How to Grow Wheat

Wheat field with ripe grain against clouded blue sky

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Wheat is one of the most important food plants known to humanity. The first archeological evidence of einkorn wheat (one of many varieties) being cultivated by humans suggest it originated in Turkey during the Neolithic period; slightly later evidence finds wheat cultivation in Syria and Iraq. Its introduction as a cultivated crop completely changed our food ways, as the grain can be processed into flour that can be stored for long periods of time and used to make bread. This made it a portable food, which affected the development of nomadic tribal communities and animal husbandry, both important factors in the development of agriculture worldwide.

Wheat is technically a grass, but is also referred to as a cereal grain (we get the word cereal from Ceres, the Roman goddess of grain). Its botanical name, Triticum aestivum (also known as bread wheat), comes from a Latin root meaning "to grind," referring to the early process for turning the fruits of this grass plant into usable flour. There are about twenty different types of wheat grown from seven different species worldwide for commercial and household use; these include einkorn, emmer, durum, and spelt. The wheat plant is the same as wheatgrass, but the method for growing it into mature grain is somewhat different.

Botanical Name Triticum aestivum
Common Name Wheat, bread wheat
Plant Type Grass
Mature Size 2-4 ft. tall
Sun Exposure  Full sun
Soil Type  Well drained loam
Soil pH  Neutral
Bloom Time  May (anthers appear)
Flower Color  Bright yellow
Hardiness Zones  7-10 (USDA)
Native Areas  Western Asia
wheat growing in a field with sunset in background

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How to Grow Wheat

Most of us picture wheat in huge fields, waving golden in the sun. But growing a small amount of wheat at home is easy and satisfying. You can plant roughly twenty five plants per square foot, and this can yield between ten and twelve pounds of wheat grain when harvested. Wheat is grown from seed, but if you want to plant seedlings, your local farmers market or nursery may be able to help you source seedlings. You can plant wheat in spring, or in fall, which is also known as winter wheat. Winter wheat is commonly grown by farmers because it';s one of the few crops that can be grown easily at this time.

Light

Wheat thrives in full sun conditions, and you will need at least six hours of direct sunlight per day to produce a thriving wheat crop. One reason winter wheat crops grow more slowly is because they get fewer hours of sunlight.

Soil

A well-drained loamy soil is best for wheat; poor drainage can lead to problems from excessive moisture. If the soil is too rich or heavy with nitrogen content (from manure or other amendments), wheat growth may be stunted. For this reason, use of fertilizers is discouraged after planting. If your soil does have a heavy nitrogen content, companion planting can help your wheat crop; choose plants the feed heavily on nitrogen such as spinach, beets, cauliflower, or squash.

Water

Wheat doesn't need a lot of water and most farmers who grow large amounts of wheat rely on rainfall for its water needs. This can be challenging in seasons of drought. Home growers may choose to water during drought as needed; this is best done in early morning or at sunset. Drip irrigation is a useful method for watering wheat and keeping excessive moisture from the tops of plants, getting water to the roots where it is most needed.

Temperature and Humidity

Temperature is a consideration for growing wheat, because wheat is normally planted either in spring or fall. Spring-planted wheat can withstand higher temperatures, but fall-planted wheat has a longer growing season with cooler temperatures. Heavy rains or long periods of high humidity can affect wheat's growth. If your summers tend to have long periods of humid weather you can try planting wheat in a higher location or one more exposed to wind, which can tend to help the plants stay drier.

Fertilizer

Fertilizer isn't necessary for wheat during its growing cycle and may even stunt the plants' growth. But enriching the soil before planting is a good idea, if your soil is thin or devoid of nutrients; added phosphorous is beneficial for wheat.

Types of Wheat

There are a few fairly common varieties of wheat you can grow, and each variety has qualities making it desirable. The red wheats are some of the most commonly grown in the United States.

  • Hard Red Winter Wheat is planted as winter wheat. It is the most popular form of wheat used for "whole wheat" flour, whole-grain breads and other products.
  • Soft Red Winter Wheat is similar to the hard variety but is easier to mill and produces a softer textured flour used in making cakes, crackers and cookies.
  • Hard Red Spring Wheat is grown in spring. It has a high gluten content and is preferred for pastries that require a lot of handling such as pizza dough or croissants.
  • Hard White Wheat has a more subtle, sweeter flavor than red wheats and is commonly used for making tortillas and some kinds of noodles.
  • Soft White Wheat is used for a wide variety of baked goods including yeasted breads and rolls, and this wheat is used to make commercial cake and pastry flour. Depending on the cultivar, soft white wheat can be grown as spring or winter wheat.
  • Durum Wheat is also commonly called "pasta wheat" and has a hard dense texture and a high protein content. Durum wheat is also the source of semolina flour which is used to make cous-cous and other pasta products. The crunchy wheat berries of durum wheat plants are used to make bulgur wheat.

Harvesting Wheat

Wheat is ready to harvest when the kernels are crunchy and hard. You can test them between your teeth. Soft kernels need to ripen further. You can harvest by hand of you have a small crop. You can use a scythe or sickle for larger crops. It is necessary to thresh your wheat to separate the grain from the chaff. There are a number of ways to do this by hand, including a fairly simple and efficient method where you use a box fan and two buckets and pour the grain back and forth. But as this is the most important part of growing wheat you should seek out a method of threshing that works best for you.

Common Pests and Plant Diseases

Like many other food plants, wheat is susceptible to various pests. One common problem is aphids. An infestation of aphids will slow wheat's growth and affect the appearance of leaves. Usually spraying them with water is effective. You can also use neem oil for more stubborn infestations. Stinkbugs are another common insect problem with wheat. Careful weeding is a good way to avoid attracting them. You can also use food-grade diatomaceous earth mixed into the soil surface to help eliminate them. Some insects lay eggs on wheat, like armyworms. You can use Bacillus thuringiensis applied according to product directions to get rid of them.

There are various diseases that can be problems for wheat also. Powdery mildew can occur in periods of high humidity. Watering carefully can help prevent this; watering at the base of the plant helps cut down on unnecessary humidity. Ergot fungus can also form in humid conditions, and this is potentially toxic if consumed. This is identifiable by the black or dark purple color of the grain when this fungus is present. Wheat mosaic virus causes yellow discoloration and curling of leaves. Diseases present in your wheat crop requires the removal of affected plants to prevent the disease from spreading, and discarding them effectively away from the garden (don't put them in your compost heap).

FAQ
  • How fast does wheat grow?

    Wheat can be planted in spring or fall (also known as winter wheat); spring wheat usually takes 120 days from planting to maturity; winter wheat takes 240 days.

  • Can you grow wheat with organic methods?

    Absolutely! Any common pests and diseases can be dealt with using organic preventions and treatments.

  • Is wheat difficult to grow?

    Wheat is subject to various issues based on weather and soil factors, but once the grower learns the basics, it is fairly easy to grow and harvest.