Beyond your typical garden of vegetables, consider growing some decorative and beautiful grains. Most varieties of modern grains grown on a large scale have been developed for machine processing. However, heirloom and antique grains are available for the backyard gardener. Many of them are perfect for crafts and arrangements. Some grow 6 feet tall and provide a stunning backdrop to your vegetable or flower gardens. They aren't difficult to grow. Most are hardy, drought-tolerant and require little cultivation.
Choose from exotic grains like amaranth, black emmer wheat, kamut, quinoa, and triticale.
Amaranth is a traditional plant grown by the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas. Plants grow 4 to 8 feet tall. Its leaves are an excellent addition to any salad. They are rich in protein, especially lysine. The grain has a protein content of 16%, above corn, rice and some wheat. Its dark red spikes resemble a jester's cap and its leaves are a striking bronze color. Other varieties of Amaranth have leaves that are stripped with a brilliant yellow or tops that are like a rope of trailing chenille.
Black Emmer Wheat is ancient wheat that is perfect for arrangements. It has elegant long black awns on golden kernels. Black emmer is difficult to thresh, so it isn't practical for eating, but it is good for basket-weaving.
Kamut is an ancient Polish wheat with very beautiful silvery-blue seed heads. Kamut kernels are two to three times the size of modern wheat. Because it is low in gluten, it isn't very good for breads, but it's great for pancakes and biscuits. It has a buttery, rich flavor. Those who can't tolerate wheat in their diet have discovered they can sometimes tolerate kamut.
Quinoa grows about 4-6 feet tall with arrow-shaped leaves, much like spinach. It is an Andean staple. It provides beautiful autumnal foliage for flower arrangements.
Triticale is a cross between wheat and rye but looks like an exotic heirloom grain. Its stalks are often stiff and strong with bearded heads. Its aggressive root system is great for areas that need erosion control.
Other fun crops are buckwheat, Hungarian red broom corn and sorghum.
Buckwheat is a quick-growing ground cover that can be seeded at any time during the spring or summer. A short plant with a beautiful white flower, buckwheat matures in about a month and a half and is good at crowding out weeds. When in doubt, plant buckwheat. It produces phosphorus, an essential mineral often deficient in soils.
Hungarian Red Broom Corn is a variety that is 8 feet tall with deep red seed heads. Stalks are green to light red. The seed plumes make excellent rustic brooms. Broom corn is in the same family as sorghum.
Sorghum comes from Africa. It is heat-tolerant and water-efficient. Grown like corn, the seed heads are gorgeous in dried flower arrangements, with an appealing mix of colors: red, gold, black, burgundy and every shade in between.
All of the plants mentioned above are available as true parent plants (open-pollinated). In other words, they aren't from hybrid seed stock, nor have they been genetically engineered. (Triticale is a natural hybrid, as opposed to man-made, and it breeds true in the home garden.) Many modern hybrids have been bred to withstand (and eventually depend upon) the application of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Growing open-pollinated seed stock helps ensure genetic diversity. Open-pollinated seeds contain genetic vigor, are more resistant to diseases and often more nutritious. We can't afford to lose these seeds. Every day, more and more seeds become extinct. To become part of a Seed Growers Network, call the Abundant Life Seed Foundation in Port Townsend, Washington (360-385-5660, www.abundantlifeseed.org). Ask for a copy of their seed catalog to begin planning your next garden. Their e-mail address is email@example.com. Put them in your travel plans -- or, better yet, sign up for one of their farm workshops or attend one of their conferences.
Another good source for antique grains and open-pollinated seed stock is Bountiful Gardens in Willits, California (707-459-6410, www.bountifulgardens.org, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org). They also offer workshops and tours. They have a training center for teachers and practitioners in their "GROW BIOINTENSIVE" method. This method is used nationwide and by thousands of practitioners in 130 countries around the world. Read more about it in their catalog, which is available by phone or e-mail.
Keep in mind that open-pollinated seeds are reliable for seed saving. To learn more, consider ordering a handbook called "Growing Garden Seeds," available at Johnny's Selected Seeds in Winslow, Maine (207-861-3900, www.johnnyseeds.com, e-mail: email@example.com).