Backyard breadbasket. For a yard that's a feast for the mouth as well as the eye
THOSE who visit Rosalind Creasy's home in Los Altos, Calif., all say the same thing about her garden: It's fascinating, picture perfect most of the time, and much of it is edible. It was she who coined the term ``edible landscaping'' and wrote a book on the subject (``The Complete Guide to Edible Landscaping,'' Sierra Books) back in 1982. In the process she changed what had previously been derisively called ``salad-bowl gardening'' into something much more significant.
Gardens should provide a feast for the eye and the mouth at one and the same time, she insists. Fern-like asparagus, purple eggplant, red-stemmed rhubarb, golden melons, and red and yellow tomatoes all combine with ornamentals in a profusion of color and form in her garden. And so, in recent years, does wheat.
The stately grass, green for almost six months and a bright golden color for the final few weeks, currently forms the backdrop to a flower bed that features iris, poppies, and tulips for the most part. ``But wheat is beautiful in its own right,'' says Ms. Creasy.
Her current wheat garden, 25 feet long and four feet deep, ``will give me 20 to 25 loaves of the best bread you'll ever taste,'' she says. She is now in her second season of growing ``a bread garden,'' as she puts it, and it's ``a whole lot simpler than I ever imagined.'' There's no staking, tying, pruning, or extra feeding.
Since sowing the present wheat crop in October, Creasy has thinned and weeded it just once and will do ``nothing more to it'' except water it periodically, when the hot dry weather arrives in March, until it is harvested in May. Other gardeners may prefer to sow wheat in the early spring for a fall harvest, she says.
Creasy had long been drawn to growing her own patch of wheat, but everything she ever read on the subject talked in terms of bushel baskets to the acre and weed and pest control on a mammoth scale.
``No one ever treated wheat as a garden crop,'' she says. Now, she plans to change all that. First hand experience, following much advice and direction from John Jeavons of the Common Ground Minifarm near Willits, Calif., has shown her that wheat and other grains such as rye make very useful garden plants. Her ``bread garden,'' in fact, is one of several featured in her upcoming book, ``Theme Gardens.''
All grains need plenty of sun, which meant the only place for Creasy's wheat was in the front yard. The effect proved remarkable.
``The wheat, not the flowers, became the star of my garden,'' she says. Mothers pushing strollers, panting joggers, even passing cyclists have stopped to view the wheat garden.
In milder climates, or in far northern climates with a reliable, protective snow cover, wheat can be sown in the fall and harvested in May. Otherwise, sow wheat in the spring, about the same time as you would peas, for a late September, early October harvest.
Wheat grows best in rich, well-drained soil with a pH factor of 6.4. It does not do well in more acid soils. Creasy's approach is to select a bed of well-worked soil to which she adds two to three inches of aged manure. This is lightly forked into the top few inches.
Next, she broadcasts the seed by hand over the bed and rakes them lightly into the soil. Or you can sow them in rows about eight inches apart, later thinning the seedlings to three to four inches apart. If birds are a problem in your area, cover the bed with fine netting until the shoots are up.
Another option is to sow the wheat indoors about two weeks before setting it in the open ground. Set out the transplants five inches apart in all directions. About four weeks after the seed has sprouted, thin out any overcrowded patches, and at the same time remove any weeds. This should be the only work involved, apart from watering once a week if the weather is dry.
After the seed heads have fully formed, stop all watering and allow the wheat to ripen. The grain turns yellow at this stage and the seed heads begin to droop.
``Another indication of ripening,'' Creasy cautions, ``is a sudden interest on the part of birds.'' Harvest quickly at this stage or the garden will soon be filled with many contented birds and very little wheat.
In dry climates, the wheat can be left on the plant until the kernels are hard and cannot be dented by finger nails. In moist climates or where birds are a major problem, the wheat should be harvested when it has passed the milky stage but can still be dented when pressed between the finger nails. In this case the wheat will have to be further dried in a shed or other airy enclosure.
If the seed is fully dry, harvest by cutting off the individual seed heads with a pair of pruning shears. Otherwise, cut a good length of stalk along with the seed heads so that they can be bound together in sheaves for easy stacking or hanging indoors for further drying.
To thresh the wheat, simply place the seed heads in a cloth bag, hang it up, and hit it repeatedly. Creasy's preferred method is to wrap the grain in a sheet, spread it on the hard driveway and invite a few friends around to do a little soft-shoe dancing.
Winnowing is done by pouring the threshed wheat from one bowl to another in a pleasant breeze. The wind blows away the chaff, leaving the heavier kernels to fall into the bowl. When Creasy winnowed her harvest last year, there was no breeze at all so she set up a vacuum cleaner in reverse and it worked perfectly. Don't hold the vacuum cleaner pipe too close to the falling wheat, she cautions, or the blast might be strong enough to blow some wheat off course.
From 66 square feet of wheat last year, Creasy harvested 10 pounds of grain. That's several times more productive than the square-foot production on an average American wheat farm.
Buying wheat seed to sow in your garden isn't as simple as, say, getting a packet of tomato seeds. Wheat just isn't a featured item in seed racks at the local garden center or hardware store. Try your local farm supply company instead, which might be prepared to sell a small quantity, or a natural food store. Otherwise, two mail-order seed companies that will supply small quantities of wheat seed to gardeners are: Bountiful Gardens, 5798 Ridgewood Rd., Willits, CA 95490; and Johnny's Selected Seeds, Foss Hill Rd., Albion, ME 04910.