Hallelujah for things you can sow direct before last frost!
Spring wheat is one such soul.
How do I love growing heirloom wheat? Oh, let me count the ways:
1. Aforementioned: you can sow it in March, or as soon as the soil is workable.
2. You can harvest your first batch by the first week of July. Successive sow it and you’ll be harvesting again and again.
3. It likes poor soil and will never need watering.
4. Landscaping cheat: it can fill holes between perennials and sways in the breeze like a prairie grass.
5. You can sow a lot of wheat in a small space, 1 inch per 1 seed, 1 inch deep.
6. You can use it for all kinds of crafts! A bouquet of wheat is tres chic or that’s what I tell friends when I give it to them.
7. You and your farm animals can eat it.
8. There are many, many, many interesting and heirloom varieties of wheat. They all look different.
9. Wheat only needs 3 meters from another wheat to preserve heirloom seed.
10. Wheat has been in cultivation for ages. Wild emmer wheat was found growing in the Fertile Crescent of Iran on the meadow and hillsides. Grains of wild emmer found at an archeological site were radiocarbon dated to 17,000 years B.C. The first wheat I ever grew was ancient emmer and it was really special feeling – I was holding what the Egyptians grew!
A high-nitrogren soil or excess water (or a bad storm) may cause wheat to lodge, aka fall over and fail to grow properly. At the most I’ve sprinkled some compost in the thinnest layer on top of the bed (keep in mind my soil is *white sand*). So don’t fertilize it, don’t fuss, just let it do its thing.
Harvest wheat for arts and crafts before it gets fully ripe or else your seed heads will shatter. It takes a bit of practice to know how ripe is too ripe; some wheat will hang its heads downwards once fully ripe, others mature in to deeper or lighter colours. If you’re unsure, harvest small amounts for drying and leave some to ripen more, or successive sow (sow in batches 10 days to 2 weeks apart), and keep trying to find the sweet spot right before it’s too ripe to preserve.
When using for arts and crafts, you may want to cut off the awns (needly stick bastards).
Once let loose awns can cause pure havoc by embedding in fabric of all kinds (they are programmed to dig into the soil on their own so this action makes sense in retrospect).
Fail to heed this warning and next thing you know these little pricks will be in your pockets, bra, socks and sofa.
WHEAT I LIKE TO GROW
Because there are so many different kinds of wheat, and because it’s so easy to save heirloom seed, I grow many different kinds each year just to see them.
I have harvested all of it for crafts or seed and have not yet had my chance to eat them, but the chickens have.
It’s a sound practice to grow at least a few different kinds each year because maybe one variety won’t like your soil or conditions and another will. Until you learn which is going to thrive, try a few. I grow in sandy soil and gravitate towards any wheat declaring itself more drought-tolerant.
Or if you’re going to be weaving wheat like it’s the 80’s baby, then grow the kinds most useful for that (which is usually winter wheat, not a great option for zone 3, but don’t quote me, I’m still learning here).
In any case, I grow multiple varieties of each of these just to get the difference in shape and colour:
Emmer wheat (Triticum diccocum): this one is very easy to find, and has a beautiful silky, silver green colour before turning ripe, and classic wheat appearance. It’s also known as farro in Italy, where it’s consumed as a whole grain, and gives a higher fibre than other wheat. It’s also the wheat you might see on a beer label. Folks in the Netherlands and Switzerland still make bread from it.
Einkorn wheat (Triticum monococcum): This one has been around for ages too, as long as emmer. It grows shorter and will grow in poorer, drier soils than emmer wheat. It has a more intricate, smaller and tighter looking head that’s very flat. It doesn’t produce good flour, so it’s most commonly eaten as boiled whole grains. It has higher protein, fat and other minerals than other wheats.
Durum wheat (Triticum durum): This is the one for making pasta flour and semolina. It gives a bulbous, very fat looking head.
WHERE TO FIND IT
By far, the seed company selling the largest amount of heirloom wheat I’ve ever seen is Prairie Garden Seeds, run by a father-daughter team Jim and Rachelle Ternier out of Humboldt, Saskatchewan. You won’t find fancy photos in their catalogue or even by googling the types online so you’re often ordering blind, and you have to snail-mail your order in with a cheque (I love this). Be prepared to wait a number of weeks for your order. Be prepared to find out some of the most colourful ones have sold out. Order early! Wheat is one of the first seeds to go in the ground, so it makes sense it’s one of the first things you should order.
Feeling overwhelmed with choices? Try ‘Blue Utrecht’, a Dutch heirloom that gives baby blue turning to dark blue heads; ‘Moroccan Frost’ which gives squat, silvery heads; ‘Black Einkorn’; or ‘Tan/Blue Emmer’.
ALSO TRY: Barley. Pretty much everything you do for wheat, you do for barley, which would appreciate a more fertile and moister soil than wheat. Barley has more awns on it and these can really obscure the beautiful seed head for arts and crafts, so I don’t grow it as much… Until I learn how to brew backwoods beer, that is.