which are your favorites to grow?


Robyn Jasko, creative services director at Runner’s World magazine at Rodale, is a local-foods activist, community garden starter, and cofounder of Grow Indie, a site promoting sustainable lifestyles, homesteading, eating well, and living local. Her first book, Homesweet Homegrown: How to Grow, Make and Store Food, No Matter Where You Live, was released May 2012.




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One Response to Grow Your Own Heirloom Grains

  1. James Early June 22, 2013 at 1:52 pm #

    Thanks, I’m sharing this on Facebook.

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