Category Archives: Garden Advice

Growing, Using, & Storing Staple Crops Part 2

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.

Rice

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.

Hulless Oats

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.

Amaranth

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

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

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

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!

Rutabaga

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.

Growing, Using, & Storing Staple Crops Part 1

If you’ve got a little extra room or are willing to get creative, staple crops can help fill your pantry and lower you’re grocery bill. They’re the types of food that provide a lot of calories and can help make up the bulk of a diet. Many of them are easy to grow, use, and store at home.

Flour (Grain) Corn

Flour corns are generally easy to grow and store. They’re great for making your own cornmeal and grits and can really stretch the family pantry. Popcorns and gourdseed corns can also be used in the same way.

In order for your corn to store well, you should wait to harvest until your its fully mature rather than harvesting at milk stage (like for sweet corn). When the husk is papery and brown, harvest on a dry day before your first fall frost.

To dry your corn for storage, pull back the husk and hang your corn somewhere out of direct sunlight. Some folks braid the husks to create small bundles. You can also remove the husk completely and hang your corn to dry in mesh bags. Just be sure to check on them occasionally, make sure they’re getting good airflow, and remove any moldy ears.

In order to get all the available nutrition from your corn it needs to be nixtamalized. This is a simple process but an essential step if corn is going to be a large part of your diet. Check out our post, Processing Flour Corn at Home for directions.

After that you can use your corn whole or grind it for cornmeal or grits.

Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes grow best in warm southern climates as they have a relatively long season and are very susceptible to frost. Some people do manage to grow them in New England though!

There are many varieties of sweet potatoes that range from “dry” and starchy, more like a regular potato, to syrupy and sweet.

Sweet potato slips should be planted 3-4 weeks after your last frost. They should be mulched soon after planting and watered consistently.

Harvest your potatoes on a dry sunny day when they’ve reached an ideal size and before temperatures dip below 55°F. Cure your sweet potatoes in a warm space for 7-10 days before storing in a cool, dry place.

For more information about growing, curing, and storing sweet potatoes check out our post, Sweet Potatoes From Order to Plate.

Potatoes

To plant potatoes, cut them into pieces about the size of an egg with at least two eyes. Plant pieces about 12 inches apart in wide rows. They do best in rich soil. Adding compost before planting can improve productivity.

When the plants reach 6 inches tall side dress them with compost and mulch so only the tips of the plants are showing. Repeat this process when they’ve grown another 6 inches.

Harvest potatoes by lifting them gently with a garden fork when plants have died back and dried to ground level.

Potatoes should be cured before storage. Place them in a single layer somewhere cool and humid if possible for a couple weeks before storing. This allows the skins to thicken and harden.

Wheat

You don’t need acres of fields to produce some of your own wheat. A small patch can be surprisingly productive.

If you’re planting this spring, select a spring wheat. Winter wheats perform best when sown in the fall. Wheat requires full sun but isn’t a particularly heavy feeder. You can add a couple inches of compost before sowing if in doubt.

To plant you can sow by hand, use a seed spreader, or even sow in rows. Your wheat should come with a sowing rate, approximately how many pounds per 1000 square feet.

After sowing, you should lightly rake your wheat in and water it. Adding a thin layer of straw mulch can help keep the soil moist and encourage germination. Water whenever the soil surface appears dry, until the wheat is established.

Harvest with a hand scythe or other sharp tool when the stalks are beginning to dry from green to brown. Tie them in small bundles and keep them out of the rain to dry for a few weeks where they’ll get airflow around them.

When the grain is crunchy, lay your stalks on a tarp or sheet and beat them with a stick to release the grains. Remove the stalks (they make great mulch) and winnow out the chaff. This can easily be done with two buckets and a fan. Set an empty bucket in front of the fan and gently pour the wheat into it. The chaff will blow away while the grain falls into the bucket. You may need to repeat this several times.

Note that it’s fine to store wheat on the stalk if you have enough space and is how it was traditionally stored.

Please check out our post, Growing Grain in a Home Garden for more information.

Beans

Full of protein and easy to grow, beans deserve a place in any garden. Bush varieties are simple to grow because they don’t require trellising. However, pole varieties can save space by being grown along fences or on corn or sunflower stalks. Many beans can be eaten fresh as snap beans and allowed to mature for dry beans.

Fresh beans can be preserved by pressure canning, pickling, or drying. Drying green beans on strings used to be common in Appalachia. Known as leather britches, these strings of beans could be boiled and used throughout the winter. To make them, thread fresh, clean sections of green beans onto a string and hang somewhere warm and dry.

For dry or soup beans, wait until the pods and plants are fully mature and beginning to turn brown. They can be left in the field until fully dry or hung under cover if frost or heavy rain threatens.

When the pods are fully dry you can thresh them by beating them with a stick on a tarp or sheet the way that you would wheat. When they’re fully dried and threshed, they can be stored longterm in airtight containers.

Winter Squash & Pumpkins

Along with flour corn and beans, winter squash completes the three sisters garden, a productive growing method employed by some Native American tribes. The squash grows under the corn and pole beans shading the soil which helps keep it moist and free of weeds.

Winter squash does best in well-drained soil which is why many people choose to grow it in hills. It’s quite productive and stores well with minimal effort.

