Grow Your Grains

Barley is an easy crop. Like hops, it is ordinarily grown commercially, so it may seem strange to think of it in a garden. But barley, also like hops, is a great plant for small settings. A homebrewer can get a lot of satisfaction out of growing even a fraction of his own barley. Barley grows fast and well, is highly ornamental, and is useful in many ways. And there’s nothing quite like handing someone a homebrew and casually mentioning, “Oh, and I grew the barley.”

Malting barley comes in two varieties, two-row and six-row. This refers to the number of rows of grain on the barley head. It has pretty significant consequences for beer. Six-row barley tends to be smaller-grained, less starchy and more highly enzymatic than two-row. It is commonly used in making American-style high-adjunct beers, because it can easily convert unmalted starches in such ingredients as corn and rice. Two-row tends to be plump and starchy and more conducive to making all-malt brews.

In many parts of the country, including the East Coast, six-row barley varieties grow best. The Midwest mostly grows six-row. Commercial two-row production is limited to the milder climates of the Pacific Northwest and the Great Plains. However, more and more two-row barley is being grown around North America, with new cultivars being introduced to replace old standbys like Klages and Harrington.

Selecting the right barley variety

To find a local source of seed, talk to feed and seed stores, farmers, the Cooperative Extension, and your local land grant university. (These are all also good sources of information on successfully growing barley in your region). Also look at smaller, local seed companies, because many of these have started to carry barley, and these seeds may be especially well-adapted to your area. Many gardeners are now growing barleys as ornamentals or cover crops. The catalogs do not always say whether or not an offering is a malting barley, but you can always e-mail with questions or do some research on your own.

When we first got interested in growing our own barley, not that long ago, there were no retail sources of seed. We were also not in a barley-growing area (we live in Maine), so good seed was hard to find. That’s all changed. In the last few years potato farmers in northern Maine have started to grow barley in rotation with their potatoes. Now some organic farmers have begun shipping barley to Fedco seeds along with their seed-potato shipments, so there’s lots of organic barley to be had, though all of it is one cultivar, “Robust.” This is not a problem because Robust is a good barley, well-adapted to our climate.  A 1983 release from the University of Minnesota, this barley is fairly tall, fast-growing and very productive. It has excellent enzymes, making it a good malt to use with adjuncts.

You can also turn to seed-saving organizations to find old strains of barley that you can conserve yourself. A lot of these antique cultivars have worthy traits that have been bred out of the new hybrids. These organizations usually offer only enough seed to get you started. You may have to grow out the seed for a few years to get enough for a full-blown crop.

If you live in a mild climate, you could try fall planting some of the traditional fall varieties, which are usually called “spring barley” since it’s harvested the following spring. We’ve never done this, since no barley will survive the winter here. You should aim for the plants to make no more than a few inches of growth before they shut down for the winter.

As a last resort, the whole barley you find in bins at the health-food store will germinate. Just sow it thickly to allow for low germination rates.

Getting the ground ready

Only you can know how much of your garden you want to turn over to barley. We always favor starting small with any new project. But you should at least grow enough to make it worth your while, so shoot for at least a 10 by 10 foot bed or the equivalent in square feet, which may yield you 5 to 15 pounds of grain. This will give you plenty of grain to experiment with.

Barley likes a very fine seedbed, loamy soil and plenty of sunlight. It does not like acidic soil, that is, soil with a very low pH. If you have doubts, get your soil professionally tested. It should be 6.0 or higher. If not, amend the site with lime. Ideally, this should be done the fall before you plant. At the same time you can throw down some compost or well-rotted manure.

Barley will do well in poor soils but needs phosphorus and potassium. Adding rock phosphate and greensand will help improve these nutrients in the soil but they don’t work very fast. Too much nitrogen in the soil will produce excessive protein in the seed and malting qualities will be poor. This is only really going to be a problem for people who use a lot of chemical fertilizers.

As soon as you can get on the ground in the spring, fork up the barley plot and get the soil prepared. Now you are ready for planting.

Planting the seeds

Planting should be done as soon as the ground can be worked in the spring, about the same time you plant your peas. Around here that means the end of April, for a late July harvest. This means that the whole growing cycle takes place in the relatively cool spring and early summer, which is what barley likes.

Barley is sown at a rate of 60 to 90 pounds per acre, which translates into about a half-pound to 3/4 pound per 10 x 10 foot plot. You can calculate how much you will need by pacing off the area and doing the math. Measure your own pace and multiply by the length times the width of your plot to get square footage, and divide by 100. For larger plots, use 3 pounds per 1,000 square feet.

