Under the blazing summer sun, I squatted in our family’s garden amidst the swaying wheat. As I harvested, the steady snipping of my shears mixed with the soft, almost musical sound of wheat straw. The airy touch of the awns brushed against my face, bringing to mind Ruth gathering barley in Israel ages ago.
On that summer day, I was in a wheat patch in our large garden—a plot measuring 100 feet long and 4 feet wide, or 400 square feet, about a hundredth of an acre.
You might be wondering about the practicality of growing such a small amount of wheat. “Why not just buy flour from the store? Why bother with this tiny wheat patch?” you might ask. This is what you could call a small-scale wheat production, and it’s not just a theoretical thing for me.
In our family, we regularly grind and bake with whole wheat. Having my own wheat in the garden, where I can see each growth stage, participate in the harvest, and process it myself, adds something extra to the experience of eating bread.
From childhood memories to daily reality
From childhood recollections to everyday life, the idea of making bread from scratch has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. Ever come across the tale of the Little Red Hen?
In this story, she diligently sets out to grow wheat for her own bread, persistently seeking help from farm mates at each stage of the process. However, no one shows interest in lending a hand until the aroma of the freshly baked loaf fills the air. Suddenly, everyone wants a slice. Yet, at this point, the Little Red Hen decides that since she did all the work solo, she’ll savor her bread solo too.
This children’s story vividly illustrates the value of hard work, and in my youth, I relished reading our version. The vibrant illustrations traced the journey of wheat, from seed to golden crop, and through the processes of harvesting, milling, and baking into a mouthwatering loaf. I could almost taste it myself!
Now, as an experienced farmer managing my own projects, possessing the Little Red Hen’s knack for cultivating wheat for my family with minimal equipment has become a valuable skill. Wheat serves as an excellent cover crop in an established garden, even if you have no plans to harvest the grain.
In our region, winter wheat forms a robust green cover during the colder months. Come spring, we either plow it into the soil or mow it down, readying the ground for planting. Wheat naturally suppresses weeds, and its roots enhance soil structure, creating an ideal environment for beneficial soil-dwelling creatures.
Experimenting with wheat cultivation began in my family’s garden several years ago. Curiosity led me to grab some wheat from our storage buckets, sow it onto the ground with anticipation, and lightly cover the area with hay for protection.
Checking on my wheat plot, I observed birds regularly disturbing the hay and pecking at the soil, prompting me to startle them back into the sky. As the sprouts emerged, it became evident that my wheat stand was uneven due to the birds’ interference. Attempting to fill the gaps with more wheat seed, I encountered a rust disease that hindered the yield. Threshing by hand proved to be a prickly task, but we still managed to glean enough for several baked goods, offering a glimpse into the potential of small-scale wheat production in the garden.
Ready for another round of wheat planting, my husband and I deliberated on trying ‘Purple Straw,’ a historically grown strain in our area. Unable to obtain that grain, we opted for soft white winter wheat, bought in a No. 10 can meant for sprouting.
Better prepared this time, we took a different approach. Intending to plant the wheat deliberately, similar to a grain drill, we created 12 rows about 4 inches apart using a hoe, sowing the grains thickly into the furrows. A few handfuls of wheat seed were enough to densely plant our garden plot. We covered the seeds, similar to planting corn, beans, or okra, preventing bird interference, and witnessed thick, robust sprouts forming a lush carpet of green wheat grass as the rows merged.
Considering thinning it out, we found the roots had woven together, so we decided to let it be. In retrospect, planting a grain every inch would have sufficed. As we attended to other garden tasks, the wheat essentially took care of itself. Minimal weeding involved pulling some stray vetch, which could have been left to contribute nitrogen to the soil. The dense wheat growth naturally choked out most competitors, leaving us with nothing to do but watch and wait.
From harvesting wheat to homegrown flour
Transitioning from harvest to homegrown flour was a journey marked by the appearance of heads—milky, plump, and sweet—rising above the grass. As summer progressed, the wheat transformed into a golden hue, maturing and eventually drying, signaling the time for harvest.
Harvesting the wheat
For the task of harvesting wheat, traditional handheld tools such as the kama, a Japanese sickle, and the Russian-style curved sickle are employed. While industrial farming relies on giant combines, these tools allow for a more manual approach, where the wheat is gathered by hand and swiftly sliced near the ground, preserving the straw for practical use.
