A gentle plea for field crops in the garden

Wheat in the annual border? Cotton blooming amongst the zinnias?  Rice in the rain garden?  Is that crazy talk?  Field crop plants seem out of place in the home garden, but could it be we’ve undervalued them?  I think we have, and we would all benefit from an occasional foray into growing them.  I’m not arguing for everyone to pull out their roses and put in a patch of soybeans, nor am I advocating for everyone to turn survivalist and attempt to grow a year’s supply of grain.  However, I have been growing small patches of grain and fiber crops in my garden for almost a decade now, and have found the exercise to have a multitude of benefits.

Teach your family where their food comes from

I never considered planting field crop plants in my garden until a fateful train ride with my son. First, a bit of back story: My father was an agricultural researcher, and considered identifying major crop plants in any life-stage to be an Important Life Skill.  On any given trip through the countryside, we would have conversations like this:

Dad:  What’s growing in that field?

Teenage me:  Er…I don’t know…corn?

Dad:  No, sorgum.  You can tell because…(and here he launches into a few minute lecture on the agronomy and uses of sorgum)

Teenage me: Umm…ok. Why does this matter?

Dad:  This is important!  THIS IS WHERE YOUR FOOD COMES FROM!

Teenage me: Whatever, Dad.

I didn’t realize how unique a skill he had given me until years later.  Fast forward a decade, and I am sitting with my, much less jaded, 2-year old son on a train.

Me: Look at the wheat growing in that field!

Son: Wheat!

Guy behind me: Oh, is that what wheat looks like?  Hey, kids, look at the wheat!

Me (thinking to myself):  Wait?!? This is the crop that made western civilization possible!  How can a grown adult not know what it looks like?  Has the general populace become so disconnected from farming that they don’t know what staple crops look like?  I guess they have.  Wait, I shouldn’t be so smug. Do I know how to grow any of these plants? I don’t!  I’m a gardener; I should know. THIS IS WHERE OUR FOOD COMES FROM!

And from that moment on, I vowed to grow a small patch of a different grain or fiber crop in my garden each year to both teach myself and my progeny more about the crops’ life cycle and biology.  You can do this too!

Test yourself, can you identify the plants in the picture below?  Do you know how to grow them?  If so, congratulations! You get bragging rights over most of your modern brethren.  If not, consider planting a tiny patch yourself.  If you have kids, or are a teacher, the little ones discovering where their food (and fiber) come from can be especially eye opening.

Become better connected to history

For much of recorded history, growing grain and fiber crops was what the majority of people spent the majority of their time doing.  In fact, recorded history is arguably the direct result of the domestication of these plants.  By growing them yourself, you will be quite literally be grounding yourself in a part of this history. Want a taste of life in ancient Mesopotamia? Grow emmer.  Studying the Incas?  Plant some quinoa.  Want to learn about the Ethiopian empire?  Try your hand at teff.  Threshing and winnowing your own grains, while fun on a small scale, can also made make you appreciate the invention of the combine and other modern farm equipment.

Understand literature more deeply

Winter and Spring 215 004
Ma and Pa Ingalls, I’m impressed. A home grown loaf like this takes a lot of work!

From Little House on the Prairie, to the Little Red Hen, to the ancient sacred texts of the world’s major religions, staple crops are constantly referenced throughout literature.  These stories will become much more vivid, and the references much more clear once you’ve tried your hand at growing these plants yourself.

Get crafty

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Raw craft materials: Rice, Cotton, Wheat

Seed heads of wheat, broom sorghum, teff, and rice look great in fresh or dried flower arrangements.  Cotton bolls give a southern charm to wreaths, and can be used to make a variety of Christmas decorations. Die-hard fiber nerds might enjoy trying their hand at growing their own cotton or flax for spinning (and simultaneously develop a firm appreciation for the invention of the cotton gin and modern retting processes).  

Fill in “garden gaps”

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This patch of wheat is suppressing weeds and eventually will become chicken treats, while I wait for some perennials to get big enough to divide and put here.

Once I know how to grow a certain plant, this is usually my go-to reason for planting it again.  Many agronomic plants make excellent, inexpensive place-holders.  Warm-season grains like millet and broom sorghum can be used in landscape designs like other ornamental grasses. Pop a few patches of them in the back of the border to give quick vertical accents in the garden, or use them to foil the view of your neighbor’s shed while you wait for slower-growing perennials to fill in.  Other plants can be used as “mini-cover crops” to suppress weeds in an attractive manner until you get around to planting something more permanent in an area.  Wheat and rye work well for this in the fall and over winter. Buckwheat is an excellent temporary filler to plant during the spring and summer and, if allowed to bloom, is attractive to many pollinators and other beneficial insects to boot.

From educational value to practical uses, field crops have a place in any home garden. They connect us to history and literature, fill gaps in our over-ambitious garden projects, give us fodder for crafting, and yes, remind us of where our food comes from.

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7 thoughts on “A gentle plea for field crops in the garden

  1. Fascinating and, as you say, it makes a lot of sense to try growing field plants just so we know what they are and what they need. I’ve never seen any of the crops above growing in the UK and the only one familiar is buckwheat, because I sowed a little patch to see if the bees liked it. I don’t think they recognise it, though, as they haven’t paid any attention to it. Maybe insects here just aren’t familiar with buckwheat. I’ll grow it again next year and keep watch.

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    1. The others crops pictured are much more common in North Carolina, USA where I live than in the UK. The other pictures are peanuts, cotton, and sorgum, which all like warmer weather than I associate with the UK. Wheat, buckwheat, beans, and flax are probably better for your climate. Some years I have tons of bees on my buckwheat, some years I don’t. I don’t know why myself.

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  2. Just a cautionary note, but if enough home gardeners plant these crops outside their normal growing seasons, or don’t practice proper sanitation of the residue, you can be providing off-season hosting sites or “green-bridges” for insects and diseases of these crops, potentially causing problems for farmers in the area. During the boll weevil eradication program, any planting of cotton was supposed to be registered, so that proper monitoring of the weevil could take place. Volunteer wheat plants serve as a place for Hessian flies to get a jump start on new wheat plantings.

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    1. Good points. I will be surprised if my ideas catch on enough to cause a problem for growers, but this is a good thing to keep in mind. Perhaps I should do a follow up post about best practices to avoid hurting commercial plantings.

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  3. I’ve tried growing wheat but it did not grow taller than 6″, perhaps the seasonal timing was wrong. Right now I do have millet in different parts of the garden (just mini patches). They are volunteers from spilled bird seeds but they are left to grow simply to feed the birds naturally. I still wonder if wheat can grow where I am in C. FL.

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  4. I grow buckwheat every year in my vegetable garden as a place holder in empty spots…the bees adore it and is a nitrogen fixer, and it is easy to till under to improve soil tilth.

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    1. Glad you have had success! I love buckwheat as well Sadly, it doesn’t do much nitrogen fixing, but you are right that the bees (and other beneficial insects) love it. If you want a nitrogen fixing crop that bees also love, try a legume, such as beans or clover.

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