If you hang a bird feeder in your yard, you are probably already growing millet.
Millet is those tiny, blonde seeds found in bird seed. It is also a delicious, easy to grow, gluten-free porridge. [In the same way as corn, rice, barley, and wheat, millet seeds are actually a specialized dry fruit, called a caryopsis, but we'll leave that for another discussion.]
Originally from Asia and Africa, people have been growing and eating millet for over 7,000 years. Some historians believe that millet played a major role in humanity’s shift from hunter-gatherers to farmers. Today, millet is still an important food source in many regions. You may be surprised to learn that millet, and not rice, is the primary carbohydrate food source in northern China. Millet can be eaten as a sweet, with milk and sugar, or as a savory dish, with the addition of meat and vegetables. Millet is high in protein, dietary fiber, and several B vitamins. A single serving of millet provides 76% of the RDA for manganese, which makes me wonder why we don’t eat more of it. The only cereal-related nutrient that millet is lacking is lysine, but buckwheat contains high levels of this important amino acid, so eating millet and buckwheat together makes for a healthy diet.
Types of millet
Millets are actually a group of plants in the grass family (Poaceae). Unlike most families, many millet varieties are only remotely related to one another. You can track down the different groupings, if you feel so inclined, but the most commonly grown are:
Sorghum, also found in bird seed mixes and cereal bowls, is sometimes called Great millet, but it is generally considered a separate cereal from millet.
How millet grows
Millet is an annual that grows quickly in hot, dry weather, on crappy soil. Of course, it performs far better when plant nutrients and irrigation are present, but it’s an extremely resilient plant. [The only thing it cannot tolerate is waterlogged soil and mud.] Depending on the variety, mature millet plants can reach a height of 2 to 5 feet.
Millet grows so fast that seeds will sometimes sprout while still attached to the spike! Normally, seeds germinate in 5 days, and spikes are ready to harvest in 50 to 180 days, depending on the variety and weather conditions. Because it grows so quickly, millet can also be used for erosion control, or as a green manure. It also tends to grow faster than most weeds. Millet is a good choice for filling in difficult spaces of the yard. Local birds will appreciate the free lunch, too!
How to grow millet
Millet seeds can be broadcast by hand over an area and raked in, or you can drill holes that are 1 to 4” deep for the seeds. [Did I mention that millet is rugged?] Once plants are established, they will readily self-seed the area, year after year. Because of millet’s high carbon to nitrogen (C:N) ratio, it is best balanced with low C:N plants, such as legumes, in crop rotation.
Millet pests and diseases
Generally speaking, millet has few pests, other than Bagrada bugs and crane flies. Millet diseases lean toward the fungal variety, with blast, leaf spot, downy mildews, ergot, rust, Johnson spot, smut, and blight causing the most problems. Simply provide good drainage and reasonable irrigation to avoid most of these diseases.
Millet, it’s not just for the birds (though you may need to protect your crop with netting or row covers, if you want any left to harvest). You can have it for breakfast, use it to increase biodiversity in your yard, or, if you’re feeling adventurous, millet can even be used to make alcoholic beverages!
Buckwheat pancakes, buckwheat eye pillows, and soba noodles are all made from buckwheat seeds, but what is it, really? And what can it do for your garden or landscape?
Despite its name, buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum) is not a type of wheat. Nor is it a type of grass. Instead, buckwheat is related to knotweed, sorrel, and, you won’t believe this - rhubarb!
If you compare buckwheat seeds with rhubarb seeds, you can see the similarity. Both produce triangular seeds. Buckwheat gets its name because it is used like wheat, but it has triangular seeds, similar to the beech tree. [The Dutch word for beech is boec.] Buckwheat, like quinoa, is a type of pseudocereal.
Originally from Yemen, buckwheat was a popular food staple for nearly 8,000 years. This was true until nitrogen became commercially available, which made other cereal and pseudocereal crops more productive than buckwheat.
The buckwheat plant
Buckwheat has a taproot that goes deep in search of water, and a dense, fibrous root system that stays within the top 10 inches of soil. Here, roots produce a mild acid that breaks down phosphorus, making it easier to absorb. Buckwheat is three times more effective at phosphorus extraction than barley, and ten times more effective than wheat. In areas with excessive phosphorus, growing buckwheat can help bring micronutrients back into a better balance for other plants. When the buckwheat is used as a green manure, those nutrients are returned to the soil. The buckwheat plant reaches a height of 30 to 50 inches. Its seeds are a type of simple dry fruit called an achene.
