Making Hay

I’m traveling beneath a languid and lazy blue sky.  On either side of the nearly deserted two lane road, thousands of acres of grassland clothe undulating hills and hollows; a simple, soothing landscape reduced to big sky and a blue highway navigating an inland sea of rippling corduroy fields.  Newly shorn grasses, golden bristles starched by the late summer sun, are all that remain from the recent wheat harvest. 

I’m on a solitary road trip. This awkwardly shy freelance writer - sometimes garden designer - has invited herself to Paradise; I’m going to call on MaryJane Butters. Paradise Farm lies just outside of Moscow, Idaho, and is the organic homestead and working farm that MaryJane has called home for the past 20 years. 

I can only attribute my uncharacteristically bold overture to recent months spent absorbed in the life and work of Carla Emery, one of our country’s pioneer women of contemporary self-sufficient living and a former neighbor and friend of Mary Jane. I want to talk with someone who knew Carla; someone who is herself cultivating a resourceful, creative, can-do “Farmgirl” spirit.

Carla Emery grew up on a sheep ranch in Montana and was educated at Columbia University.  In the early 1970’s she settled on a farm in northern Idaho, where she wrote the first edition of The Encyclopedia of Country Living.  Originally entitled Carla Emery’s Old Fashioned Recipe Book and produced on a mimeograph machine in her living room the book launched its author to the forefront of the back-to-the-land movement. My latest book, Growing Your Own Vegetables is the first in a series of single-subject guides drawn from material that appears in The Encyclopedia of Country Living, now in its 10th edition.

Mile after mile of fertile hills and prairies of eastern Washington flash by outside my rolled-down windows, the warm wind refreshing the stale interior of my rental car. This area, known as the Palouse, extends into northern Idaho and down into northeastern Oregon is a major wheat-producing agricultural region. I suppose it’s no surprise that my thoughts should wander to my “Grasses and Grains” chapter: 

The grass family is basic to supporting all animal life on earth.  Green grass is pasture; dried grass is hay.  The edible seeds of corn, wheat, rye, barley, rice, oats, and flax grasses provide grain, a rich food for both people and livestock.  Millet, amaranth, quinoa, and buckwheat are nongrass plants whose highly nutritious seeds are harvested and consumed as “grain.”  

Raising your own grain may require less space than you think.  Producing even a small crop of grain is not only a gardening adventure but also an instructive exercise concerning a food we typically take for granted yet is central to most people’s diet.

Recently I visited a city gardener whose backyard contained a beautiful stand of triticale, a hybrid grain that is a cross between wheat and rye. A small 4 ’x 4’ planting block was planted solid with blue green grasses topped with fat heads of grain, just beginning to lean under their ripe weight.  The garden designer in me couldn’t get over the beautiful impact the grasses made on the landscape while the vegetable gardener in me wondered what the heck one does with such a small harvest.  

Harvesting, binding, shocking, threshing, winnowing and finally grinding wheat into usable flour is not a job for the feint of heart, nor for the hungry; if your stand is this small, your yield is likely to be negligible.  Turns out these urban farmers used their harvested grain for sprouting, toasting or simply chewing, savoring the fresh grain goodness.  

Backyard Wheat

Wheat (Triticum sp.) has been cultivated for the last 10,000 to 15,000 years, beginning in the Tigris, Euphrates, and Nile valleys.  It’s a good basic grain to plant.  A decent crop of wheat can be produced in your backyard if you have the right conditions and protect the tender stalks from trampling by dogs and people.

PLANTING:  Wheat thrives where a cool, damp growing season is reliably followed by dry, warm days for ripening and harvest.  Prepare a rich soil in full sun – conditions similar to those that would produce a good crop of corn.  Broadcast seed by hand or plant in rows 4 inches apart, going back over the plot and raking to cover the seed with 1 to 2 inches of soil.  Spring wheat may be sown around the time of the last killing frost and germinates best when temperatures are in the 60s.  Winter wheat is planted in the fall and sprouts before going dormant with cold temperatures; growth resumes in the spring as the soil warms. 

Prompted by delightful memories of my trip through the magnificent Palouse and inspired by the stand of the visually stunning triticale, last fall I planted my own “stand” of winter wheat. Mild autumn temperatures promoted quick germination and I was delighted to see my planting already “rowed up” by late October. Our winter was uncharacteristically severe with 2 ½ weeks of snow cover and record low temperatures in December. Harsh by local Puget Sound standards but nothing compared to “real” winter conditions common east of the Cascade mountain range.  Indisputably, I knew our spring would be cool and damp, followed (eventually) by warm dry days throughout late July into August.

So far my domestic stand of planter box wheat has been a huge success. The plants came through winter without a hitch and have steadily grown tall and lush in our ridiculously cold and wet spring weather. Like an excited little kid with a bean in a Dixie cup, I have keenly followed its progress. Just this morning - it’s early May as I write this - I noticed the first seed heads have begun to appear among the luxuriant blades. Wheat is one of the slower grains to mature, ripening around 40-50 days after “heading”; perfect timing for my intended summer “harvest.”  

It remains to be seen if my vision will come to fruition.  Rocking on our vintage patio furniture, sipping a cool drink, I picture us lazing about in the waning heat of the day alongside a graphic stand of tall blond stalks, heavy with ripe grain. Only time will tell.

Carla Emery remained a tireless advocate of self-sufficiency and environmental stewardship until her death in 2005.  Today’s “green living” movement owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to Carla and others like her, who never gave up their pursuit of a good and healthy existence.  These contemporary pioneers resuscitated and breathed new life into the skills and traditions of our grandparents and their parents.  We may not have more than a tiny patch in the backyard or a few containers on a shyly-proportioned patio, but there is still plenty we can grow… and plenty more we can learn in the process.

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This story first appeared in MaryJanes Farm magazine.