Winnowing is optimum for understanding how you can become more self-sufficient. Learning about what is winnowing, how to collect seeds from your garden correctly, and discovering how to process those seeds for use or replanting can be a very useful skill to learn as a gardener. In this article, you will learn about what is winnowing, the correct process for separating seeds, and why this is such a big impact for agricultural farmers.
Table of Contents
What is Winnowing?
Winnowing is the process that involves separating the seeds or grain from the chaff, or the outer papery coverings or husks and other bits of dried plant material that surround them.
It follows the process of threshing and is all about removing the debris from the parts we wish to keep. What we want is to remove any other bits so that we are left with just the grains or seeds.
When we talk about grains, we are talking about the seeds of cereal crops that we commonly use as food, such as wheat, rice, barley, maize/corn, rye and oats.
We may not always have the space to grow cereals, or grasses cultivated for their edible grains, in our own gardens, though it is possible to do so on a smaller scale and growing heritage grains is certainly worth considering if you have the space.
There are also pseudocereal grains that can be easier to grow on a smaller scale in home gardens, such as amaranth, buckwheat and quinoa, for example. And there are many other garden seeds and grains that we might potentially want to grow and process on our properties, especially if we are lucky enough to have larger gardens.
Winnowing is one part of the process we need to follow if we wish to get these seeds from garden to table. Fortunately, it is a relatively simple process that we can easily learn about and try ourselves.
Why Learn About Winnowing and Try it Yourself?
One of the reasons that many people are discouraged from growing their own grains at home is that it is considered difficult to process those seeds – sometimes it can be a fiddly and time-consuming business.
But by learning the basic process of threshing and winnowing, you can use methods that have been used for thousands of years to separate and collect the grains so that they can then be further processed, or used in a range of other ways.
In permaculture and sustainable gardening in general, we are always looking at ways to make full use of all the natural patterns and flows around us. When we look at any force acting on our gardens and energy flows through it, we think about how we can take advantage of those things.
Winnowing, as you will discover below, is one of the ways in which we can take advantage of the wind blowing through our gardens to achieve our goals.
How to Winnow Seeds
If you want to learn how to winnow seeds then of course the first stage in getting the grains from garden to table is harvesting your crop. Of course, in the field this is done today with large machinery such as combine harvesters, that do the entire job.
But if you are growing grains on a smaller scale then you will typically need to harvest by hand. Your key challenge will be determining when the crop is ready to harvest. Of course, this will depend not only on where you live and which grains you have decided to grow, but also on the weather in a given year and the precise growing conditions.
Once you have reaped or harvested your crop, you need to think about how to separate the grain or seed from the rest of the plant material.
1. Before you begin winnowing – Threshing
Threshing is the stage that comes after reaping, or harvesting, and before winnowing in this agricultural process. This is the name we give to the process of loosening the edible part of the grain from the straw or stems on which it grows.
From the late 18th century onwards, this process has increasingly been mechanised. But for much of human history, threshing took time and manual labour. In gardens, where we don’t have access to mechanical means, we can learn from pre-industrial peoples and learn manual methods once more.
When growing on a very, very small scale, it is possible to avoid the need for threshing and winnowing to simply shell the grain or seed laboriously by hand. But of course, this is a technique that quickly becomes impracticable with scale and would obviously take up far too much of your time.
The simplest method for threshing is simply to stamp on the harvested grains, beat them with a stick or flail, or whack them on the ground. The idea is to separate the grains as much as possible from their stems and other fibrous plant material without damaging the seeds themselves.
The larger pieces of stem and straw can them be carefully removed or raked away, or picked out by hand, to leave the grains and the chaff.
2. Materials & Prep:
Once you have reaped and threshed the grain, you will be left with a pile of grains and chaff. Chaff, to be clear, is the name given to the papery husks and other material surrounding the seeds of cereal grains. Some seeds are more easily removed from these surrounding bracts than others.
To winnow this pile of grains and chaff, you will need:
- Two containers, one to hold the material and pour from, and a second to catch the grain.
- A breeze.
3. The Process
The process itself could not be simpler. To winnow the grains or other seeds that you have harvested and threshed, get two buckets, baskets or other reasonably large receptacles.
Find a location where there is a good breeze – not a gale but something enough to let long hair, when loose, flow out behind you. Put the material, grains and small pieces of chaff, into one of your two containers and place the other on the ground.
With the wind coming from one side of you, hold one container a couple of feet above the other and gently pour, allowing the grain to pour into the container below.
As you pour, the lighter pieces of chaff and potentially some small, bad seeds, will blow along and fall outside of the second container, while the heavier, viable seeds/ grains should fall straight down.
Methods for Winnowing Seeds
There are of course a number of other methods used for winnowing seeds – both low tech like the above and some higher tech options.
As well as using natural breeze to blow away the chaff, some people also use fans, either hand cranked or electric, to provide a more stable and less erratic air flow.
Gravity is also sometimes used for round seeds, and seeds are able to roll down a surface leaving the chaff behind.
Machines for winnowing were developed in the 19th century and the process was more and more mechanised such that now grains are typically reaped, threshed and winnowed in a single process before even leaving the field.
But as home growers, we can return to methods used much earlier in agriculture which make more sense than investing in expensive machinery when we are only processing grain or other seed on a very small scale. Learn about seed ordering season now to plan your agricultural activities correctly. There are truly so many ways about growing grains in a polytunnel that we had to make an article about it.
How do you winnow small seeds?
To winnow small seeds, you can use a gentle breeze or a fan. Pour the seed and chaff mixture from one container to another in front of the breeze or fan. The lighter chaff will be blown away, while the heavier seeds will fall straight down into the container.
What is the process of winnowing?
Winnowing is an ancient agricultural technique used to separate grain or seeds from the chaff. The process involves:
Pouring the mixture of grain and chaff into the air, usually from one container to another.
Allowing the wind or a forced air source to blow away the lighter chaff.
Collecting the heavier grain or seeds that fall vertically into the container.
How do you separate dirt from seeds?
To separate dirt from seeds:
Start with a preliminary hand cleaning to remove larger debris.
Use a fine sieve or screen to sift the seeds, allowing the dirt to fall through while retaining the seeds.
For stubborn dirt attached to seeds, washing and then drying the seeds can be effective, though this method is not suitable for all seed types.
How do you separate small seeds from chaff?
To separate small seeds from chaff:
Begin with hand threshing or rubbing the seed heads to release the seeds.
Use winnowing, pouring the seeds and chaff from one container to another in front of a gentle breeze or fan to blow away the chaff.
For finer separation, sieves or screens with appropriate mesh sizes can be used to retain the seeds and let the chaff pass through.
Fontenot, E., (2023) Seed-Ordering Season: A Beginner’s Guide. ProvinceTown Independant. [online] Available at: https://provincetownindependent.org/farm-garden/2023/01/25/seed-ordering-season-a-beginners-guide/ [accessed 06/10/23]
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.
To get in touch, visit https://ewspconsultancy.com.