Now that you've established a productive vegetable garden, how about growing some pancakes, pasta and home-baked breads on the side?
Plant whole grains — cheap, low-maintenance grasses that produce edible seeds you can cook up raw (as you would rice), grind into flour, make into brews, or add fresh to salads and casseroles. Grains demonstrate that you don't need blooms to beautify small spaces. Think amber waves of grain, or patches of waist-high ornamental grass swaying gracefully in the wind.
Add thrift to the equation, too, because a little goes a long way.
"A 1,000-square-foot plot planted with 2¾ pounds of barley seed will yield one bushel of barley," says Sara Pitzer, author of the updated "Homegrown Whole Grains: Grow, Harvest & Cook Wheat Barley, Oats, Rice, Corn & More" (Storey Publishing, 2009).
"If one bushel doesn't sound like much, consider that one cup of raw barley cooks up to generously serve six people, and that most soup recipes — even ones making big pots of soup — call for only one-third cup of raw barley."
Grains also serve as nutritious recipe fillers, replacing pricier ingredients in a meat loaf or stew. "Put aside what you can't eat for planting the next year," Pitzer advises.
Whole grains usually recommended for home gardens include barley, buckwheat, corn, millet, oats, rice, rye, wheat and amaranth. Decide which grains or cereals you want to grow based on flavor, ease of harvest, hardiness and appearance.
Here's a Pitzer-provided primer to help get you started:
- Barley: Matures faster and tolerates drought better than wheat. A fiber-rich plant known to reduce cholesterol and blood glucose levels. Frequently used for brewing.
- Buckwheat: Broadleaf plant with a strong flavor that often is milled into flour for pancakes.
- Corn: One of the easiest crops to grow. It can be eaten fresh, ground into cornmeal or popped into tender, bite-size puffs.
- Millet: Tasty when served like rice or added to foods for its crunch. Loaded with protein, B vitamins and minerals.
- Oats: Germinates quickly but difficult to harvest unless you go with hull-less varieties. Recommended for everything from biscuits to oatmeal.
- Rice: Challenging to grow, but has limitless applications in recipes.
- Rye: An assertive taste in flour and food. Extremely hardy. Has no hull, making it easy to harvest. Crafters find many uses for its long stems, or straw.
- Wheat: Easily managed in gardens, and a recipe essential for everything from pastas to cakes.
- Amaranth: A tall, broadleaf plant that forms feathery plumes. The leaves can be cooked and eaten like spinach, while the grains have a peppery taste and are rich in protein and other nutrients.
Grains, like most other grasses, are simple to grow.
"They're more adapted to dry land conditions. You don't have to irrigate as much," said Bob Van Veldhuizen, a research technician with the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences. "They also don't require as many nutrients as things like tomatoes."
Van Veldhuizen has worked primarily on hull-less varieties. "They're of more interest to hobby gardeners," he said. "You don't need a home threshing machine."
Most grains are very hardy, thriving in USDA Zones 3 to 8 and beyond, said Dan Jason, a seedsman from Salt Spring Island, British Columbia.
"They're fast growing — 90 to 100 days to maturity," Jason said. "They're not killed by frosts. You can sew some grains in September and harvest them in June, freeing the garden for another crop."
For more about whole grains and nutrition, see this Kansas State University Research and Extension guide: www.ksre.ksu.edu/humannutrition/wholegrains.htm.