How to Grow Rice

You won’t harvest pounds of rice but it’s a fun project with kids

Young rice plants in pots

GOLFX / Getty Images

It is possible to grow rice at home, but you need to be realistic in your expectations—you won’t be able to harvest enough rice for more than a meal or two even if things go well. Because growing rice requires a long, warm growing season of 160 to 180 days, much more than any other garden crop. In most areas, this means starting the rice indoors under growth lights. Rice also requires a lot of space and water, so you need to have irrigation in place.

Growing rice in your own back yard or on your porch is rather a fun project with kids to show them what’s involved in getting a bowl of rice on the dinner table. After growing rice yourself, you’ll better understand the Chinese proverb, “Every grain of rice in your bowl is won by the sweat of the farmer’s brow.”

Botanical Name Oryza sativa 
Common Name Rice
Plant Type Annual
Mature Size 36 inches
Sun Exposure Full sun
Soil Type Sandy, loamy, and clay soils
Soil pH 4.3 to 8.7
Hardiness Zones 10 to 12

Paddy Rice vs. Upland Rice

In terms of growing rice, there are two types of rice. Paddy rice or lowland rice is grown as a semi-aquatic crop in flooded parcels called paddies, whereas upland rice is grown like other grains in dry soil.

To grow your own rice, upland rice is usually the better choice. One upland variety recommended for home growing is Duborskian rice, which matures in 115 days from transplanting. It is also cold-hardy and can survive a light frost, which makes it more suitable for cooler climates.

White rice from the grocery store won’t work for growing rice but you can give it a try with organically grown brown rice. If you don’t want to take a gamble, start with rice seed from a seed company which will specify the planting method in its catalog.

West Nile Virus

Standing water is a breeding ground for mosquitoes, which can transmit West Nile Virus (WNV), If you want to grow rice with the paddy method, make sure to follow the guidelines of the Center for Disease Control and fully cover the buckets with mosquito netting so they cannot get into the water to lay their eggs.

Starting Rice Indoors

Unless you live in a warm climate zone, you need to start your rice plants indoors, about six to eight weeks before your last average frost date, which is around the same time you would start tomato seedlings indoors.

In USDA zones 10 to 12, where you can count on five months of frost-free days, rice can be direct sown.

Soaking the Seeds for Germination

Rice seeds need to be soaked in untreated (non-chlorinated) water for 36 hours at temperatures between 70 and 97 degrees F. During that time, the rice seeds must be fully immersed in water, and rinsed at least once.

The formation of a tiny rootlet from the seed indicates that germination has started. Take the seeds out of the water and let them dry for 24 hours.

Rice seedlings
Rice seedlings. TitleFotos / Getty Images

Growing Rice in Buckets

Once the rice seeds have germinated, transfer them to a place where you can flood them, such as food-grade, sanitized five-gallon buckets, or a kiddie pool.

Add fertilizer-rich potting mix to about six inches high. Plant the germinated rice seeds about a half-inch deep, with at least six inches between them, which means not more than three seeds per bucket.

Very slowly saturate the soil with water until the water level almost reaches the rim. If you add the water too fast, it will wash out the seeds.

Place the bucket in a sunny location at around 75 degrees F. If nights are chilly, move the bucket to a warm, protected location. The most important thing is to maintain the water level constant at two inches above the soil, so check it at least twice daily.

When the rice stalks are about six inches tall, increase the water level one final time to about four inches. After that, let the water level drop naturally. The rice stalk will continue to grow and develop seed heads around July, at which point the stalks stop growing. As the soil dries out over the next month, the seeds heads will dry, and the seeds turn brown.

Paddy rice plant before harvest
Paddy rice plant before harvest. Prasert Krainukul / Getty Images

Growing Upland Rice

Upland rice also requires soaking and drying as described for paddy rice above. Germination takes longer, about one week, during which time the seeds should be kept at around 70 degrees F.

When the seeds have developed a leaf shoot of about one-quarter inch, plant them in flats filled with rich potting soil, with the leaf shoot up and the tiny root down. Keep the soil moist but not saturated.

After all danger of frost is past, the seedlings can be transplanted into garden soil rich in organic matter, about eight to ten inches apart. While upland rice is grown without flooding, it needs at least one inch of water per week. Make sure to water regularly in the absence of rain.

In warmer climates, upland rice can be direct sown. As rice does not compete well with weeds, keeping the rice patch weed-free is important.

Rice bundles drying indoors
Rice bundles drying indoors. Westend61 / Getty Images 

Harvesting Rice

When then seed heads have dried and turned brown, cut down the entire stalks. Bunch them together and let them dry for three to four weeks in a dry, well-ventilated place.

The next three steps—threshing, winnowing and de-hulling the rice—are very tedious to do manually and require specialized tools. If you get serious about growing your own rice, it’s worth investing in those.