How buckwheat grows
Buckwheat does not handle heat, drought, or compacted soil very well. That being said, it’s fast growth makes it the best choice for newly cleared or overly farmed land. I have planted buckwheat next to my fences, partially under large, established plants, in an effort to bring life to soil that was exposed to the elements for decades before we moved in.
How to grow buckwheat
You can broadcast buckwheat seeds over an area, or you can drill holes for it. Drilling 1/2 to 1-1/2 inch holes for your buckwheat seeds means more will grow, and local birds will get less. These holes can be surprisingly close together. Converting the farming instructions of 50 to 60 pounds of buckwheat seed per acre, using 15,000 seeds per pound, you can cram 15 to 20 buckwheat seeds per square foot of garden space.
Buckwheat pests and diseases
Like many other ancient grains and pseudograins, buckwheat has very few pests or diseases that affect it. Occasionally, leaf spot and root rot can take hold. Also, competition from lambsquarters and pigweed can seriously reduce buckwheat growth.
Buckwheat as cover crop and green manure
Buckwheat makes an excellent cover crop and green manure. Buckwheat is a fast-growing plant that grows well in crappy soil. Germination usually occurs in only 3 to 5 days. Because buckwheat grows so quickly, you can plant it just before harvesting one crop, and before the next crop takes hold. This will help stabilize the soil, support soil microorganisms, and add nutrients in just a few days. In less than 45 days, your buckwheat plants will grow, flower, and be ready for mowing, as a green manure. You can also mow your buckwheat in the early stages of flowering to encourage regrowth and to extend the growing season. If you want the seeds for food or replanting, they will be ready in 70 to 90 days.
Buckwheat as insectary
Buckwheat plants start producing flowers within 3 weeks, and those flowers can last for 10 weeks. This is good news because buckwheat flowers are favored pollen and nectar sources for many pollinators and beneficial insects that parasitize aphids, mites, and other garden pests. Some of these beneficials include minute pirate bugs, green lacewings, insidious flower bugs, hoverflies, predatory wasps, big-eyed bugs, tachinid flies. and lady beetles.
The “other” buckwheats
Completely different from the pseudograin buckwheat, California hosts a collection of over 125 native plants known as buckwheats. These plants are in the Eriogonum genus. You can find both annual and perennial native buckwheats. These plants are also enjoyed by butterflies and other beneficial insects. Unlike the edible buckwheat, native buckwheats are very drought tolerant, and most of them are evergreens, adding color and texture to the landscape for most of the year. Popular varieties of native buckwheat include:
Native buckwheat provides food and habitat to native beneficials, with minimal effort. Edible buckwheat suppresses weeds, attracts pollinators, and improves soil structure and soil health.
Whichever type of buckwheat you decide to add to the garden or foodscape, the soil and local beneficial insects are sure to improve!
Oats in the garden or landscape? Why not?
Long, long ago, when people were first growing cereal grains in the Fertile Crescent, there was a weed on the side of the fields. These weeds may have benefited from the irrigation and fertilizers used on the primary crop, or they may have cross-pollinated - I don’t know. But that pesky weed turned out to be oats, of oatmeal cookie fame.
Oats are members of the grain plant family (Poaceae). Like other cereal grains, the seeds we use to make oatmeal are actually a fruit, called a caryopsis. Unlike other grains, oats contain a legume-like protein, and eating oats regularly can help reduce cholesterol levels. Along with alfalfa, wheat, ryegrass, clover, and timothy, oat hay is grown as animal fodder. Even today, oats (Avena sativa) are grown more as livestock fodder than for human consumption. [My chickens LOVE oat seed heads and leaves.] But, there are plenty of other reasons to grow this versatile weed-come-cereal-grain.
