Last week we discussed a few staple crops that are easy to grow in the home garden. In part 1 we covered flour corn, sweet potatoes, potatoes, wheat, beans, winter squash and pumpkins, and peanuts.
A common misconception is that rice must be grown in a flooded area. Thankfully for small growers, this isn’t true. Flooding is simply a traditional weed control method. However, rice should receive about 1 inch of rain or irrigation per week and needs to be kept well-weeded.
Rice requires a long growing season, 105-150 days. It can be direct-seeded or you can transplant seedlings after danger of frost has passed. Plant 6 inches apart in rows 9-12 inches apart.
You may also need to cover your rice with netting as it’s a favorite with birds. Harvest when seeds are brown. Gently pull mature seeds off the stalks harvesting continually over a few days.
Allow the rice to dry in a warm dry place for 2-3 weeks. Old window screens are great for this. Then store in airtight containers.
Rice is slightly more involved than some other staple crops because it needs to be de-hulled. You can purchase a home-scale de-huller like the Grain Maker’s Homestead Huller.
Oats are easy to grow and can be sown as soon as soil can be worked in the spring. Sow oats in a sunny area with access to water. They do best when soil is kept moist but not soggy.
To sow, broadcast them by hand or with a spreader. Rake them in well, to avoid losing your seed to birds. You can also add a light layer of mulch like straw.
When the leaves start to turn brown it’s time to harvest your oats. The seeds should be in what’s called the “dough” stage. You should be able to dent one with a fingernail but no milky fluid should come out. Don’t wait to harvest until they’re fully hard and ripe as many will fall.
To harvest, you can cut the seed heads from the stalks. You can also cut the whole stalk but it isn’t necessary. Like rice, oats should cure in a dry place for a few weeks until they’re fully dried.
Contrary to their name, hulless oats do have a hull it’s just loose and easily removed. They can be threshed like wheat (see part 1) or using a grain mill. Oats should be stored whole, in airtight containers, out of the sunlight.
Your oats can be ground into flour or cracked using a grain mill to make oatmeal. Oat straw can also be harvested in the early summer to make tea.
Some Central American cultures have relied on amaranth as a staple crop for over 8,000 years!
Amaranth should be planted about 2 weeks after your last frost date. Sow seed 1/4 to 3/8 in. deep, 1 in. apart in rows 2-3 ft. apart. Thin to 4-10 in. apart. We’ve found that placing seeds in a salt shaker and sprinkling seeds into the row is an easy planting method.
While germinating, keep the soil moist. Once established amaranth can withstand dry soil. Avoid over-fertilizing. Amaranth is a nitrite accumulator and too much nitrogen can cause it to lodge.
Amaranth seeds mature unevenly. To collect early-ripening seeds, “massage” the seed head over a container to collect those that fall. To harvest later-maturing seed, wait until last frost and then cut the seed heads.
Thresh the seed heads (while wearing a dust mask like a bandana), screen out the chaff, and winnow the seed like you would wheat. Cure your seeds for a few weeks or until it is fully dry by spreading it in thin layers somewhere dry.
Grind grain in a flour mill, sprout it, pop it like popcorn, or use it in hot cereal.
Cabbage grows best in rich, moist, well-drained soil. Irrigation may be required in dry areas and plants benefit from a thick layer of mulch to keep the soil cool and moist. This helps prevent splitting and bolting.
For spring crops, start seeds indoors 4-6 weeks before transplanting. Begin hardening off transplants about 1 month before your last frost date. Plant small head varieties 10-12 in. apart, large head varieties 16-18 in. apart.
For fall crops, transplant to desired spacing when plants have 3 true leaves or direct sow 6-12 seeds/ft at a depth of 1/4 in. and thin as needed.
If you’re harvesting for longterm storage leave about 6 inches of stalk and refrigerate. For folks with root cellars, cabbage was traditionally pulled up and hung upside down by the roots in the cellar. You can also store your cabbage as sauerkraut.
Cowpeas are also called southern peas, field peas, crowder peas, and black-eyed peas. They’re popular in the south but can be grown anywhere days and nights are warm for 60-90 days.
They grow best in well-drained, relatively poor soil. Plant seed 3-4 weeks after last frost when the soil has warmed. Sow seed 1 in. deep, 2 in. apart in rows 3-6 ft. apart, thinning to 4 in. apart.
Cowpeas are extremely versatile. They can be boiled, frozen, canned, or dried. Green seeds can be roasted like peanuts. Scorched seeds can be used as a coffee substitute. Leaves may be used as a potherb.
For fresh shelly peas, harvest when seeds have filled the green pods, but before seeds have hardened. For dried use, make sure to harvest dried pods before rain or else seeds will mold. Cure pods under cover in a rodent-proof space.
When harvesting dry peas, you can pull up or cut the whole plant, let it dry, and thresh on a tarp or old sheet for large quantities. Store in airtight containers once completely dry.
Sorghum is native to Africa and has been cultivated there since 2200 B.C. It’s thought to have been grown in the U.S. since about 1700 but the first recorded introduction was by William R. Prince of Flushing, NY in 1853.
There are 4 main types of sorghum.
- cane sorghum with sweet stalks used for making syrup
- grain sorghum used for feed or for making flour or cereal
- broom corns
- grass sorghum used for pasturing.
For a staple crop, we’ll be discussing grain sorghum.
Growing sorghum is a lot like growing corn and is planted the same way with similar spacing. Sow seeds 1/2-3/4 in. deep. It’s extremely drought-resistant and may perform better than corn in dry areas because of its extensive root system.
Harvest seed when the seed stalk has started to dry. Cut the stalks and allow them to fully dry under cover. Then strip the seeds by hand and winnow.
Store seeds in airtight containers. Use sorghum seeds to make flour which is especially tasty for pancakes!
Also called swedes, rutabagas were an important staple crop in Europe especially during WWII. Both the leaves and roots are edible. They were also historically used as livestock fodder.
Rutabagas are similar to turnips but should be planted for a fall harvest. Plant 8-10 weeks before first fall frost, seeding 1” apart in rows 12-16” apart, thinning to 8” apart. Thin within 1 month of sowing or they won’t bulb properly.
Harvest when roots reach 3-6″ across or before temperatures dip below 20°F.
Rutabagas will store for months in bags or bins in a refrigerator or root cellar. Don’t wash the roots before storage. Trim back the leaves to about 1 inch and gently brush off large clumps of dirt.