GROWING GRAINS

Grains are more well suited to growers who have a reasonable amount of space at their disposal, as grain crops do not yield as intensively as some other vegetable crops. However they are well worth while to grow both from a nutritional and experimental perspective. Our future food systems will require the use of these locally adapted grain crops, and the more grass-roots research we can conduct on them now, the better prepared we will be to integrate localised grain crops into sustainable local food systems.

QUINOA

Quinoa is a grain crop from South America. As a food, quinoa is low in sugar and starch and high in fiber and unsaturated fats. It contains many essential vitamins and minerals.

 

The thing that has the experts most excited, however, is the amount of protein in quinoa. It does, in fact, contain fifty percent more protein than wheat, rice and barley and that protein is of superior quality. It contains an ideal balance of the amino acids that are needed by the human body. It includes the amino acid lysine which is rarely found in vegetable protein and normally only found in meat, fish and eggs. Quinoa is also a good source of phosphorous, calcium, iron, vitamin E and several of the B vitamins.

 

Based on trials conducted by Ōtepoti Urban Organics here in Dunedin, the yields of quinoa are very good for the area that they occupy as compared to other grains. They are also much easier to thresh and require only minimal processing to get to be edible.

The seed of the quinoa plant is covered with saponin, a resin like substance that is very bitter. This covering must be removed before eating. The locals of the Andes have traditionally done this by hand scrubbing in alkaline water. The variety of quinoa that we stock through the Symbiosis Seed Exchange is naturally quite low in saponin, and it can be cleaned off by rinsing and soaking the quinoa grains several times prior to cooking.

WHEN TO PLANT: Despite common belief, quinoa is actually fairly cold tolerant. It comes from high in the Andes mountains. In Otago, quinoa is best planted in the early to mid spring. This will allow it time to mature before the damp autumn, when fungal infections can become a problem in quinoa seed heads.

SOWING SEEDS: Quinoa seed can either be sown direct into the soil, or started in trays and the young plants transplanted into the soil when they begin to develop their first set of 'true' leaves (i.e. the first leaves after the initial 'seed' leaves or cotyledons).

 

Plants sown direct appear to be more vigorous in their early life. If you are able to keep the bed well weeded until the young plants reach a height at which they outcompete weeds, direct sowing is the way to go. If your patch happens to be quite well infested with weeds, it is a better option to start quinoa in seed trays and transplant into a worked garden bed. Transplant or thin seedlings to a final spacing of 10 - 15cm.

SOIL and CROP CARE: Quinoa is one of the least fussy plants I have come across when it comes to soil. It will grow in virtually any soil types including very hard soils or saline soils. It may be useful in breaking up hard soils whilst also producing a food crop. Like most plants, quinoa prefers a nutritious soil which is well drained, but considering it will settle for less, it is not a prime candidate for your best garden beds - save those for the more fussy crops. 

Quinoa is a very drought tolerant plant, and aside from a bit of watering during the first two weeks or so after sowing seed or transplanting seedlings, virtually no irrigation should be required for the rest of the crops life.

HARVEST and THRESHING: As the quinoa plants mature, they will begin to form seed heads at the tops. At first the seed heads will be light green in colour and then they gradually turn gold or orange or red, depending on the variety (and there is variation between different plants too). The quinoa is ready for harvest in late summer to early autumn, when the seed heads are very filled out and have turned a vivid colour.

 

The plants are ready for harvest when, upon close examination of the seed heads, you can see the individual quinoa grains sitting in 'holders'. The seeds should look plump and full and when pinched or pressed against a fingernail, they should be hard.

Once the seed heads are formed, the plants become vulnerable to fungal infection. As harvest time approaches, keep an eye on the weather forecast. If your plants are nearly ready, a week of rain or drizzle will most likely either cause mold to start growing on the seed heads, or cause the seeds themselves to start germinating while still attached to the parent plant. If it's looking like the weather will turn wet, it is advisable to move your harvest forward to avoid the rains. 

When your plants are ready for harvest, cut the plants at the base of the stem. They can then be tied into bundles and hung upside down, or stacked in tipi bundles somewhere dry for the plants to fully dry out. During this time, the plant devotes the last of its metabolic energy to finishing off the seed maturation process.

