Barley was one of the first grains ever grown domestically. It was cultivated in Eurasia 10,000 years ago ~ before people had even figured out how to make pottery!
Barley has been used as food, fodder, and currency. Barley is cited as a reason for many prehistoric cultures to develop into cities capable of maintaining armies, because of its ability to be stored. Barley beer is believed to be the first alcoholic beverage, created by Neolithic people, who malted* the grains. Rations of barley were given to workers since ancient times. Barley is still used today to make beer, whiskey, porridge, bread, soups and stews. And the U.S. and the U.K. still base their shoe sizing on the size of a barely corn (seed).
The barley plant
Barley (Hordeum vulgare) is a member of the grass family (Poaceae). It is a self-pollinating annual. Barley has a relatively short growing season, but it tolerates cool weather and drought, making it a good winter crop, here in the Bay Area. Barley seeds grow on a brittle spike, made up of spikelets. When the seeds mature, the spikelets fall apart, allowing the seeds to spread. The long hairs that stick up are called awns. There are two main types of barley, based on the way the seeds are arranged along a central stalk (rachis) and their fertility: two-row barley and six-row barley. In six-row barley, all of the seeds are fertile, whereas only one in three of the two-row barley are fertile. Two-row barley has less protein and more starch than six-row barley, making a better choice for malting and fermenting. Higher protein six-row barley is more commonly used for animal feed. There are spring and winter varieties of barley, depending on whether or not they need a period of cold to transition into their reproductive phase. In the Bay Area, that generally means planting in either October or January. Barley’s reproductive phase is characterized by true stems, called culms, carrying flowering heads, also known as a spikes or ears, that emerge from the sheath, or boot. surrounding the uppermost leaf (called the flag leaf). Barley grows 2-1/2 to 3 feet tall.
Barley seeds have tough coverings called hulls. Most varieties have hulls that are difficult to remove without losing or damaging some of the grain. These are also known as ‘covered’ barley. The barley you see in the store is usually hulled or pearled barley. Hulled barley is a whole grain, but pearled barley is not. Pearling removes several outer layers of the grain along with the hull. There are also hulless, or ‘naked’ barley varieties, but they aren’t really hulless. Instead, the hull is simply easier to separate from the grain. Barley hulls are often used to make pillows.
Why grow barley?
You may want to grow a small patch of barley, simply as a testament to our agricultural history, to know that you can. You may want to try making your own beer or whiskey. You may want to grow more of your own ingredients for a hearty winter soup. Barley can also be grown as a cover crop or green manure, to reduce erosion, improve soil structure, and suppress weeds. Barley is an excellent crop to install as your winter fava beans start ending their growing season. If you add a legume, such as peas or beans, and leave the plants in place, you can significantly improve nutrient cycling. Barley grown in winter has a deep, fibrous root system that can go down over 6 feet! Also, because barley grows so quickly, it absorbs surface water that would otherwise be used by weeds. Barley plants also shade out weeds and the plants emit allelopathic chemicals that suppress weed growth. Barley can also be used as a nurse crop. Nurse crops provide protection for slowing growing crops, such as beets.
How to grow barley
Barley seeds are planted using a method called drilling. Drilling is exactly what it sounds like: you drill a hole in the ground and drop a seed in. Commercial growers have heavy equipment that drills and plants seeds automatically. You probably don’t have one of those machines in your garage, so you will have to do it by hand. Barley seeds are planted deeply. By deeply, I mean 2 inches deep. When I first started growing things in my California concrete soil, I actually used a battery powered drill to plant seeds. After five years of composting, mulching, and top dressing, the drill is no longer needed. Now, I use a hand weeding tool to poke a hole in the ground.
Barley does not like waterlogged soils, so allow the soil to dry out between waterings. Of course, if it’s a rainy winter, there isn’t anything you can do about it other than continuing to add organic material to the soil, to improve drainage. You can see a spreadsheet of various barley cultivars suitable for growing in California here.
Barley pests and diseases
As a cereal grain, barley is prone to fungal diseases, such as leaf scald, net blotch, stripe rust, leaf spot, and stem rust. Common pests include mites, armyworms, grasshoppers, crane flies, stinkbugs, wireworms, and aphids. Also, aphids may carry a viral disease called barley yellow dwarf. Some people claim that barley acts as a natural pesticide, but research has not shown this to be true.
So, how about making a little room for a patch of barley? As a food crop, I expect that it will be much like endive, nasturtiums, lentils, and tomatoes - it will continue to turn up long after I have stopped planting it.
* What is malting?
Malting is a method used to make grains more appropriate for beer, whiskey vinegar, shakes, and many other food products. Malting consists of soaking cereal grains in water, to stimulate germination, but then drying the seeds with hot air before germination actually occurs. This triggers certain enzymes into action that convert starches into sugars, and break down certain proteins that are later used by yeast as food. Malted grains ferment quickly and become slightly alcoholic on their own.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!