Lacking these traditional tools and aiming for minimal equipment due to the relatively small harvest area, I opted for kitchen shears. Despite not being the ideal tool for the job—I earned some blisters to attest to that—they got the job done. Perhaps in the future, I’ll invest in a more suitable tool.
Contrary to the Little Red Hen’s struggle to find help, I had the support of several family members eager to join the garden harvest. We tackled the task over a couple of days, experimenting with various curing methods. Some suggest hanging the grain to further dry before threshing, so we gave that method a shot. Bundling the wheat into small sheaves, we covered the heads with light tulle to keep them clean and catch any stray grains. These sheaves were then suspended upside-down from the rafters in the barn, nestled among onions and garlic.
With the wheat safely stored, we turned our attention to completing the harvest. The remaining wheat, having continued to dry in the garden, was now ready for the threshing process. Stacking sizable bundles in a wheelbarrow, keeping them neatly arranged made the threshing process much smoother.
This time around, we needed a solution to make threshing less laborious and more efficient. Threshing machines have been around since the 19th century, revolutionizing farming communities with innovations like horse-powered and steam-powered contraptions. I appreciate the old-time practice of threshing crews moving from farm to farm during harvest, ensuring the entire community had their wheat threshed and stored for winter.
Since our community lacks a dedicated threshing crew, we had to devise an alternative. In line with our preference for simple equipment, my husband devised a straightforward threshing apparatus using easily available and inexpensive materials: a full sheet of plywood, three 1-by-2-inch boards, a few screws, and a roll of hardware cloth.
On one end, the hardware cloth is wedged between a 1-by-2-inch board and the plywood, secured by screws to keep everything in place. The remaining 1-by-2-inch boards encase the other end of the hardware cloth, forming a secure handle when screwed together. This design allows the hardware cloth to be stretched over the plywood during threshing or pulled up by the handle to access the collected grain.
We set up this makeshift thresher on our concrete front porch. To thresh the wheat, I simply placed one of the handful-sized bundles over the hardware cloth and rubbed the wheat out of the heads by running a clean shoe over them. Essentially, the heads were pressed against the wires of the hardware cloth, causing the grains to pop out onto the plywood below.
Once the plywood was filled with grain and chaff, we pulled the hardware cloth out of the way, swept everything onto a clean sheet, and transferred the sweepings to a bucket for winnowing. After securing the hardware cloth back in place, we continued threshing more wheat. Gradually, the pile of wheat diminished, leaving us with buckets of wheat and chaff ready for winnowing.
Winnowing, the process of separating wheat from chaff, relies on the fact that mature wheat is heavier than chaff, traditionally achieved through the power of the wind. Luckily, we had a strong breeze when I began the winnowing process, swiftly removing some chaff. However, for the bulk of the job, we used a large electric box fan.
Positioned beside the fan, I poured the wheat back and forth between several spacious containers, strategically placed to catch the breeze. The heavier wheat fell into the container, while the lighter chaff was carried away. To prevent precious grains from bouncing out during the winnow, it’s essential to use deep containers. Some larger pieces, like head fragments mixed with the wheat, had to be sorted by hand. Although time-consuming, there’s a certain satisfaction in feeling the wheat run through your fingers.
Once content with the harvest’s appearance, I weighed it and discovered that our modest wheat patch had yielded nearly 20 pounds of fresh, homegrown wheat. This translates to approximately 60 cups of fresh, homegrown flour, ready for baking. Depending on the size of the loaf, this could mean up to 20 loaves of bread or a combination of bread, cookies, biscuits, rolls, pastry crusts, and cakes – all delicious when made with this fine soft white wheat. What a fulfilling feeling!
The success of growing wheat in our garden has sparked our interest in exploring more small-scale grain production in the upcoming seasons. Perhaps you’re inspired to give it a try yourself! Wheat isn’t the only garden-worthy grain; there are intriguing options like barley, oats, amaranth, and buckwheat (which we’ve grown as a fascinating cover crop). Corn, being less labor-intensive, is also an excellent choice as a bread crop, with numerous heirlooms like the gorgeous Cherokee Glass corn for cornmeal, cultivated by my in-laws.
Amidst the modern era’s speed and convenience, spending time among rustling wheat and learning traditional farmstead skills is refreshing. The blessing of daily bread takes on a whole new meaning, and I’m grateful that my family can enjoy homegrown bread together.