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Growing Wheat in Our Garden

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By Maggie Bullington | Apr 23, 2021

Small-scale wheat production can yield a delicious, bountiful harvest, and sprout a satisfaction from making your own homegrown bread.

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Maggie Bullington

The sun beat down out of the bright-blue summer sky as I crouched by rustling wheat. While I harvested, the rhythmic clipping of my shears combined with the soft, almost musical swishing of wheat straw. The airy touch of the awns brushed against my face. Recalling this scene reminds me of the biblical story of Ruth gleaning the barley harvest in Israel so long ago.

I was in my family’s Alabama garden on that summer day, working in a plot of wheat that neatly took in a parcel of one of our large garden beds…–…a space about 100 feet long by 4 feet wide. That’s a 400-square-foot plot, or roughly a hundredth of an acre.

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Image Maggie Bullington

After some trial and error, our wheatgrass began to grow well.

One-hundredth of an acre of wheat? At this point, you may be thinking this project is highly ineffective. Why not just go to a grocery store and buy some flour? Why grow such a small stand of wheat? This is what you might call small-scale wheat production, and it isn’t just a theoretical project for me. My family routinely grinds and bakes with whole wheat. Having my very own wheat in the garden where I can watch each stage of growth, and then harvest and process it with my own hands, makes the experience of eating bread even richer.

Producing bread from start to finish has appealed to me for a long time. Have you ever read the story of the Little Red Hen? She industriously sets out to grow wheat for her own bread. Along the way, she keeps appealing for helpers from around the farm as she works through each stage of the process. No one ever shows an interest in lending a hand … until the freshly baked loaf of bread emerges from the oven. Now, everyone wants a taste! But at this point, Little Red Hen decides that since she did all the work without help, she’ll eat her bread without help too. This children’s story clearly portrays the value of diligent work, and when I was young, I enjoyed reading the version we had. The colorful pictures followed the wheat as it started from seed; turned golden; and was harvested, milled, and then baked into the delicious-looking loaf. I could almost taste it myself! Now that I’m a young farmer doing projects of my own, having that little hen’s skill of producing wheat for our family with minimal equipment has become an appealing asset.

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Image Maggie Bullington

Turning into golden wheat that was ready to be harvested, threshed, and winnowed.

Wheat makes an excellent cover crop in an established garden, even if you never intend to harvest the grain. In our area, winter wheat will produce a hardy green cover during the colder months. In spring, we’ll simply plow it into the soil, or mow it down and be ready to plant. Wheat shades out weeds, and its roots improve soil structure, creating a wonderful habitat for beneficial soil-dwelling critters.

Our Wheat-Planting Trials

I first decided to try harvesting wheat from my family’s garden as an experiment several years ago. I took some wheat out of one of our wheat storage buckets, went to the garden, and sowed it out on the ground with great expectation. Then, I simply covered the area lightly with hay to protect the seed.

As I checked on my wheat plot, I noticed that birds were routinely disturbing the hay and pecking in the soil, and I began startling them back into the sky. As the sprouts emerged, I confirmed that I had a spotty stand of wheat, thanks to the birds. I tried to spread more wheat seed into the voids, but the wheat contracted some kind of rust disease and didn’t yield particularly well. I also learned that threshing by hand was a prickly endeavor. However, we still gleaned enough to make several baked goods and catch a glimpse of what’s possible with small-scale wheat production in the garden.

When we were ready to try planting wheat again, I was better prepared! My dad and I talked it over. He wanted to try a strain of wheat called ‘Purple Straw’ that was historically grown in our area. We couldn’t get our hands on any of that grain, so we eventually settled on some soft white winter wheat, which we purchased in a No. 10 can sold for sprouting purposes. We prepared our area, and this time, we took a different approach. Our idea was to plant the wheat with intention, similarly to how a grain drill might plant it. We made 12 rows by hoe, about 4 inches apart, down the length of the prepared bed and sowed the grains thickly into the little furrows. It only took a couple of handfuls of wheat seed to plant our garden plot thickly.

We covered the seeds, much like planting corn, beans, or okra. This thwarted the birds, and the sprouts came up thick and strong. In time, the rows grew together to form a lush, soft carpet of green wheatgrass. We wondered at that point whether we’d planted it a bit too thickly! By the time we considered trying to thin it, however, the roots had woven themselves together, so we left it alone. Nowadays, I think a grain every inch or so would be plenty.

As we worked on our other garden planting and tending, the wheat basically tended itself. About the only weeding I did was pulling some wayward vetch that appeared among the green (and I could’ve even left the vetch, to add nitrogen to the soil). Other than that, the thick wheat choked out most of its competitors, and all there was left to do was watch and wait.

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Image Maggie Bullington

After we harvest the wheat, we dry it upside-down in our barn before the threshing process.

From Harvest to Homegrown Flour

The heads appeared, milky, plump, and sweet, above the grass. As the summer wore on, the wheat began to turn golden. Finally, it matured and dried. The time for harvest had come!

Harvesting

While the conventional farming industry has giant combines to harvest wheat, two traditional, handheld tools of the trade are the kama, a Japanese sickle, and the Russian-style curved sickle. With either tool, the wheat is gathered in the hand and sliced quickly near the ground, preserving the straw for useful service.

harvesting wheat

I didn’t have a tool of this kind. And since this was a relatively small area to harvest, I was going for minimal equipment. I opted to use kitchen shears. That’s not exactly what kitchen shears are made for…–…and I got the blisters to prove it…–…but they did work. Perhaps going forward, I’ll invest in a proper tool for the job.