The method chosen for seed harvesting depends on the quantity of plants you have. For smaller amounts of plants, simply rubbing the seed heads between flattened hands and over a bowl to collect the seeds and chaff can do the trick. For larger quantities of plants, a large (and clean) bin or barrel is a handy threshing tool. Grab a handful of plants and whack them on the edge of the barrel so that the seeds fall into the barrel. You'll hear them falling in to the barrel. Keep whacking the bunch until you don't hear seeds falling out anymore - usually 4 to 6 whacks per bunch.

The seeds will be mixed with bits of plant matter and other 'flotsam and jetsam'. There are many ways to sort the seeds from the chaff, including sieving, shaking, and winnowing (dropping seeds from waist height into a bucket, but done outside on a breezy day so that the lighter bits of plant material get blown away while the seeds fall straight down). Try to get the seeds fairly clean before storage. Then when you go to soak the seeds before eating you can remove the last little bits of stuff which usually float to the top.

SEED SAVING: Before you thresh your quinoa, separate out the best plants and thresh them separately, saving the seeds for next year. Donate surplus to Symbiosis Seed Exchange and share it with friends!

CORN

WHEN TO PLANT: Sow seeds in trays / punnets Aug - Sept. Plant out seedlings Oct - Nov. FROST SENSITIVE

WHERE TO GROW: Corn is another one that is known to be a bit tricky in the Otago / Southland bioregion. It loves sun, warmth, water and drainage. People have had mixed results growing corn in Dunedin, ranging from no yeild at all to a great yield of corn cobs. There are other varieties of corn, including 'popping corns' and 'flour corns' that often do better in Dunedin than the usual sweet corn. One good sweetcorn heirloom variety is 'early gem' developed for a short season. Our 'Strawberry South' popping corn is a great variety of popping corn which we have been adapting to the Otago climate for several years.

SOIL REQUIREMENTS: Like many vegetables, corn loves a rich, fertile, but well-drained soil. Mix in a decent dose of compost a couple of weeks prior to planting. Dolomite lime is also beneficial, about one handful per 2m2. One of the key things for corn is warm soil. Plant them in sunny position where the soil will warm up from the suns heat.

PLANT SPACING: Corn requires the pollen falling from the tassels of other plants to fertilise the cobs. Each silk strand on the corn ear is attached to what will become a kernel of corn. Each silk strand needs to be pollinated. As such, corn is best planted in blocks, rather than rows. Plant corn at diagonal spacings of 25-35cm, in beds at least 1.5m wide and as long as you like.

WATER and FERTILISER: Water is important for the corn to get off to a good start in the late spring/early summer. It is better to give a thourough watering less frequently rather than a quick watering more often. Make sure freshly transplanted corn seedlings get watered every two or three days for the first couple of weeks after transplant. After that, a thourough soaking once per week should suffice, and will encourage deep root growth. Do not irrigate while the corn is tasseling (when the tops are releasing pollen). Pollination is more effective in drier conditions.

HARVEST and USE: Different corn varieties have different indicators of maturity. Sweet corn is harvested at an earlier stage than popping or flour corns. Sometimes, the tips of the wrapper leaves start to brown off, or the whole ear may lean outwards when ready for picking. For popping or flour corns, harvest when plants begin to dry out. If autumn rains are forecast, cut the whole plants at the base and hang them upside down in a car port or garage to further dry out and mature.

SEED SAVING: Corn requires an unusally high number of plants to retain genetic vigor of a variety. Too few plants in a patch can result in 'inbreeding depression' when saving seed, also known as a 'genetic bottleneck'. A general rule of thumb is that you should save seeds from a patch of at least 100 plants (post-rogueing), and more is preferable.

 

To save corn seed, observe your stand of corn and take note of which plants do well and which do poorly. For those which do poorly, snip the tops of the plants off before they pollinate, thus effectively removing them from the gene pool. Near the end of the season, take note of which plants have done really well, and tie ribbons on them to mark them for seed saving. Since most corn plants have at least two ears, you can harvest and eat the largest ear off a plant (and make extra observations of flavour), and save seed from the smaller ears.

 

For seed crops, let the plants fully mature and start to dry off. If autumn rains are forecast, harvest the whole plant at the base and hang upside down in a garage or carport to finish the maturation process. Corn seeds store best left on the cob. To remove them from the cob, twist in your hand with a firm grip on the kernels.

