Our Family’s Garden Grain Experiment- Part 1, by Wild BillB of OR

This is an account of our family’s experience and learning while experimenting with growing oats and wheat in a garden setting. Storing food and preps are important; but, for us, the primary role of food storage is for the immediate emergency or to get us through the first year of a serious crisis. What then? No one can store sufficient food for a serious, long-term disaster.

The Key Is Growing and Gathering Your Own

The key is growing and gathering your own, and our favorite staples to grow are potatoes and corn. Living on the “wet” side of Oregon we got to wondering how feasible it would be to grow our own grains, oats and wheat in particular, on a small scale.

Great Fun and Valuable Lessons Learned

We had great fun and learned some valuable lessons in the exercise of growing our own grains that I’ll try to pass along. I’ve included some video of our methods and tools to better share our experience.

Two Sites Chosen

We chose two sites to grow in– pasture land and in an unused chicken coop. We cut and then rototilled a 25×25 foot area of pasture adjacent to our existing garden. This plot had never been intentionally fertilized. We wanted to see how well grain would do competing in grass land in the first year of planting. The 10×10 foot plot in the chicken coop was well fertilized and protected by fence for a more “ideal” growing situation. Both sites were roughly tilled and raked, and then they were planted by hand. Seeds were simply scattered and then lightly raked. We did plant several rows in each plot, seeding the rows more heavily and then covering the seeds with about half of an inch of soil.

Wheat and Oat Seeds Used

For seeds, we used wheat from our storage (winter white) that we had germinated inside over the winter to confirm they would germinate well. We also bought 50 pounds of “naked oats” for planting from an online source. We hoped their nakedness would simplify the harvest and eating of the oats. Both germinated very quickly and did well growing in our simple plots.

I believe any stored wheat could be used as seed, so long as it is kept viable and stored well. Testing seed by germinating some of it before planting is always a good idea just to check that it is viable. Our wheat storage is now much more than just food; it is future seed as well.

June Planting

We planted in early June, when the spring sunshine became more regular in our soggy part of the west coast. It was impressive how quickly the seeds took to soil and sprouted. Our first key learning was how much our free-ranging chicken flock liked wheat and oats! To keep the birds (and deer) out, we quickly put up a temporary fencing of orange plastic construction barrier fence around the field plot. We keep several rolls of this inexpensive fencing to let us put up temporary fencing quick and easy wherever we might need it. It works great for birds and large livestock, including cattle.

First Surprise- Plots Grew Quickly

Both plots grew very quickly, surprisingly quickly! I do believe if the spring had not provided as much sunshine as it did (some years are very wet and overcast), the growth would have been slower. Both grains need significant amounts of sunshine, so keep this in mind when planting. The oats are especially hearty, however, and they have grown of their own accord during late fall and late winter (Feb-March) here in our mild climate.

Second Surprise- Little Attention Needed

The second surprise for us was how little attention the grains needed from us after they began growing. When the grasses were about three inches tall, the chickens no longer had any interest. The deer, however, took notice and seemed drawn to the grains, especially the oats, until they began to grow grain heads. The temporary fencing did well to discourage them, as did the dog.

Another Learning- Fertilizer Made a Difference

As the grain heads began to grown and mature, another important learning became obvious. The wheat heads growing in the old chicken coop were much larger and well formed than those in the former pasture land. They were beautiful! I estimate the chicken coop wheat had at least 40% more grain on it than what was growing in the pasture, and the wheat in the coop was thicker and taller. The fertilizer made a noticeable difference.

When we do this again or in a long-term situation, we will definitely take the time and effort to fertilize. The pasture wheat was nice and quite suitable, but the yields, which we are after, was very different.

Wheat and Oats Crowded Out Weeds

I was impressed with how well both the wheat and oats did with crowding out other weeds. The grains grew dense enough to keep other grasses and weeds at bay. The only significant weeds were thistles in the pasture plot, and these were easily plucked when large enough. I have since used most of the oats harvested to replant areas in the pasture where other weeds are trying to take hold; the oats crowd them out and are a real treat for the animals. This is a real win-win option.

Harvest Time

It was only six or seven weeks, and we were ready to start attempting a harvest. Again the spring and early summer seemed warmer and sunnier than usual, so this was a big help. I’m sure rainier years will likely impact the timing more. The plants were golden and very dry, and grain could be coaxed out by hand fairly easily. It was time! Efficient harvest of wheat and oats were the big project we were most interested in. Without a combine or automated way to gather in our crop, how labor intensive would it be?

Tools For Harvesting

We tried several different tools for harvesting: scythe, sickle, weed eater, and by hand. The scythe was fun but not very effective, at least for us. It takes some practice and care to swing one effectively, and when cut, the wheat scattered about half haphazardly, making it time consuming to gather the stalks up for handling. For a much larger area of wheat, the scythe could be an advantage, but it was not effective for us.

Weed Eater

Our weed eater worked very well to cut the wheat. But, like the scythe, it tended to scatter the stalks and often “choke” on them as they tangled in the spinning head of the machine. To address both of these, I took a piece of sheet metal and fixed it to the end of the shaft so the sheet metal sat level with the end and just offset from the spinning plastic blades. This metal caught the cut stalks, and gathered them in-line very well. This also took practice in order to become efficient using it, and the spinning head still choked on stalks too often for my limited patience. However, the design showed great promise.