Oats in the landscape
Oats make an attractive stand of tall stalks and waving seed heads. As an annual, oats can reseed an area. Unlike many other grain crops, oats are not as attractive to most small songbirds. Larger birds, such as mourning doves, may flock to your oat stands. I think that their pretty cooing often makes up for any lost grain. But why would you want to add oats to your landscape or garden? Here are just a few good reasons:
How to grow oats
You can plant oats as soon as temperatures are consistently above 40°F. Seeds can be broadcast over an area and raked in or, in the case of severely compacted soil, a drill can be used to create holes 1/2 to 1 inch deep. How much seed was a little tricky to calculate for the home garden. All I could find was information for farmers, which told me 2.75 to 3.25 bushels per acre. Huh. I own a bushel basket but I have never had a bushel basket full of seeds. Ever. After hunting around on the internet, I have come to the conclusion that you should simply follow the directions on the seed packet. If you want to see what I learned, you can read the note below.]
Oats grow quickly. Also, oat plants are triggered to flower as nights get shorter, in a behavior called photoperiodism, so seeds become available rather quickly. Oats are heavy feeders, so side dressing young plants will give them the nutritional boost they need to thrive.
Oats are more tolerant of cooler temperatures and rain than other cereal grains, which makes them a good late winter and early spring crop, here in the Bay Area. Most oat plants will go dormant in the high heat of summer. The stems and stalks left behind by your oats are called stover. Stover can be added to the compost pile, used to create barriers, or left in place for climbing beans to use as a trellis.
The oats you see growing along roadsides are probably wild oats (Avena fatua). Many farmers are angry about wild oats because of cross-pollination.
Oats and crop rotation
In traditional crop rotation, a three-field system would grow legumes in one field, a grain, such as oats, in a second field, and allow the third field to rest, or go fallow. You can use a similar plan, whether you grow in rows, raised beds, or containers. This practice interrupts the disease triangle of many common plant pathogens.
Pests and diseases of oats
Bacterial blights can affect oats, along with stem and bulb nematodes, and barley root knot nematodes, dried fruit beetles, and crane fly larvae. Fungal diseases, such as leaf blotch, stem rust, crown rust, and powdery mildew are common, but not serious, threats for the home garden.
You may never harvest your oats, but, then again, you may. If you harvest these tiny fruits while they are still green, you can eat them fresh from the stalk (they don’t taste like much), or you can wait until they ripen and get hard. When I say hard, I mean it. These little suckers are like tiny oval rocks. Guess what? That’s why oats are rolled. Rolling oats means they are crushed between two giant heavy rollers, to flatten them and make the fruit accessible. Honestly, unless you are growing acres of oats, it probably isn’t worth trying to make your own oatmeal (even though you can).
Grown for their attractive, soil improving, chicken feeding properties is reason enough for adding these members of the cereal grain family to your annual crop rotation, garden, or landscape.
Seed calculation Rabbit Hole:
Did you know that you can grow your own quinoa?
Just don’t do what I did, which was to start it as summer temperatures were reaching 100°F! Let’s learn more about this high protein, ancient grain, so that you can add it to your foodscape.
What is quinoa?
Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) is a member of the amaranth family, along with beets and spinach. Quinoa is grown for its high protein seeds. Unlike most cereal grains, quinoa is not a grass plant, so its seeds are classified as a pseudocereal. People started farming quinoa 4,000 years ago in the Peruvian Andes, but it has been a food staple for as long as 7,000 years. One of the things that makes quinoa so special is that it contains all eight essential amino acids used by our bodies to make a complete protein molecule, plus it is gluten-free, for those suffering celiac disease.
The quinoa plant
Quinoa is a self-pollinating dicot, which means its seeds split in half and its flowers have petals that are in multiples of four or five. Unlike many other plants, quinoa flowers are green. Quinoa plants have deep taproots that make them drought resistant. Its leaves are broad, with tiny hairs (trichomes), and lobed. Plants can grow from 18 inches tall to over six feet. The central stem may be green, purple, or red, depending on the variety. Quinoa seeds can be black, tan, white, pink, red, or purple, depending on the cultivar. All quinoa seeds are coated with saponins, which taste bitter. This protects developing seeds from birds and other seed eaters, but the coating needs to be rinsed off before cooking and eating your quinoa. [In parts of Africa, those saponins are collected and used as a laundry detergent!] While young quinoa leaves are edible, they do contain high levels of oxalic acid, which can cause respiratory and kidney problems. But you’d have to eat an awful lot of quinoa leaves to have a problem.
