Growing an Ancient Grain Like Barley
Barley, a member of the prestigious ‘ancient grains’ club, is one of the healthiest crops around, along with other health-craze foods like quinoa and rye. It is the fourth most cultivated crop in the world for its extensive uses, from animal food to algicide. Despite these honours, few gardeners consider it a top contender on their backyard wish-list. With all its benefits, barley shouldn’t be reserved for committed farmers and the uber-healthy – here’s how you can get started too.
The benefits of barley
Barley is one of the most consumed ancient grains. It’s affordable, widely available and great for your health – what more could you ask for? Most forms of barley, from flour to flakes, use the whole grain, which is an impressive source of essential nutrients and fibre. With all its iterations, it can be easily added to any diet as a replacement for commonly refined grains, improving overall health and wellness.
Beyond the health benefits, barley has had tons of uses throughout history, and still does today. Ancient Egyptians used barley to make bread, and it was reserved as a special food for gladiators in Ancient Greece. It was used as a currency for a short period, and King Edward the First used ‘barleycorns’ as a unit of measurement. It became the basis for shoe size measurement in England, which it still is today (shoe size 11 would be equivalent to 11 barleycorns). In modern applications, barley is largely used as animal fodder. It is also used in the production of vinegar, and as a caffeine-free replacement for coffee. However, its most popular use among gardeners has to be malting in home-brewed alcohol! The grain contains fermentation-friendly enzymes that break down starches to make beer and whisky. Barley is the ideal crop for avid home-brewers looking to grow a grain with endless versatility.
Barley grows best in cool, dry conditions. There are hulled, hull-less and malting varieties – your choice will depend on your intended use. Be sure to check the variety you have as the ideal planting time will differ – some are best planted in autumn, others in spring. Plant in full-sun in well-draining soil. Plant in rows or simply scatter the seeds evenly across your prepared soil. Rake the soil to lightly cover the seeds and give them more soil contact. Barley can be sown in pots but will not produce much yield this way. Water thoroughly after planting and keep the soil moist during the initial growth period. Keep the beds free of weeds and try to protect early shoots from opportunistic birds. Once established, barley plants are adaptable and require minimal attention and care. Once the plants turn from green to a tan colour, limit watering to prevent rot.
Your barley will be ready for harvest about 60 – 70 days after planting. Before removal, test the kernels once the seed heads have formed and turned golden brown. A peeled kernel should be hard and you shouldn’t be able to dent it with your fingernail. Before cutting, cover your arms as the plant can cause skin irritation. Cut down to the base and lay the stalks in bundles. They can be left in the sun for a few days to dry for a further period, or immediately tied for threshing if they are ready. The next step will require a bit of muscle. There are two methods home gardeners can use to separate the grain from the stalk: either place the bundle between two wooden sticks (like broom handles) and hit them against the ground on a plastic sheet to release the grain, or hit the bundle, head-side down, against the walls of a large bucket or bin.
The collected grain can be stored in the freezer for over a year or kept in an airtight container in a cool place for up to six months. Ensure the grains are completely dry before storing as any remaining moisture will cause the grain to spoil.