Here's some information we've collected to give you an idea of the different grain varieties available. Please note that not all grains may be suitable for growing in your (micro)climate. Below is information on:
A Note re: Winter vs. Spring Grains
Winter crops are sown in early fall, grow a little, and then go dormant during the cold months. When spring returns, they shoot up and are ready to harvest in midsummer. In general, the winter crops yield more heavily, and you can harvest them earlier than spring-planted grains.
Spring crops are usually grown where winters are too severe for fall-sown grains. These grains are sown about the time of the last killing spring frost (traditionally April 18 in the Cowichan, although our last frost in 2008 was June 1), and are ready for harvest in early fall.
Note that there are separate varieties for spring and fall sowing (e.g. "fall/winter rye"). That said, we've successfully planted "spring" grains in the fall here in the Cowichan. While you may be able to get away with planting a "spring" variety in the fall (e.g. Red Fife wheat), "winter" varieties planted in the spring may not have time to mature in time to harvest, since these varieties may require a longer growing season.
Another Note: Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)
Wheat is next on the master list of Crucial Crops to Spoil Using GMO Technology, but so far all cereal grains grown for consumption are GMO-free. To stay up-to-date on the fight against GMO seeds in Canada, monitor the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network's website.
All About Grains
Many factors come into play when deciding what to grow, but an important consideration for the home gardener is "thresh-ability." Just as nuts have inedible shells, grain seeds have hulls. Some hulls can be very difficult to remove without machinery.
Wheat: Used for everything from bread to pasta to pastry, wheat supplies the best-balanced nutrition of all the grains. 1/40 of an acre (approximately 1,100 sq.ft.) should yield 1 bushel, or 60 lbs. Wheat is easily grown on a garden-scale: it's easy to thresh the seed grain from its hull. We've grown Red Fife wheat and a modern variety (hard white spring wheat) successfully. We preferred the modern variety from a growing perspective, as it was only 2' or so tall. Red Fife can grow to be quite tall depending on your soil fertility: it was 5' or so for us, and risked "lodging" (falling over), which makes harvesting a pain.
Millet: As well as being high in protein, millet contains calcium, iron, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, silicon and B vitamins. Wash millet seeds over a large strainer and then boil them at a ratio of one cup millet to one-and-a-half cups water. Cooked millet can be eaten with a little butter, soy sauce and vegetables. It's also superb as a breakfast cereal. We've read that millet can be extraordinarily difficult to hand thresh, so backyard growers should consider this one carefully!
Rye: Of all the grains, rye has the highest amount of lysine, the amino acid needed to create all proteins in the body. Although its per-acre yield is less than that of wheat, it can produce crops on poorer soil than wheat and tolerates cold, drought, and dampness better. Rye's distinctive flavour can be enjoyed in breads and crackers, or mixed with other grains to make a main course. It's also a great green manure and cover crop, and is used to make whiskey. The rye patch reached 8' tall at Makaria Farm in 2010, which resulted in an excellent straw harvest. The yield was astonishing in 2010, with 6-8" long seed heads. Easy to hand-thresh.
Barley: Packed with protein, B vitamins and fibre, whole barley (with the inedible hulls removed) stimulates the appetite, aids with digestive disorders and helps lower blood cholesterol. Barley does best with a long, cool ripening season and moderate moisture but adapts well to heat and aridity. It also tolerates salty and alkaline soils better than most grains. Spring barley ripens in 60-70 days (quicker than wheat), and yields of 80 to 100 bushels per acre are common on fertile soil. "Bearded" varieties may be deer-resistant (the long, pointy awns itch and can stick in an animal's throat). Barley can be used as a primary ingredient in both main courses and cereals, as well as for beer and malt. Barley does not have enough gluten to make bread and must be mixed with other flours. For prompt germination of edible sprouts, you must store barley 4-6 weeks before trying to sprout it. An easy grain to thresh on a small-scale.
Spelt: Unlike regular wheat, whose nutrients are concentrated in its outer layers, spelt offers a more even distribution of its many nutrients throughout the whole kernel. Freshly ground spelt flout with the coarser bran sifted out serves as a good introduction for people new to whole-grain foods. Be warned: it is very difficult (dare we say impossible?) to thorough remove the hull from spelt grains. You may end up with inedible/teeth-cracking/bitter-tasting grains.
Buckwheat: Buckwheat is not technically a grain, but has similar uses. Ground into flour, buckwheat seeds can be used to make a delicious pancake or crepe. They can also be cooked and eaten as a breakfast cereal or dinner grain. Buckwheat's hearty taste and absence of gluten make it a healthy option for the gluten-intolerant. It prefers moist, acid soil and hot weather, and matures rapidly (60-90 days). We've experienced great success growing buckwheat at Makaria Farm in the Cowichan Valley, but we've heard conflicting stories about its thresh-ability. Some growers simply grind the grains, hulls and all, and sift out the larger hull pieces.
Oats: Oats' silicon content is good for bones and connective tissues. Oats supply the highest protein of all grains, and almost tie with wheat as the all-around most nutritious cereal grain. For spring oats, the earlier you can plant the better: as Gene Losgdon says, "whenever the mud dries enough in spring to be workable, plant your oats." They like cool weather and don't need lots of sun. Oats require more water than other cereal crops to make a good yield, but have fewer pest enemies than corn or wheat. Yields of 90 to 100 bushels per acre are possible on good soil, weighing in at 36 lbs per bushel. Now that you're all excited about oats, here's the problem: most oats come with a very tough hull, and so are difficult to prepare. There are some clever de-hulling techniques out there, but your best best is to choose a "hulless" oat variety: it does have a hull (or "husk"), but the hull is much easier to remove. As for cooking: it's best to eat rolled oats without milk or a sweetener, since they can ferment in your stomach. Besides, when freshly rolled, oats are naturally sweet.
Amaranth: Packed with protein, fibre, B vitamins, and numerous minerals, this sacred food of the ancient Aztecs has a distinctive nutty taste. It's also non-glutinous, making it safe for those with gluten sensitivities. The tiny light-coloured seeds can be cooked to make a breakfast cereal or added to other cereals for extra flavour and thickness. We've heard that amaranth can be a notorious self-seeder (it's related to pigweed), but some growers say the seeds don't survive our winters, which would prevent that problem.
Sorghum: There are four types of sorghum: grain, sweet, grass and broomcorn. Grain sorghum seeds make nutritious porridge and pancakes, while sweet sorghum is grown for syrup and silage. (Grass and broomcorn sorghum are not typically raised for human consumption.) Grains guru Gene Logsdon recommends sweet sorghum, because you can not only harvest the syrup, but also use the seed heads for flour just as you would grain sorghum seeds. Gene recommends the Sugar Drip variety for this dual purpose. Sorghum tolerates heat and drought well. We haven't yet attempted growing any variety of sorghum ourselves.
Ready to grow your own? To get out there and start growing grains, see our "How to Grow Grains" page.