How to grow quinoa
Quinoa plants are pretty rugged. They can be grown from sea level all the way up to the highest mountain tops (13,000 ft.), just give them plenty of sunlight. You will want to select a variety that is suited to your microclimate and elevation. Quinoa grows best in loose, sandy soil, which we don’t have here in the Bay Area. This means you can either grow your quinoa in a raised bed, or you can incorporate a lot of aged compost into your quinoa bed before planting. This will provide nutrients and improve drainage. Do not try growing quinoa in containers - it needs more underground space than a container can provide. Quinoa prefers a soil pH of 6.0 to 8.5, so our alkaline soil isn’t a problem. Seeds should be planted 1/4 of an inch deep and watered very gently, to avoid washing seeds away before they get a chance to germinate.
Quinoa plants prefer temperatures from 25°F to 95°F. This means you can start growing your quinoa in the Bay Area in autumn. That way, your plants will be harvested long before our quinoa-killing summer heat kicks in! Quinoa plants take 90 to 120 days to mature, so plant accordingly. Freezing temperatures will sterilize quinoa pollen, so frost that occurs during flowering can be problematic. These plants grow very slowly during their first two or three weeks, so snipping off weeds at ground level is the best way to reduce competition without disturbing the soil. Depending on the variety, plants only need 10 to 39 inches of water during the growing season. In the Bay Area, in an average year, we receive 15 inches of rain, so some irrigation may be needed, but not a lot. Quinoa plants should not be watered once they start going to seed.
Quinoa pests and diseases
While quinoa seeds protect themselves with saponins, many birds will still feast on your crop. You can use netting to reduce losses. Other pests include flea beetles, caterpillars, aphids, armyworms, and the recently discovered quinoa plant bug (Melanotrichus sp.). Bacillus thuringiensis can be used to control caterpillars. According to a report from Perdue University, there are no pesticides cleared for use on quinoa. Quinoa is prone to several fungal diseases, which is why good drainage is so important. Damping off disease, downy mildews, fusarium wilt, seed rot, leaf spot, and brown stalk rot can all affect your quinoa plants.
You will know it is time to harvest your quinoa crop when the leaves turn yellow, red, or purple, and start to drop off. The difficult part about harvesting quinoa is separating the seed from the rest of the plant. Similar to harvesting stone pine nuts, this is a labor intense process. Start by snipping off as much non-seed containing plant material as possible, and allowing the seed head to dry completely. You will want to protect these seed heads from moisture, because seeds will begin to germinate within 24 hours of being exposed to water. You will know the seeds are completely dry when you cannot leave a dent in one with your fingernail. Once they are completely dry, you can gently rub the seed heads against a colander or strainer to knock the seeds loose.
Even if you don’t harvest your quinoa, adding this plant to your garden or foodscape can increase biodiversity and, hey, it’s a strikingly beautiful edible plant!
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.
Chenopods include edibles such as California goosefoot, amaranth, and quinoa.
UPDATE: Until recently, chenopods were considered a distinct plant family. Genetic testing has altered that status forever. Chenopods are now recognized as members of the amaranth family (Amaranthaceae).
Many chenopods are considered severe agricultural pests, and the pollen from all of these plants can cause an allergic reaction for some people. Flowers generally bloom from spring through fall, but we can enjoy the benefits provided by some of the more benign varieties without adding invasives into our gardens and landscapes.
The Chenopod tribe
Russian thistle, waterhemp, pigweed, and kochia are all chenopods. Plants in this group can be annuals or perennials. They may be herbs, shrubs, or even trees. And they may grow in an erect or prostrate manner. In other words, chenopods have evolved in many different ways. Scientists are still debating chenopod classification, but we will leave that to them. Collectively, chenopod branches are alternate (which means they take turns up a stem), the leaves have petioles (tiny stems) and are shaped like a goose’s foot; hence the name ’cheno’, which means goose, and ‘pod’ which means foot. Young leaves and stems are often covered with tiny hairs (trichomes) or a white mealy dust, a condition called farinose. Humans have been eating chenopods for over 6,000 years. Below are some of the more common chenopod edibles.
Chenopod pests and diseases
Birds and butterflies enjoy eating the seeds, but these plants continue to survive and thrive, so the damage can’t be all that significant. The same holds true for apple stem grooving virus, tobacco necrosis virus, and the cowbane mosaic virus. They try to slow these plants down, but generally cannot.
Find a sunny spot in your garden or landscape for these colorful edibles!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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