The simplest way to plant grain is just to scatter it on the ground. Get a big coffee can, fill it with grain, and just walk along, pitching the grain ahead of you, using a twist of your fingers so the grain spreads in a nice pattern. You are aiming for about one kernel per inch. This is called broadcasting and it’s a cheap, efficient method. We still plant this way sometimes. It’s especially fun to get a half dozen people ranged across a field every ten feet or so, all with their bags of grain, each trying to outpitch the others. We also use a broadcast seeder, which has a hand crank and throws seed in a twenty-foot cloud.

After seeding, it’s a good idea to rake in the grain, to get better soil contact and cover at least some of the seed so the birds won’t find it.


Weeds are the bane of any grain crop. It’s difficult to stop weeds from competing with grain plants, especially when the grain has been broadcast. When the plants get large enough you can pull them out by the roots, but by then the damage is done. Weeds steal water, nutrients and space, and are a nuisance at harvest time. They not only effect the present crop, but they will spread seeds through the next one.

On a commercial scale, which is usually the only way grain is grown, weeds are stopped with herbicides. Organic farmers use flame weeders and crop rotations and aggressive cover cropping to kill weeds. There are also specialized mechanical cultivators that will work on grain crops. Needless to say, you probably can’t or won’t want to use any of these options. Luckily, barley is a pretty good competitor itself and given half a chance will outgrow most weeds.

Brad Hunter, a homebrewer from Appleton, Maine, has tried a few different strategies on his raised barley beds to thwart weeds. The first year he says he sowed “with a heavy hand. I used a broadcast strategy, hoping the aggressive barley growth and thick sowing would choke out weeds. This worked pretty well, but I still had some weed problems and it was difficult to hoe or hand-weed because of the density.”

The following year he tried growing four different varieties in straight double rows, spaced six inches apart, hand-seeding the individual varieties in the rows. “Because of the row design and spacing, this time I was able to weed very effectively by hand and with a hoe,” he says. “I kept the whole plot virtually weed-free all season.” Brad also found that the crop was less likely to “lodge” (fall over) when planted the second way.

If we knew we were going to grow barley on a plot in a year’s time, we would throw down lime, greensand and rock phosphate, and grow two heavy buckwheat cover crops to smother weeds, tilling the first one under at flowering time and then planting the second on the residues. You will get far fewer weeds this way, and the buckwheat will take up nutrients from the rock powders and hold them for your grain crop. Your barley crop the following summer should surpass all records.

Pests and diseases

We’ve never had much trouble with diseases or insect pests in our barley crops. There are maybe a half-dozen important barley diseases, the worst of which is smut. Rotate your crops frequently, feed your soil and watch the pH, and you should have few problems. If you suspect your barley is diseased, contact the local ag extension for advice.

On the other hand, birds may drive you nuts. In our area the reintroduced wild turkeys love grain and sometimes come forty strong, poults, hens and toms as big as armchairs. They can put away a lot of grain in a short time, and they’re relentless. Yelling and waving your arms works pretty well — so does a dog that hates turkeys.


The variety we mainly grow, Robust, stands up well to drought. This is generally true of six-row types. You shouldn’t have to water the plants at all, unless you are having a very dry spring. With two-row types, they tend to appreciate more water and may need irrigation as the heads emerge, to help the kernels plump out. This is why most two-row today is grown in irrigated plantations.  Water is important because barley grown during a dry season will have higher-than-normal protein levels.



About ninety days after planting, your barley will be ready to harvest. The straw will be brittle and golden in color. A peeled kernel should be a little difficult to dent with a fingernail. If you waited a little longer than this, there’s no problem.

The best tool to cut grain on a very small scale is a sickle — not the kind of heavy bush sickle you can still find in some hardware stores, but an old-fashioned grain sickle. These have a narrow, wicked-looking blade like a bent metal ribbon. If you find one of these, buy it, no matter what the condition. We have also heard of people using Japanese hand sickles and European-style scythes to cut grain. As a last resort, a pair of garden shears will work, but won’t be much fun.

As you cut the grain, lay it in bundles all going the same way, and then tie these into sheaths. When you have about eight or ten of these, stand them up into small piles called stooks, with most standing up and a couple laid across the top. Leave these out in the sun and wind for one or two weeks to thoroughly ripen and dry.


Threshing is beating the grains off the straw with some kind of tool. It works better with some barley varieties than with others, and the riper the grain, the easier it threshes. Traditionally a flail was used, and you can easily make your own flail by using two 1-1/4 inch diameter sticks, a long one (4 feet) for the handle and a short one (2 feet) for the flail.

Drill a hole through each stick near one end. Tie them together with a loop of strong, new boot lace. We use a big piece of heavy army canvas for our threshing floor. We spread it on the ground, lay a sheath in the middle, and flail away.

Most people just beat the grain with an overhead smash. A more elegant method is to hold the handle with widespread hands and spin the flail section like a propeller, impacting the grain more lightly with each stroke. You can also use a plastic baseball bat as a flail. I’ve also heard of people using a clean garbage can as a threshing machine. Beat the sheath over the edge of the can so the heads come loose and fall into the can. Brad Hunter uses a broom handle and a sheet of plastic to do the job, and follows up with winnowing to get rid of the chaff. Just pick a windy day (or use a fan), and pour the grain back and forth between two pans until the unwanted awns, husks and bits of straw have blown away.

