One of the reasons that I enjoy growing my own food is that I know exactly where it came from. I get so much satisfaction cooking food that I started from seeds. Following each plant through its entire life cycle is very exciting. How much fun is it to pick a watermelon and eat it right where you are standing or to cut a salad right before you eat it for dinner?
Recently, I became interested in growing staple crops that can be stored and eaten throughout the winter. Most staple crops are high in starch content. Winter squash, dry beans, potatoes, garlic, and onions all do well in storage due to their high starch content. If cured properly these vegetables can last you all winter. Today I thought I would share a little about grains, another excellent thing to grow if you are looking to save more of your garden for the winter.
Grains make up a pretty substantial part of most people's diet. I bet you have quite a few in your cupboard now. But they are not something everyone thinks about growing. Some grains require a lot of space to grow enough for your family's nutrition needs. However, there are still a lot of excellent choices for home gardens.
So what is a grain? A grain is essentially the starchy seed of a plant. The term mostly refers to seeds from members of the Poaceae family. The Poaceae is also known as the grass family. Wheat, Rice, Rye, Millet, Oats and Corn are all really examples of grass seed. Grain is also a term used to describe other starchy seeds like those from Amaranth, Quinoa and Buckwheat. These last three are also known as pseudograins because they are not in the grass family. Pseudograins are significant because they are gluten free and also contain all 9 amino acids needed to be considered a complete protein. Grains are some of the oldest documented crops in the history of agriculture and really important to the evolution of humans. Most of the grains we eat today are cultivated forms of wild plants.
If you are thinking of growing grains this year you are just in time. A lot of grains can be planted right now during late spring. I would suggest trying Amaranth and Corn this year. These two incredible plants also make really good companion plants.
Amaranth is a really exciting plant because it has a ton of uses. Amaranth is part of the Amaranthaceae family. Some of our favorite garden vegetables like Spinach and beets are closely related to Amaranths. You can eat the leafy part as a spinach-like vegetable and the seeds are edible and nutrient dense. You can also use Amaranth as a plant for natural dye and lots of the varieties make beautiful ornate additions to fresh bouquets and everlasting arrangements. The history of Amaranth use is quite long. It was domesticated for food from wild plants by Indigenous communities in Central and South America. Amaranth is drought tolerant so it is great for areas where adequate irrigation is an issue. Each plant will produce a huge quantity of seed so if you are limited on garden space this might be a good choice for you.
How to Grow Amaranth:
Amaranth can be sown indoors about 6 weeks before your last frost date or you can direct seed it into prepared garden beds. If you are going to direct seed your plants wait until after your last frost date when soil temperatures are around 65 degrees. It can germinate at lower temperatures but it will not be as successful. Plant your seed in rows about 18-20 inches apart. Thin the seedlings to about 10 inch spacing. Amaranth will grow fairly large if given enough space. You can save the thinnings to eat. If you want small plants for flower production you can leave the plants close together. If you want a companion plant with a Corn crop, plant the Amaranth on the outside of the corn rows so that it will still get some sun. The leaves can be eaten at any point and the grain is ready about three months after planting. Once the seeds easily fall from the plant they are ready to harvest. Amaranth self seed readily so if you are not careful you will end up with many baby Amaranth plants in your garden.
Corn is ubiquitous for a good reason. It has been in cultivation for about 10,000 years. The modern corn you see today has undergone an extreme transformation from its ancestor Teosinte. Teosinte is a wild grass with small cobs that just have a few hard kernels on them, it was domesticated by Indigenous people in Mexico. Corn is the name given to this grain by British colonizers, most of the rest of the world uses the name Maize. There are many different Indigenous names for corn. The beauty, diversity and success of Maize as a food crop is all thanks to the skill and ingenuity of Indigenous communities. Corn is considered a sacred and important plant to many Indigenous people.
There are many different varieties of corn you can grow. Each variety has a different amount of starch in it. Some are good for popcorn while others are eaten fresh or saved to make flour. So you should choose a variety that suits what you want to use it for. Corn is one of the most common genetically modified crops in the United States. All the seeds we curate here at Siskiyou Seeds are GMO-free and open pollinated.
How to Grow Corn
Corn is an annual plant and takes between 75- 120 days to mature depending on the variety that you select. Choose your corn variety based on how long your growing season is. Direct seed corn when the soil temperatures are about 60 degrees and the danger of frost has passed. Rows should be about 2 ½ feet apart. Once the corn has germinated thin the plants to about 8 inch spacing. If you have only a small space to grow corn you should plant your corn in a square block instead of 2 long rows. Corn grows quite tall and can reach up to 12 feet in some cases. When you choose a location for your plants in the garden be sure to consider the shadow that they will cast as they may shade out some of your other plants. You could always grow late summer Arugula and salad mix in its shade. You may have to help your corn pollinate itself. Walk down the rows while the tassels are producing pollen and tap the stalks with your hands to help the pollen disperse itself. Flour corn is ready when the stalks have dried down to a pale yellow color and the tassels are fully brown.
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Written by Taryn Hunter