The sickle turned out to be our favorite and most efficient means for cutting the wheat. Grabbing a handful of stalks, the sickle was used to cut them all at the desired length and they were stacked in a pile. The pile, when large enough, was then tied together with two or three stalks, forming a nice, tight bundle. We gathered these bundles into larger bundles piled on eight foot lengths of wire fencing, and then wrapped and secured the fencing about the bundles to stack upright under cover for further drying, if necessary. It was easier to keep the sickle sharp, and it never choked on the stalks.

We tried the same methods for the oats, which matured about the same time as the wheat. The oats required a bit more care in handling, because it shed its fruit much more easily. I’m not sure if the “naked oats” variety drops its grain more easily than regular oats, but we had to be more careful as the grain came out and scattered when being cut or handled. For oats, we found simply grabbing a handful of grain heads in our hands and then pulling upward gave us all of the grain and left the stalks in the field. This was faster. There was less handling, and we found it to be our best way to gather in the oats in-quantity. We had much less loss of grain in the handling, too.

Tomorrow, I’ll continue to tell you about our harvesting and processing as well as what we learned from our experiment.

See Also:

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  1. Interesting article, thanks. We tried this same experiment in some unused pasture but we didn’t have enough sunshine due to trees ringing the area and the deer helped themselves. Harvest was done by hand and was used for the chickens. Next year we’ll plant in part of the garden which is protected by fencing and two giant dogs. Looking forward to part 2.

  2. You can put a special saw blade on your weed wip that is used for cutting saplings. I’ve used it on heavy grasses, and it doesn’t spray them all over, just kind of lays them down.

  3. BillB,
    Is it possible to attach a picture or drawing of your sheet metal modification for the weed eater? Or perhaps more detailed instructions? Thank you for the wonderful article!

  4. This is very interesting, thank you so much for sharing! I have often thought about the viability of growing wheat, but living in the desert Southwest, did not think it would work. Perhaps I’ll give it a try during our winter growing season here. I also never thought of my wheat storage being seed for a crop. One question: could you please detail exactly how you germinated the seed indoors? Thanks so much!

  5. A sickle bar mower on a tractor works well ,,,
    Only cut one swath at a time clean that up and then cut again and so on ,,,
    Cut the oats a little sooner next time
    We’re on the west side too,, yet to find a grain crop that won’t grow at least OK
    move your shocks on a tarp to control loss

  6. Generally oats are planted in the spring and wheat in the fall though there are varieties where this can be switched. In a garden setting many times there is enough seed in straw bales purchased to get a good stand. I found this out when I used it to mulch my yard to cover the grass seed and the wheat came up and crowded out the grass.

    When harvesting by the method described it is necessary to cut slightly before it is really ready to avoid excessive grain loss. Let it dry a few days and then thresh. In my youth I was involved with both crops cutting with a binder and then going to the threshing machine and later using a combine. This brings up another subject I think those of the preparedness mindset might be interested in. The Allis Chalmers all crop harvestors can be used to cut these and most other crops. On Craigs list you will still see these listed for $500-1000 in working condition. Other than grass seed they are too slow to be of commercial use today but are ideal for harvesting 5-10 acres of small grain crops. They can be pulled with as small as 28 hp tractor. Probably should be somewhat mechanically inclined though, helps if you grew up using one. I have my grandfathers and cut $2000 in grass seed with it last year in two afternoons.

  7. I had the same experience with naked oats, and stripping by hand was by far the most efficient harvest method. We also made a thresher from a 5 gal bucket, power drill and small bits of chain (plans found online) which worked very nicely. This year I plan on building a winnowing table (simple a small table with a blower underneath) as the “pouring from bucket to bucket in a breeze” was a little too unpredictable for me.

    1. Suggest drape 9×12 tarp over 5 gal buckets along sides, and secure over saw horse at far end, creating an alley/chute. Place grain at near end, use leaf blower. Winnowed grain collects at far end at the base of the saw horse.

      1. yes, this is what we did as well, but used an old bed sheet. the cotton seemed to hold the hulls and chaff better, but let the grain slide easier. a large box fan worked better than the leaf blower (too strong for us). thanks for the input!

  8. Tried this in two garden boxes in Texas, just to see what would happen. Grew like gangbusters, and a second crop came in the next spring on its own. Cut it down with a big knife, the hardest part is threshing it to get your wheat grains.

  9. Just started our first vegetable garden this year. Great learning experience. I’ve been considering wheat next year. How many hours of direct sunlight does wheat need to grow?

  10. You can get an attachment for your scythe that looks like fingers that are parallel to the blade. These catch the wheat and oat stalks for binding. It takes a little getting used to but one or two swings and you have a bundle in the forks.

  11. Since I have cut wheat, corn and sugar out of my diet for the most part, I hadn’t really worried with trying to grow the wheat and corn. I have thought of growing some corn for my chickens, and so I have been thinking through how to best make it happen that the patches I would use get fertilized. I am basically setting up some paddocks for my animals, where I rotate cows, donkeys, chickens, ducks, geese, etc. I put the birds in moveable pens. I leave each pen in one spot long enough to fertilize it well. I don’t yet have enough pens to make a noticeable difference in the fertility of the pasture, but I’m getting there. If I was growing corn for the birds, I would run the chicken tractors over it pretty heavily.

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