Grain can be stored in any cool, dry place, free from rodents. A grain bag makes good storage but rats or squirrels will make short work of it.


Home-grown barley is very easy to malt, especially on a small scale. One method we’ve used successfully is to soak a few pounds of grain in cool water overnight. Before you soak the grain, clean it and weigh it. You’ll need to know this weight later.

After you’ve soaked the barley,  drain it into a large steel colander and keep it covered with a damp cloth to keep it from drying out. Ideally, you should germinate your grain in a dark room at about 50° F. Stir the grain at least a few times a day. If you don’t do this,  heat and carbon dioxide will build up and suffocate the grain.

Expect white rootlets to form from the blunt end of the grain on the second or third day. The acrospire, or shoot, can be seen growing beneath the skin of the grain. (If you can’t see the acrospire, simply slice open a few barley grains to see how germination is proceeding.) As the acrospire grows, starches in the grain endosperm become modified by enzymes for use as food by the barley plant.

When the acrospire is as long as the grain, it is fully modified. Now it’s time to stop the acrospire growth by “couching” the grain. To do this, transfer the grain to a large bowl and keep it covered with a lid for a few days. This stops acrospire growth by limiting its access to oxygen. Be sure to turn the germinating grains once a day, otherwise the heat and carbon dioxide will kill the barley. When the grains have stopped growing, kiln them.


Small amounts of finished malt can be kilned (or dried) in an oven at the lowest setting, in a food dehydrator, or in a specially constructed “oast.” Ovens are convenient, but often lack the kind of exact temperature control needed to produce a high-quality pale malt. Still, an oven works perfectly well for a small amount of malt. A few pounds of malt will dry thoroughly in an oven in 12 to 24 hours. (The time it takes to dry a batch of malt depends on how wet the malt is, and how much grain you are malting.) Leave the oven door open a bit to allow air to circulate. You know the malt is dry when it weighs the same as it did before you started steeping it.


Kilned malt can be roasted in a regular oven to produce various specialty malts (see sidebar at right). Kilned malt can also be used in a pale, unroasted state, but don’t expect the same results that you’d get from a commercial pale malt. You’ll need to experiment to find the correct mashing temperatures and procedures that work best with your own malt.

Homemade malt should be roasted in a jelly roll pan, in a layer no more than 3/4-inch thick. Stir the malt often to prevent burning. Homemade malts should be kept in a sealed, airtight container for a few days before brewing, to let the grain mellow and prevent potential off-flavors. Once it’s ready, fire up the brewpot and whip up your first batch of My Malt Ale!


A Good Way to Grow

Will Bonsall of Khadigar Farm in Industry, Maine, grows barley for his own use and also conserves 62 varieties for the Seed Savers Exchange and his own Scatterseed Project. His method of growing makes a lot of sense for small acreages. Will grows barley in 40 x 40 plots. He lays out the rows with string, about six inches apart, and does the planting with a Planet Jr. push seeder, about one seed per inch in the rows.

He cultivates between the rows with a hand hoe, and when the grain is a few inches tall he mulches the bed with ground-up leaves. These are stored dry the year before in bags. The mulching prevents weeds and water loss. The grain has no problems sending up tillers (shoots) through the mulch. Will minimizes weeds by rigorous cover cropping and never letting any weeds go to seed.

We’ve used a Planet Jr. to grow grain and the method works well. It’s a lot slower than broadcasting, but the birds can’t get to the seed (it’s buried) and it all comes up. Germination is very consistent, because you get the kernels down into the moist earth. The cheaper Earthway seeder might also work, but none of the standard seed plates I’ve tried are suitable for barley. You would have to try modifying a plate (the spinach plate looks pretty promising) or else get the company to make you a barley plate.


Roasting Specialty Malts

Toasted malt: Roast dry, kilned malt at 350° F for 10-15 minutes until golden and aromatic.

Munich malt: Roast dry, kilned malt at 350° F for 20-25 minutes.

Crystal malt
: Start with “green” unkilned malt that is still wet. Kiln it at the lowest setting until almost dry. Raise the oven temperature to 200° F and roast for 1 hour. Raise the temperature to 350° F and roast 1.5 to 2 hours until the malt is dry and golden-brown in color.

Vienna: Roast dry, kilned malt at 220° F for 3 hours.

Roasted barley: Start with dry, unmalted barley. Roast it at 400° F about 1 hour and 10 minutes.

Black patent malt: Roast dry, kilned malt, spread in a thin layer, at 350° F for 1 hour and 20 minutes. Stir often. Expect some smoke!

Issue: May-June 2002