Wheat is the staff of life for many of us humans. This cereal grain (which is technically a fruit) provides a higher protein content than other grains, such as rice and corn, and wheat has been farmed for over 8,000 years.
What is wheat, really?
We all recognize wheat in the form of bread, pasta, pancakes and pizza crusts, but this amazing plant has more to it than meets the eye. While most domesticated plants have two sets of chromosomes (diploid), wheat (Triticum) is also found with four sets (tetraploid) or even six (hexaploid)! There are currently hundreds of wheat cultivars available, some of which were produced through mutation breeding and the application of gamma x-rays, ultraviolet light, and harsh chemicals. Before you get scared off, however, consider wheat as a viable option as a cover crop that can provide natural aeration, weed control, and, oh yeah, food.
Wheat can be classified by when it is grown (spring or winter), its protein content, gluten quality, seed hardness, or grain color (red or white). Within the United States, wheat is classified into these categories:
How to grow wheat
Wheat is a self-pollinating plant that is sown in swathes. Wheat makes an attractive border or wide row plant in nearly any landscape or garden. Winter wheat is planted 2 to 2-1/2 inches deep, 6 - 8 weeks before any chance of freezing temperatures. This gives the plants time to develop a strong root system before temperatures drop and dormancy occurs. As soon as temperatures begin to rise, the plants resume growing. Spring wheat is sown 1 to 1-1/2 inches deep, as early as the soil can be worked. In either case, tamp down the soil once seeds are in place to create good seed-soil contact. Wheat production can be significantly increased by rotating wheat crops with legumes. You may find it difficult to buy small quantities of wheat seed in garden or farm supply outlets, but resist the urge to use bulk pet or grocery store wheat as they may carry pests and diseases that can persist for years in your garden.
Wheat pests & diseases
Wheat can be attacked by powdery mildew, stem rust, Fusarium head blight, leaf blotch, and several fungal seed diseases. Crown rot and root rot may also occur. Crop rotation and proper irrigation can minimize the likelihood of these problems.
How to harvest wheat
One of the main reasons agriculture has moved toward the use of machines is that it is very labor-intensive work. Wheat is no exception. Wheat is cut when the heads are dry, heavy, and bent over, and the stalks have turned yellow or brown, usually 110 to 130 days after planting. Winter wheat is normally harvested in midsummer, while spring wheat is harvested in late summer or early fall. The best way to tell if your wheat is ripe is to eat a few kernels. If the grains are soft or chewy, let them grow. If they are crunchy, it is time to harvest. Harvesting wheat involves a multistep process of cutting, bundling, curing, threshing, and winnowing.
Wheat stalks were traditionally cut with a scythe, but small plots can be cut by hand. Lay the stalks so that the heads are all pointed in the same direction. After the wheat is cut, it must be bundled into sheaves. Each sheaf is simply a bunch of stems that you can hold in your two hands. These bundles can be secured with string, baling wire, or green wheat stems. Now, the grain must be cured. Stack your sheaves of wheat upright in an area that is dry, well-ventilated, and safe from seed-eating critters. Allow the sheaves to cure until the grain is hard to the point that you cannot dent it with your fingernail.
Threshing separates the grain from the straw (stalks) and chaff (husks, hulls). Threshing can be done by flailing or beating. Flailing is a bit tricky. Basically, you attach a 3 foot piece of wood to a 2 foot piece of wood, using a rope or leather strap, and beat the bejeezus out of the wheat heads. In half an hour of flailing, you can expect to thresh 4 or 5 pounds of wheat. An easier method is to use a large, clean metal trash can and beat the sheaves against the side of the trash can. This method is faster but it creates more debris and many seed heads end up mixed in with the chaff.
Winnowing is the way all that chaff is separated from the grain. Traditionally, grain was poured from one basket to another, allowing the wind to blow away the lighter bits of straw and chaff. Electric fans can be used to speed the process.
Planting 9 square feet of wheat should provide 4 cups of finished flour, enough for a single loaf of bread.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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