Growing wheat in Gaithersburg

Wheat sheaves hanging up on a stick to dry
Wheat sheaves hanging to dry. Photo: L. Davis

Wheat is in the news this year (recall export restrictions from Ukraine and India). We don’t usually think of wheat as a home garden crop, but it does grow well in this area.

In 2017, 2019, and 2021 I planted wheat on a small section of my community garden plot in Gaithersburg. I planted hard red winter wheat in late October in a 5′ x 7′ plot in full sun. Winter wheat needs about 8-10 weeks of growth before the ground freezes, at which time it should be about 5-6″ tall. Rows can be 6″ apart, so it also serves as a cover crop over the winter. I surrounded it with a rabbit barrier of chicken wire.

Full grown wheat
Full-grown wheat. Photo: L. Davis

In spring, the wheat grew to about 4′ in height and began to form kernels in May, and I encountered my first challenge – birds. Sparrows swooped in and started eating the young seed heads. Recycling some cicada netting over the top and draping it over the chicken-wire fence surrounding the wheat was effective for a while, but when the stalks began to mature and dry, the pesky little sparrows found ways to get in. I had to use clothespins to secure the netting to the chicken wire.

Harvesting wheat with a scythe
Harvesting the wheat. Photo: L. Davis

Harvest time was in early June. I found an old scythe in my community garden toolshed, sharpened it in my kitchen, and cut the wheat stalks about 18″ long. After gathering them into sheaves and tying each bundle with a shoestring, I hung them to dry for a couple of weeks. The second challenge was threshing.

There are lots of ideas on the internet for threshing; that is, removing the grain from the stalks. An ancient no-machinery method is to walk on the wheat heads, or hitch your animals to a circular contraption and have them walk around and around over it. We preferred a more sanitary way. Other methods repurpose bicycles and other machinery to release the grains. Or you can beat the stalks against the inside of a bucket. In my case, I put my husband to work bashing a pillowcase of wheat heads against the floor and then stomping on the pillowcase.

Next comes winnowing. I set a simple household fan on the kitchen counter and poured the wheat berries into another bowl in front of the fan. The heavy kernels dropped into the new bowl and the chaff, which was much lighter, blew away. (This required a major cleanup of my kitchen. It could definitely be done outdoors!)

To preserve the wheat berries, I packed them into jars and plastic containers and stuffed what I could into the freezer. When we are ready to make bread, I thaw a jar of the wheat and grind it with a NutriMill electric grain grinder. That does an excellent job, and I make bread using half whole wheat and half good quality white bread flour. Pass the raspberry jam!

Linda Davis is a Master Gardener living in Gaithersburg, Maryland. She completed the Master Gardener course in Virginia in 1997.

12 thoughts on “Growing wheat in Gaithersburg

  1. teraanaam July 5, 2022 / 9:24 am

    Thanks, that was very useful, will try this winter, where do u get the seeds ? Very interested in a small plot !

    • Linda Davis July 11, 2022 / 9:39 am

      Suji, I got the seeds originally from a seed catelog, in the cover crop section. I do not recall which catalog since it was a few years ago and now I save the best seeds for replanting. – Linda Davis

  2. Cristina Sovereign July 5, 2022 / 9:33 am

    Your husband is so cooperative! I am envious. I can’t my hubs ever allowing the winnowing to take place in OUR kitchen! I can’t imagine him being enthusiastic about helping out with the threshing, either. What on earth do you do to gain his cooperation??? Or did you both meet each other in some interest group?

    • Linda Davis July 10, 2022 / 11:02 pm

      Cristina, My husband likes to eat! He has morphed into the breadmaker, so he has a concrete reason to help. But he is definitely NOT a gardener, and never steps foot in the garden itself. I recruited my son and his girlfriend to help cut the wheat one year. – Linda Davis

  3. Robert Cook July 5, 2022 / 3:05 pm

    Thanks for the post! We are trying a wheat, Utrecht Blue, at The Learning Garden at the Maryland State Fairgrounds this year. However, this is planned strictly for demonstration purposes. I’m not sure we will get enough – or have the sufficient energy – to thresh and winnow, etc.

    • Linda Davis July 10, 2022 / 11:05 pm

      Kudos to you for planting a demo plot at the Maryland State Fairgrounds. It does take some persistence and elbow grease to cut, thresh and winnow the wheat. I got about 7 cups of cleaned wheat from my 5′ x 7′ plot (sharing with the birds). That will make about 10-12 cups of flour when I grind it.

    • christa1200Christa July 12, 2022 / 9:03 am

      I planted ‘Utrecht Blue’ several years ago. It grew very well in my Rockville garden and it was so beautiful! I grew it just for ornamental purposes and kept some dried stems for fall flower arrangements.

  4. Peg Nemoff July 5, 2022 / 4:37 pm

    Thanks for the article. You say hard red winter wheat can be used as a cover crop and that it gets planted in October and harvested in June. That is kind of “beyond” cover crop, no? I like the idea of growing my own wheat berries for bread making, especially with the trauma currently going on in Ukraine, however, with a June harvest, you have already lost your spring planting season. Does the wheat do anything beneficial to the soil, for example as legumes do? Also, how far apart do you plant individual seeds? I have never grown anything like this before. Thank you.

    • Linda Davis July 10, 2022 / 11:10 pm

      Peg, Yes, you lose your early summer planting in a wheat plot, but I plant my butternut squash plants right next to it, and the vines are now running over the stubble of the wheat. I leave the wheat stubble in the ground purely to add organic matter and loosen the soil. It does not add nitrogen to the soil as legumes do. As for planting, I just drop a bunch of seed into rows about 8″-10″ apart. Seeds about 5 per inch. I’m not fussy about spacing. But do keep it weeded in the fall when they are starting.

      • Peg Nemoff July 12, 2022 / 8:57 am

        Thanks so much for that clarification.

  5. Dave July 6, 2022 / 9:27 am

    What cultivar of hard red winter did you use? I had learned that hard red spring wheat (the type that makes bread flour) was the type predominantly grown here in the Mid-Atlantic, since it is better suited to our humid climate, whereas hard red winter (the type that makes AP flour) is predominantly grown in drier, colder climates, like the Dakotas. Also, where did you get the wheat seeds that you grew? Finding decent quality wheat for a home grower that works for our climate has been damn hard (at least for me).

    • Linda Davis July 10, 2022 / 11:15 pm

      Davie, What is AP flour? I did not buy a particular cultivar of hard red winter wheat – just found seed in the cover crop section of a seed catalog. I don’t recall which catalog I used because I bought it a few years ago and just save some seed. I tried using hard red winter wheat from the bin at the health food store, but the resulting crop was quite varied, probably because it was mixed from lots of sources. Better to buy some seed to start from a catalog.

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