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Growing Dry Beans and Grains

Apr 3rd, 2013 | Category: Features, Growing

by Krista Rome

Most folks don’t realize you can easily grow beans and grains in the maritime Pacific Northwest. Through my research, the “Backyard Beans & Grains Project,” I have discovered numerous varieties that grow quite excellently here in the Pacific Northwest. All of them can be grown and processed using only inexpensive hand tools.

I have trialed over 100 varieties of dry beans (pole and bush type), and successfully grown several types of garbanzos, soup peas, over-wintering favas, soybeans, and lentils. Grains that thrive in our climate include wheat, barley, oats, rye, and shorter-season corn. Seed crops such as flax, buckwheat, and early-maturing millets are a cinch to grow here. Amaranth and quinoa are a bit trickier in our climate but still worth growing. And for anyone stumped on how to get local cooking oil, camelina should be on your wish-list.

Jars of beans. PHOTO BY KRISTA ROME

The Basics

Start with locally-adapted varieties. Our climate is short, and summers are cool. Get seeds from someone who has grown them here or somewhere similar.

Get your planting dates right – we don’t have a lot of leeway with our short season. Most of these crops will grow without irrigation in all but the sandiest soils; but watering will improve yields for the late-season crops.

Keep the crop well-weeded up through the end to improve air-flow during dry-down. Let the plants dry fully on the plant in the field if at all possible. Ensure that your harvest is fully dry before threshing, and especially before storing in airtight containers.

Thresh your plant material by laying it out on a tarp, with the tarp on a hard surface such as concrete, plywood, or gravel. Now stomp it good!

Clean your beans or grains by pouring the material slowly in front of a box fan into a large Rubbermaid-type container. Have the fan on a table or sturdy chair so the container can be lower than the fan. A set of seed-cleaning screens are also helpful for some of the grains.

Dry Beans

Dry beans are easy and rewarding to grow. Mid-May is a good time to plant, aiming for a bit of warm weather after planting to speed germination. Be sure to provide a sturdy trellis or bean teepee for the pole varieties, at least eight feet tall. Bush types don’t need any support but will not give you as high a yield. I usually plant my pole beans two to four inches apart and my bush beans at six to eight inches apart, in single rows. When your bean pods are crispy dry, pick them off the plants by the pod, or cut the plants off at the base with some pruners (leaving behind the roots and dirt). Threshing by hand is enjoyable with beans, but the tarp method works great for larger harvests.

Cool-season legumes (garbanzos, lentils, and soup peas) are planted in April, over-wintering favas in October, and soybeans at the end of May.

Small Grains and Seeds

Plant wheat, barley, rye, oats, flax, and camelina by mid-April, buckwheat in early May, and millet around June 1. Grains are easiest to maintain in three-foot wide beds, spaced a little more than the width of your hoe. Plant seeds one inch apart in the rows. To harvest, use a small hand sickle (mine is serrated), grab a bundle of stalks, and cut just below the seed heads. If your soil is not too wet, wheat and barley can also be planted in the fall.

Millet threshing. PHOTO BY KRISTA ROME

Grow Your Own Cooking Oil

Camelina can be pressed into cooking oil with a home-scale Piteba oil press ($140 on Amazon). It is tasty, nutritious, high in Omega 3 oils and safe to use on moderately high heat. Camelina is related to canola and has been grown in Europe for at least 3,000 years.

Make your own tortillas. PHOTO BY KRISTA ROME

Corn

Corn is by far the most productive of all the grains. Grain corn comes in several categories: dent corn (longer season, highest yielding, and great for tortillas), flint (shorter season and well-known for polenta), flour (the softest and easiest to grind); and popcorn. The good news about heirloom grain corn is that it tends to require less fertility and water than hybrid sweet corn. It’s still the heaviest feeder of the grains, however, so be sure to run your chickens through first, rotate with legumes, or side-dress with an organic source of quick-release nitrogen when the seedlings are up and growing. Direct sow in mid to late May or start transplants a few weeks earlier. Let the ears dry in the field and harvest by hand. Pull back the leaves and hang small bundles to dry indoors. When fully dry, shell the corn by hand or with an inexpensive cast iron corn sheller ($30).

Flint corn. PHOTO BY KRISTA ROME

To order seeds or an instruction manual, to volunteer, or for more information, contact Krista Rome, Backyard Beans & Grains Project, at (360) 224-4757 or visit www.backyardbeansandgrains.com.

A new project is aimed at care taking short-season heirloom corn varieties, to protect them from GMO contamination while adapting them over the years to our specific climate. Farmers will be trained on hand-pollination and work with other farmers that can grow corn in isolated sites without the need for controlled pollination.

Published in the April 2013 issue of Grow Northwest

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