Remember how the Little Red Hen couldn’t get any help? Well, I didn’t have her problem! Several family members willingly joined me in the garden for the harvest, and we completed it over a couple of different days, trying a couple of different curing methods. Some would tell you that it’s necessary to hang the grain for a period of time to further dry it before threshing it. So, we gave that method a try. We bundled the wheat into small sheaves and then covered the heads with light tulle to keep them as clean as possible and to catch any grains that dropped out. Then, we suspended the sheaves upside-down from the rafters in the concrete-floored corner of our barn, among the onions and garlic that shared the space. With that wheat safely stored away, we could focus on finishing the harvesting. By this time, the rest of the wheat had continued drying as it stood in the garden, and it was just about perfect to take right to the threshing process. We stacked large handful-sized bundles in a wheelbarrow. Keeping the bundles neatly stacked made the job of threshing much smoother.

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Image Maggie Bullington

Threshing

This time, we needed something to make threshing less painful and more efficient. Mechanized threshing machines have existed since the 19th century, when horse-powered and steam-powered inventions proved to be innovations in farming communities. I love how the threshing crew would move from farm to farm during harvest time until the whole community had their wheat threshed and stored away for winter.

Our community doesn’t have a threshing crew, so we had to make other arrangements. In keeping with the idea of using simple equipment, my dad came up with a simple threshing apparatus that could be constructed quickly with inexpensive materials: a full sheet of plywood, three 1-by-2-inch boards, a few screws, and a roll of hardware cloth.

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On one end, the hardware cloth is sandwiched between a 1-by-2-inch board and the plywood, and secured by several screws to hold everything in place. The other end of the hardware cloth is enclosed between the remaining 1-by-2-inch boards, which are screwed together to form a safe handle. In this way, the hardware cloth can be stretched over the plywood when threshing, or pulled up by the handle to access the grain collected on the plywood.

We set up this newly constructed thresher on our concrete front porch. To thresh the wheat, all I had to do was lay one of the handful-sized bundles of wheat over the hardware cloth, and rub the wheat out of the heads by running a clean shoe over them. Basically, the heads were pressed against the wires of the hardware cloth, and the grains popped out onto the plywood below.

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Image Maggie Bullington

Our homemade thresher simplifies the threshing process.

When the whole sheet of plywood was filled with grain and chaff, we simply pulled the hardware cloth out of the way and swept everything off the plywood and onto a clean sheet. Then, we transferred the sweepings to a bucket to await winnowing while we secured the hardware cloth back in place and threshed more wheat. Slowly, the pile of wheat diminished, leaving us with buckets of wheat and chaff to winnow.

Winnowing

Winnowing is the process of separating the wheat from the chaff. Since mature wheat is heavier than chaff, the separation is traditionally done by wind power. Thankfully, we were getting some heavy wind when I started winnowing, so some chaff could be quickly removed that way, but we completed a greater portion of the job using a large electric box fan. Positioning myself to the side of the fan, I poured the wheat back and forth between several large containers, which were in front of the fan’s breeze. The heavier wheat fell into the container, while the chaff flew away. I’ve found that you have to use a deep container to catch the wheat, so the precious grains don’t bounce out during the winnow. Some of the larger pieces, such as fragments of the head that get mixed with the wheat, have to be sorted by hand. This process also takes time, but it’s a great pleasure to let that wheat run through your fingers.

When I was finally satisfied with how my harvest looked, I weighed it and found that our little wheat patch had yielded nearly 20 pounds of fresh, homegrown wheat. This is approximately 60 cups of fresh, homegrown flour, when ground and ready for baking. Depending on the loaf size we make, that could be up to 20 loaves of bread, or a combination of bread, cookies, biscuits, rolls, pastry crusts, and cakes. They’ll be delicious made with this fine soft white wheat. What a satisfying feeling!

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Image Maggie Bullington

This garden-grown wheat has whet our appetites for exploring more small-scale grain production in coming seasons. Maybe you’ve been inspired to get out there and give it a try for yourself! Wheat isn’t the only grain that’s garden-worthy. There are many intriguing grains, such as barley, oats, amaranth, and buckwheat (which we’ve grown as a fascinating cover crop). Corn is also an ideal option as a bread crop. It’s much less labor-intensive, and there are so many heirlooms to try, such as the gorgeous ‘Cherokee White Eagle’ corn that my dad has cultivated for our cornmeal.

In this modern era of speed and convenience, it’s refreshing to spend time among rustling wheat, learning a traditional skill on the farmstead. The blessing of daily bread comes alive in a whole new way. And I’m mighty glad my family gets to enjoy homegrown bread together…–…because, Little Red Hen, I’m certain it’s better when shared.

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Maggie Bullington lives in beautiful rural Alabama. She enjoys flowers, food fresh from the garden, and handwritten letters. She’s also blessed to work with her brothers, who make handcrafted outdoor tools. Check them out at Lucas Forge and Wolf Valley Forge.


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The Mockmill 100 provides the ideal solution for anyone wanting to make delicious foods from freshly milled flour. With a throughput of approximately 100 grams of soft wheat per minute and a sturdy industrial motor, you’ll be enjoying fresh flour in your home in no time!

This product is available at the Grit store or by calling 866-803-7096. Item #8909.


More on Wheat
Learn how to plant, harvest, and use homegrown heirloom wheat in “Grist for Your Mill.”

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