Most polytunnels are devoted to growing herbs, fruits and vegetables. But they can also be used to grow other types of food. Most home growers imagine that growing their own grains is an impossibility, especially if they only have a small domestic polytunnel. Interestingly, however, it is possible to consider growing grains in a polytunnel. You just have to choose the right varieties to grow.
Why Grains are Not Usually Grown Domestically
It may sound obvious, but most grains require far more space to grow if you want to obtain a significant yield. Wheat, barley and oats require acres of land. For example, the average person eats around 1.5 pounds of wheat in a week. For a year of wheat for a family of four, you would require around 12,000 sq ft of land (between 1/4 and 1/3 of an acre). This means that a self-sufficiency in grains like wheat is out of the reach of most ordinary domestic gardeners.
Another problem with some traditional grains is that harvesting can be fiddly and time consuming, and the milling can require equipment that most domestic growers will not have access to.
That said, some domestic growers (especially those with larger gardens) do devote at least a little space to grains. They may not be able to grow all the grains they need. But they can grow enough grain for a few loaves, and to supplement their home grown diets.
Is It Worthwhile to Grow Traditional Grains in Your Garden?
If you have a larger garden, growing smaller quantities of traditional grains in your garden could be a great way to continue on the road to self-sufficiency. For certain grains, even devoting one regular sized vegetable bed to grains can allow us to grow a worthwhile amount to supplement our home-grown diet and diversify our home-grown menu.
Some grains do require complicated and expensive equipment to harvest and process the them. But the truth of the matter is that you can harvest and process many different grains without making any expensive purchases. This can mean that grain growing is an option for ordinary gardeners, and not only large scale farmers or smallholders.
Wheat, rye and oats may be familiar grains here in the UK, and each of these can be grown on a small scale in your garden. But the effort involved to harvest and process the grains and the low yields may mean that it is not worth it for most of us (except for novelty’s sake). That said, there are other grains that you could consider that are much better suited to growing on a small scale in the UK.
Options For Those Considering Growing Grains in a Polytunnel
Two of the best grains to consider growing here in the UK, either in a polytunnel or elsewhere in your garden are quinoa and amaranth.
Quinoa is a protein-rich, healthy seed that can be grown as a grain in home gardens in our climate. It is a useful ‘complete’ plant protein that is related to chard and beetroot, though is treated more like a grain. Unlike other grains like wheat, you do not have to have a huge acreage to get a worthwhile crop. You cook quinoa like rice, and in addition to being rich in protein, it is also rich in lysine and helps give good nutritional balance to your meals.
Though quinoa plants will grow up to almost 6ft in height, and will need a spacing of around 2ft between plants, they can be grown in a polytunnel and even a few plants can produce a decent amount of the seed.
Once the quinoa goes to seed, the flower heads are cut off and left to dry. When dry, seeds are rubbed off and passed through a riddle (or sifted by hand) to remove the chaff. As soon as seeds are dry enough to be rubbed from their flower bracts, they are dropped into a bowl or other container from a height to winnow out any remaining chaff.
Quinoa seed is naturally protected from pests with a yellow, bitter coating. This is removed by soaking the seed overnight and rinsing in cold water before cooking.
Types of quinoa to consider in the UK include:
- ‘Rainbow’ Quinoa
- ‘Temuco’ Quinoa
Amaranth, which is highly productive,is another healthy option – producing over 200,000 seeds per plant. The seeds are so tiny that they do not need to be ground and can simply be added to whatever you are cooking to add flavour and protein.
If you rub amaranth flowers between your hands and lots of seeds are released, it is time to collect your seeds. Leaving it too late to collect your seed can be a problem, as too many seeds can be lost to wildlife or dispersal.
Strip flower/seeds off your plants while these are still relatively damp and not too dried out. Use a riddle (sieve) to separate the seeds from the rest. Let the seed dry out for a few days,then pour from a height in a breeze to disperse the chaff. Leave the clean seed to dry thoroughly before storing it for use in your kitchen or for replanting the following year.
‘Mixed Grain Amaranth’ seeds are available in the UK. It is important to select options bred for seed as some are better for amaranth leaves, which a alternative leafy plant crop to consider.
Why Is Growing Grains a Good Idea?
Growing smaller quantities of grain can be a great way to diversity your home grown diet and create a range of healthy and delicious recipes. What is more, eating whole grains is good for your health.
The Benefits of Whole Grains:
Science has discovered many interesting and exciting benefits to whole grains and new peer reviewed studies come out often that have found new ways in which eating whole grains can benefit our health and well-being. Here are just some of the things that have been found:
Whole Grains Help Brain Development:
It looks as though whole grains were a key factor in the increasing brain size and capability in early humans and they can still help our brains today.
Whole Grains Can Help You Live Longer:
Several different respected studies have shown that life expectancy is higher in those who eat regular amounts of whole grain.
Whole Grains Can Improve Intestinal Health
Fiber in whole grains can aid intestinal transit and lessen any digestion problems and make you feel better on the inside. Whole grains can:
Help Prevent Diseases as Part of a Healthy Diet:
Whole grains have been shown in a number of scientific studies to aid in the prevention of cancers, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and all sorts of other illnesses.
Increase Cancer Survival Rates:
The survival rates of those who already have cancer and other serious illnesses have been shown to increase amongst those who eat whole grains.
Reduce Inflammation and Help Long Term Illnesses:
Whole grains can help in the management of many chronic illnesses and can help with inflammation in such conditions as rheumatoid arthritis and other such conditions.
Reduce Insulin Resistance and Help You Lose Weight:
Whole grains are great at making sure your sugar levels stay more constant over the course of a day and can fill you up. So you are less likely to crash and need a sugary snack or feel peckish and succumb to temptation. This makes it easier for you to loose weight.
These are only some of the benefits associated with whole grains. Whole grains are an essential part of a healthy diet and should be included in your regular eating habits. So it just makes sense to think about ways that you might be able to grow at least some whole grains of your own.
Why Is Growing Grains Under Cover in a Polytunnel a Good Idea?
Growing grains such as quinoa and amaranth under cover can help you to keep close tabs on how well it is doing, and to control the environment to a greater degree. The extra warmth in a polytunnel can bring on your crops more quickly that those grown outside.
What is more, growing grains in a polytunnel can also help to prevent problems with the seeds rotting in the flower heads before maturity. It can also make it easier to dry out the flower heads in order to separate the seeds.
Since you will be out of the wind in a polytunnel, growing quinoa and amaranth inside can also help to reduce loss of seed due to wind dispersal.
Do you grow grains in your polytunnel? Would you consider doing so? Share your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.