Called the "staff of life," wheat (Triticum spp.) is a grass revered for its grain kernels that provide flour or straw for foraging animals. Home gardeners can sow as little as 6 lbs. of wheat seed and harvest 50 lbs. of grain, according to the Mother Earth News, on a soil plot 20 by 50 feet. Wheat grows best in arid regions with not too fertile soils.
There are hundreds of varieties of wheat, but all typically fall into any of six classes, based on time of year and the shape, color and hardness of the grain kernels. These classes include hard red winter, hard red spring, soft red winter, durum, hard white and soft white. Durum wheat has the hardest kernels. Generally speaking, soft types make great flours for use in pastries and crackers, while hard types make exceptional breads, according to the Minnesota Association of Wheat Growers. Select the wheat type best suited for your region's soils and climate.
Wheat has two distinct growing seasons. Winter wheats are sown in the autumn and harvested the following late spring or summer, while spring wheats are sown in spring and harvested in late summer or autumn.
Grow wheat in full sunshine exposures in well-draining soils. For winter wheat, till the soil in early autumn and sow seeds 6 to 8 weeks before the soil freezes in your region, according to Mother Earth News. For spring wheat, plow the soil in the fall and then sow seeds as soon as the soil is workable in early spring. Seeds may be sown in rows, or in smaller plots scattered by hand in two pass-overs: east-west and north-south. Four growth stages describe the growing plants. According to the Wheat Council, tillering is when the germinated seed initially emerges. Jointing follows when additional nodes and leaves fill out the wheat plant. Booting is when the final stem emerges, carrying the flower head. Flowering exposes the soon-to-be grain head with its familiar shape and whisker-like filaments.
Weather, fungus and insects comprise the three threats to growing wheat plants and the subsequent grain harvest. Overly wet weather and high humidity can compact plants onto the soil, reducing air flow and leading to fungal rots and leaf diseases. Sucking and chewing insects like aphids and grasshoppers also threaten wheat plant survival as they destroy foliage that cannot be replaced if booting has occurred.
In late spring for winter wheat or late summer for spring types, the color of the plant changes from green to yellow and then brown-tan. The heavy seed head begins to tip downward. Sample a few grains from the seed head: if they are soft and chewy, they're unripe, but if crunchy and firm, it's time to harvest, says Mother Earth News. While modern wheat producers utilize combines for harvest, home gardeners should cut off the grain stalk or seed head itself, bundle them and place in a ventilated dry location away from hungry animals. The grain is ready once the seed heads physically shatter when touched. Threshing then separates the straw from the grain kernels. Lastly, winnowing allows a gentle breeze to blow off chaff from the threshed grain as it is poured between bins repeated times.