Proper harvest and curing is key to longterm storage. Check out our post, Harvesting & Curing Winter Squash & Pumpkins for details.

Peanuts

Originally from Brazil, peanuts are a great staple crop for warm, long season areas.

Sow peanuts 1 month after your last frost when the soil has warmed. To plant, shell the seeds and sow them 1-2 inches deep, 6-12 inches apart in wide rows.

Peanuts are slow growing at first so be sure to keep them well weeded. When they reach 12 inches high hill them as you would potatoes. After peanuts flower, they need about 1 inch of rain or irrigation each week for the best harvest.

Harvest during a dry spell in October or right after a light frost. In the deep south they may need to be harvested earlier as too much rain can cause them to sprout. Dig the vines and cure on the vine if possible or remove them and cure for 2-3 weeks before storage.

Other Staple Crops (check back for part 2)

  • Rice
  • Oats
  • Amaranth
  • Cabbage
  • Cowpeas
  • Sorghum
  • Rutabaga

Spring Garden Activities for Kids

With many children out of school, we thought it was a good time to talk about gardening activities for kids. These fun activities are great for engaging kids with nature and keeping them learning while having fun. They are also perfect for spring.

For more advice on gardening with children check out our other post, Get Your Kids Involved in the Garden!

Start Seeds

One easy project to get the kids involved with is starting your seeds. For many areas, this time of year is perfect for starting seeds indoors though there are a few things you can be direct sowing as well.

For small hands, we recommend big seeds. Cucurbits (cucumbers, pumpkins, melons, and squashes) can be started indoors and are easy to handle. Giving your child a few of their own plants to name and nurture is a great learning experience. Letting them choose varieties also makes it fun. Cinderella pumpkins are a big hit with fairytale fans!

Depending on where you live it may be time to direct sow peas. Growing them on a tipi-like trellis makes a great fort later on.

Paint Flower Pots

This is a great way to spruce up your container garden or porch plantings. Terracotta pots can be painted with acrylic paint. Be sure your pot is fully dry before painting.

Chalkboard paint is also a fun option and allows your kids to redecorate them as often as they want.

Make Plant Markers

Plant markers can easily be made from a variety of materials. Sticks, pieces of lumber, rocks, paint stirrers, seashells, tiles, or even broken pieces of terra-cotta pots.

If you’re using sticks, slice off a piece with a sharp knife to create a flat surface. Always cut away from you and supervise children with this task.

All of these can be painted to create colorful plant labels. You may want to use a stencil to keep things neat. Chalkboard paint is another cool idea for seedling labels because you can re-use them for different plants each year.

Press Flowers

Spring flowers are starting to come up in many areas. Preserve a few of these beauties by pressing them.

Collect blemish-free flowers, on a dry day after the dew has dried. Place your flowers face down between two layers of paper in a notebook or book you don’t mind getting damaged. Close the book and weigh it down.

Check on your flowers after 7-10 days.

Spring flowers to try:
violets
daffodils
crocuses
snowdrops
sweet peas
forsythia

Make Wildflower Seed Bombs

To make seed bombs mix 4 parts potter’s clay (find at art supply stores), 1 part compost, 1 part seeds, and 1 part water. Mix these together thoroughly with your hands. It should be easy to form into 1 inch balls. If it’s not holding together add a bit more water.

Place them on a cookie sheet to dry for 24-48 hours. They can be tossed or set into flower beds or fields (only on your own property). They also make excellent party favors for zero waste birthday parties!

Make a Butterfly/Bee Watering Station

Butterflies and bees need water just as much as the birds! Unfortunately, they sometimes have difficulty getting water from deep bird bathes.

To create an insect-friendly water station you need a shallow dish or plate and some small rocks or glass pebbles. Fill your plate with the pebbles or rocks and then water so that the pebbles still stick out of the water a bit. It’s as simple as that!

Some folks glue the plate to a wooden dowel or stake so it sits up much higher, allowing you to observe your visitors.

Create an Insect Hotel

Insect hotels create habitat for beneficial insects like solitary bees, wasps, predatory beetles, lacewings, and hoverflies. These insects play an important role in your garden’s ecosystem.

They’re easy to create, check out our full tutorial here.

Make Garden Paper

You can make your own paper for cards or crafts and include dried plants and flowers.

Here’s what you’ll need:

a blender
a deckle
a tub larger than you’re screen
a sponge
a smooth board or piece of plexiglass
1 cup of shredded paper
2 cups of water
1 Tbs liquid starch
dried flowers or plants

Place your water and paper in the blender and let it soak for at least 30 minutes. After it has soaked, pulse it to puree. The more you blend it the smoother your paper will be. Then add your flowers and plants. You can blend them up more finely or leave the piece large.

Fill your tub with water and add the starch before pouring in your paper slurry. Mix it around.

Lower your deckle into your tub and gently swish it back and forth a bit. When it looks like there’s an even layer of slurry on it, lift it out of the tub.

Wipe a sponge across the back of the screen (non-slurry side) to remove excess moisture and remove the mold. Let your paper sit for 20 minutes and then press it onto your board or plies glass. A rubber roller is helpful but you can do this with your hand.

When your paper is completely dried you can gently remove it from the board.
Try some of these activities to help your kids learn to love nature and gardening!