OATS

Oats are a crop which has multiple functions within your garden system. Thus, they fit in well with a permaculture approach. The main benefits of oats are: 

  1. They provide a food crop which is nutrient dense and good for you

  2. Their deep roots condition the soil and break up cloddy or hard pan soils, essentially preforming the role of 'double digging' but without all the hard work!

  3. The left over stalks provide biomass - mainly carbon - for your compost heap or to be used as a mulch. This adds humus content to your soil once it's broken down. 

  4. They add to the biodiversity of your garden and attract many beneficial insects, especially hover flies.

So, oats are worth having a go with, especially if you have some spare space. They are very low maintenance and will usually require virtually no care between planting and harvest.

If you wish to eat the oats that you grow, it is highly recommended that you use the hull-less oat variety carried by our Symbiosis Seed Exchange. This is a variety specially bred to have no hull on the seed itself (surprise surprise). If you grow ordinary oats, the de-hulling process is virtually impossible at the home scale, it requires a special de-hulling machine. However ordinary oats are still a useful crop for their other beneficial effects in the garden.

SOIL PREP and SEED SOWING: Oats are not a fussy crop when it comes to soil. As mentioned earlier, they can be used as a tool to break up hard soils. All you need to do is clear the area of weeds and break up the top few cm of soil using a hoe or grubber, to prepare for seed sowing. Oat seeds are best sown direct. Some guides recommend to grow seedlings in trays and transplant at 15cm diagonal spacings, but this is very labour intensive and is not worth it.

The spacing IS important though. Many people make the mistake of sowing oats too thickly, thinking of them like grass for a lawn. This will crowd the plants far too much and they won't be able grow into good large strong plants. Each individual oat plant ends up having about 10 stalks and will be about 10-15cm wide. 

As a food crop, oats are usually sown in the spring (October to November), however as a green manure they can be sown in the fall and this can sometimes produce a food crop too.

 

To sow oat seeds, broadcast by hand so that the seeds end up roughly 10cm apart (final spacing should be about 15cm but not all seeds will survive). Then, using a stiff rake, mix the seeds into the top couple of centimetres of soil using an up and down 'chopping' motion. This will prevent birds from eating the seed. Provided your seeds germinate and start to grow, this is virtually all you need to do until harvest time rolls around a few months later! 

HARVEST and THRESHING: Oats are ready for harvest when the plants begin to turn light brown instead of green. You will notice the seed heads start to loosen up and 'unfurl' a bit. This is when they are getting ready to release the seeds. Oat plants can be cut when the seed heads start to open up. If left too long the seeds might fall out or the birds will get at them.

Plants can be cut with a scythe, sharp machete, or whatever you have laying around that will do the trick. Cut the plants at the base and gather them in to bunches. The bunches of oats can then be laid somewhere dry such as a carport, or if you have larger quantities of oats, they can be stacked into conical piles with the seed heads at the top. A sheet of waterproof material can then be secured over the top of the bundle to prevent rot. Either way, the oats should be left for several days after cutting to fully dry out before threshing.

To thresh the oats, the basic task at hand is to get the seeds out of the seed head. If the plants are properly dried this shouldn't be too difficult. You can use your ingenuity to think up a method that suits you. One easy method is to use a (clean) drum or barrel with no lid, and simply whack a bundle of oats on the rim so that the heads are over the barrel. The seeds should fall into the barrel with the downward motion of the bundle. Keep whacking until you hear no more oats falling in to the barrel.

Then, you'll have a mixture of oat seeds and 'chaff'. To separate the two, you need to 'winnow' them. Methods for winnowing include dropping the oats from one bucket into another during a breezy day so that the light chaff blows away while the oats fall into the other bucket. There are also shaking and sieving methods to separate the seeds from the chaff. Again, experiment with different methods to find one that suits.

Once you have your clean (and preferably hull-less) oats separated from the chaff, you can eat them! The whole grains can be prepared in a similar way to brown rice and eaten as is. Some people prefer to steam the oats to soften them and then roll them with a rolling pin on a hard surface, before toasting them in the oven to make your own rolled oats for porridge. Either way, enjoy your oats and don't forget to save some seed for next season!

SEED SAVING: As you're harvesting your oats, keep some of the best plants (healthiest plants, biggest seed heads etc) and put them aside. Thresh them separately and keep the seeds aside for next season.

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