Wheat can be grown anywhere in the United States, but the best type for wheat weaving is the longer-stemmed winter wheat, which is planted in the fall and requires a period of cold temperatures to initiate flowering. Winter wheat grows poorly in the extreme South and in hardiness zones colder than Zone 4, but spring wheat, which is planted after extended subfreezing temperatures are over, can be grown in all parts of the country. Though the stems of spring wheat are shorter and thinner than those of winter wheat, they can be woven quite well.
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Plant spring wheat when daytime temperatures are above 45°F; freezing temperatures at night may burn seedling leaf tips but usually won’t kill the plants. Plant winter wheat about a month before the onset of snow and persistent cold temperatures.
When you till the garden to plant wheat, the soil need not all be chopped into fine powder; marble-size clods are not a problem as long as there is enough fine soil to give good seed-to-soil contact. Newly planted seed and wheat approaching maturity fare better if they are watered at the roots rather than with overhead sprinklers. Plan the garden to accommodate furrow irrigation between rows or pairs of rows, especially if you’re planting spring wheat, which will need regular watering.
After the seedbed has been prepared, open rows 6 to 10 inches apart and 3/4 to 1 inch deep. Space seeds less than 2 inches apart; it’s easiest to sprinkle seeds into the open row from your hand or the seed packet. Cover the seeds with soil, but pack it only enough to ensure good seed-to-soil contact.
Overhead watering after sowing causes a crust to form which can prevent the seedlings from emerging. Instead, moisten the soil by filling a nearby furrow or by watering deeply beside the row. If rain falls before the wheat has emerged, wait until the soil surface dries, then test it with a pocket knife or small trowel. If it feels hard or comes up in chunks, cultivate the soil lightly over the rows to break up the crust.
Seedlings emerge in 4 to 10 days, depending mostly on soil temperature: warmer soil usually means earlier emergence. When the seedlings are visible, irrigation can be started. Spring wheat needs the equivalent of 1/2 to 1 inch of water per week, applied by sprinkler or furrow. Except perhaps one watering after seedling emergence, winter wheat needs little if any irrigation. Its root system is well developed quite early in the season, so existing rainfall and soil moisture normally are sufficient.
Birds sometimes raid the seedbeds just after the seedlings emerge, pecking down beside the seedlings to extract the germinated seed. I’ve found that scattering ungerminated seed around the edges of the garden distracts them; they prefer the seed that’s easier to get. After seedlings reach the two-leaf stage, birds are no longer a problem.
The long stems desired by wheat weavers cause problems in commercial grain fields because the tall plants tend to “lodge”, or fall over from their own weight. You can prevent lodging in your garden by sinking stakes along the wheat row and wrapping string around the row of stakes.
Most backyard gardens contain more than enough nutrients to produce beautiful wheat without the addition of fertilizer. However, high-nitrogen fertilizer can increase straw length significantly and may be worth trying if the plants are staked to prevent lodging. Dense planting is another strategy for increasing straw length, but it also increases the risk of powdery mildew, which will destroy the plants.
As wheat plants mature, their need for water decreases. When a pinched seed feels like soft dough and is no longer milky, stop all supplemental watering. This stage usually occurs by late June or early July in spring wheat, three weeks earlier in winter wheat. After this, the plants will gradually turn brown and dry.
Wheat for weaving is harvested earlier than that for grain; see Gini Sharp’s harvesting instructions on page 31. If you want to save some seed for planting another crop, leave it standing until the heads can easily be snapped off the tops of the stems and the seeds feel like an uncooked spaghetti noodle when bitten. Store the seeds in a cool, dry place.
You probably can order wheat seed through your local vegetable seed vendor or from a feed-and-seed store. If not, contact your county extension agent, who can advise you on types of wheat that do well in your area and perhaps also steer you to nearby wheat-breeding programs, which can be a source of seed and wheat as well as information.
Michael Moore is a wheat breeder based in Corvallis, Oregon.