How Does the Garden Grow Pt. 2: the Field

After getting you up to speed on our veggies and herbs, I thought I would talk about the wilder half of our deer-fenced acre. Like the rest of the garden, the eastern half was hay field most recently, and horse pasture before that.

This field is where Arden planted fruit trees two years ago. The plants were barely withstanding repeated munchings by deer when we started our project last year. They hadn’t grow much at all, so we decided to include some of them in our fence and surround them with ducks, more trees, and a variety of grain and seed crops.

Buckwheat, ready to be cut and laid on a tarp for drying.

We’re treating the grains as a mostly experimental project this year, not trying to spend too much time and energy focused on it. Most of the crops (if they grow successfully) will go to our home bakery and be processed into foods like bread, hummus (we’ll use dry beans for this) and peanut butter. Some we can save to use as cover crop seed, and any seeds that aren’t fit to eat or plant we will feed to the ducks.

Green beans, chickpeas in the foreground. Dry beans in the back right, and corn in the upper left.

So, without further adieu, meet the grains!


Annual polyculture in action!

We call our corn field the “three sisters” or “milpa” because it is actually a mixed field of field corn, pole beans (both green beans and dry) and winter squash (pumpkins and butternut). This is a traditional american technique and is still practiced by many indigenous communities in Mexico and Central America. Each plant aids the others in a symbiotic dance. The corn provides a trellis for the beans, while the beans fix nitrogen that becomes available to the heavy-feeding corn. The pumpkins smother weeds and shade the ground, holding in moisture. This creates a multi-level field with lots of green surface area. This means that more of the sun’s rays are transformed into biomass and food than in a corn monoculture.

Our corn was planted on April 27, with the beans and squash following 10 days later. Most of the plants look very vigorous and healthy, with dark green leaves and little pest damage. I think we have the ducks to thank for this, because the milpa is growing where we had their food and water for much of the winter.

The corn becomes darker and taller in the back and left of the field because that is where the ducks spent more time eating and pooping this winter.

The corn variety we are trying this year is called Daymon Morgan’s Kentucky Butcher, an heirloom multicolor corn bred most recently by Susana Lein in Berea, KY. The corn can grow up to 18 ft tall and will hopefully bear a colorful mix of seeds we can grind into cornmeal, grits, tortillas, and duck feed.

Cereal Crops

The cereal crops we’re trying out are rye, wheat, barley, oats, and rice. These are completely new to us (besides the rye), and it has been good to walk in the field and become familiar with plants who are commonly found on our plate or in our glass, but seldom found in our home or small commercial gardens.

While the growing and processing of cereals has been mystified by commodity agriculture, the process is really very simple. You plant them in good soil and keep them weeded like any other garden crop. When the seed heads have filled out with hard grain, you cut the stalks  and dry them (for us on a tarp in the sun, covered at night or during rain). After the seeds are very dry, you thresh the seeds heads by using some blunt implement to beat the seeds out of the head. We will probably fold the grain between two layers of a tarp and beat it with a club on a brick patio. Finally you winnow or clean the grain by pouring the seeds and chaff (bits of stalk and seed head) from bucket to bucket in front of a box fan. The chaff blows away, and the heavier seeds fall into the container below. You are left with whole seeds you can sprout, grind into flour, malt (for beer) or just cook in water like you do with rice.

The cereal box: oats (foreground), wheat (top left), and barley (top right). The entire area is about 1,000 square feet.

We heard that wheat and barley planted in the spring (as opposed to the fall) would not form heads at our latitude, but this didn’t turn out to be the case for us! Despite being in poor soil that was hastily tilled, most of grains have formed heads and look healthy. Adding mulch after seeding is all we did for weed control, and this kept the fields very weed-free.

We have had some fungal issues in the hot, wet weather of the past few weeks. Cereals prefer dry conditions for their last few months of growth, when they set seed and dry out. This is one reason why so much grain production has concentrated in the Midwest.

Dryness is especially crucial for wheat, which needs dry conditions in order to form quality gluten that can hold up the structure in a loaf of bread. However, “soft” wheat flour grown in the south is great for biscuits and can be mixed with “stronger” flour to make bread.

Rye a-ripening.
Some of the wheat flowers dried, turned black and disintegrated. 5 points to whoever tells us what this is.

Dry Beans

The reason why I love my stirrup hoe: weed-free dry beans.

All beans are legumes who can fix their own nitrogen. Therefore, they are well-suited to nutrient-poor soils like our own! We are growing Jacob’s Cattle, a white-and-brown heirloom give to us by our friends Rachel and Travis who grew it last year. The plants look exactly like bush green beans, and the processing for dry beans is very similar to growing cereals grains. We are hoping to sell bagged dry beans and possibly a white-bean hummus at market.

Peanuts and other Legumes

Michael had success with peanuts last year in Roanoke, so we saved some seed (heirloom peanut seed is expensive) and are growing out about 200 square feet of it. The variety is called Carwile’s Virginia, and is supposedly adapted to clay soils in southwest Virginia. Some we planted in un-amended dirt and another in deep compost, and both seem to be thriving with our sandy base soil.

Peanuts (the smaller plants) interplanted with daikon radish (the bushier rows). Some growers suggest harvesting radishes and letting the peanuts fill in the new open space. Instead, we are using the radishes as a living mulch and will till them into the soil before the peanuts get too big.

We are also trying lentils and chickpeas, two legumes much less common in this area. The lentils were completely taken over by grass, and the chickpeas are growing very slowly.

Well, I think that is enough nerding-out on grains and seeds for one day. Hope you were encouraged to try one of these crops in your garden. Enjoy a few more pictures!

No-till experiment: we broadcast buckwheat into a 5′ tall stand of rye and winter pea cover crop. Next, we cut the rye and peas with a sickle. Buckwheat sprouts through cracks in the rye-pea mulch, and we have our next round of cover crop!
Duck paradise. The mobile duck pen behind a stand of winter peas (which they trampled).
Weedy mess or extreme biodiversity? Rye (background) with green beans (far left), apple tree (foreground), borage and comfrey (at the base of the apple tree).

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