Growing grains for the heart, head and body


heart, head and body

Venturing into my beautiful backyard keeps my personal, holistic gardening philosophy of heart, head and body front of mind

Heart is about experimenting with unusual planting combinations over the seasons and gives me great joy; head is about balancing my garden space with my family its mini ecosystem and body is about including plant species that nourish and encourage wellbeing. After recovering from a bout of food poisoning I began to think about how our intense commercial vegetable growing practices increased pests, pollution and higher water use. I wondered if there were other, not so well-known edible plants that backyard gardeners could grow that survived and even thrived in drier conditions, fitted easily into our diminishing veggie patches (head), were super nourishing (body), and attractive from the viewpoint of a kitchen window (heart).   

I began to look into the past and our ancestor gardeners; they have done the hard work over many generations starting from observation and selecting to grow those species more naturally suited to drier climates found to be nutritious through beneficial effects on the community’s health and wellbeing. These gardeners of the past understood intimately the subtle changes in weather and seasons. From my findings I decided to grow crops that had been mainly overlooked in the Western culture and diet.


amaranth and sorghum

As it was the end of summer with the weather too hot for regular planting in my veggie patch I decided to trial growing two ancient food crops: amaranth and sorghum. Amaranth is an early food source harvested by the Aztecs with thousands of years of human cultivation. There was something appealing about growing and harvesting a plant that connected me to the nurturing wisdom of nature based native cultures.  Amaranth is best known for its multitude of tiny grains that grow out of its top bright tufts and the leaves and stems can be prepared and eaten like spinach. Amaranth grain has a surprising number of health benefits. It’s gluten free, a rich source of lysine an important amino acid, has plenty of dietary fibre, riboflavin, iron, vitamin B6, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, zinc, copper, manganese and if that wasn’t enough has protein too. The amaranth family (Amaranthaceae) includes beetroot and spinach, well known for their health benefits and I decided to grow the cultivated variety Amaranthus caudatusotherwise known by the common name of ‘Love-lies-bleeding’ beinga symbol of hopeless love due to the tendency of its bold flower tasselsto bend dramatically over its stems.  Amaranth is a low maintenance crop. Originating from arid climates, amaranth doesn’t like it wet, a bonus in these water-wise times. I pinched out the excess seedlings (which popped up regularly and can be eaten as sprouts), the remaining plants quickly grew to over a metre in three months.

Up close I was surprised by how attractive these plants are with their broad red and green leaves and bright cascading tassel flowers. Taking advantage of their sturdy forms I trained scarlet runner beans to wind their way up the stems and underneath in the gaps grew fennel. Once mature, the bright amaranth rising above the feathery green fennel was stunning in late afternoon sun.  When it came to harvesting it was important to manage Amaranth’s copious production of seed grains, which if not collected can cause the plant to pop up everywhere next season. I monitored the development of the seed heads and when they began to nod, turn a dull colour and visiting birds took an interest it was time to harvest. This meant cutting off the flower heads and carefully putting them into a clean bag and hanging them in the sunroom to dry. After a week or so I could shake the bag and hear the tiny grains rolling out, I stored these in glass jars. It was important to make sure the grains were completely dry to prevent any mould from forming. When ready to use I rubbed them in the palms of my hands or between cloth which caused any chaff or dust to be separated and the seed coating to come away revealing the grain within.

Amaranth is versatile cooking grain; I had a go at making popcorn which was fun to watch as the grain expands to five times its size. It can be used as crumb coatings, ground into flour, baked into bread and when boiled transforms into a jelly that can be used like jam. I add it to my porridge enjoying its nutty flavour and protein kick. I didn’t discard the rest of plant using it leaves which have a hint of sweet horseradish to accompany a meat dish. When my friend Beth mentioned how her unsightly window view onto a sun blasted patch of dirt, I suggested planting out a combination of amaranth and fennel into the space. “Within a couple of months I had a colourful, attractive view. I love Mexican artwork and the bold colours reminded me of my travels there. I felt good walking past that area that I had completely ignored before and seeing how high the amaranth had gotten.”

After learning that my friend Sarah had switched to a gluten free diet being recently diagnosed with Celiac disease, I helped plant a row of amaranth near her kitchen. “I heard the plant was low maintenance and the grain was gluten-free. I’m still getting used to what I can and can’t eat so it was good to know that grain was easy to digest and won’t cause any problems.” Amaranth proved to be an easy care, nutritious crop that fitted in well into my modest patch, plus I have plenty of seeds to plant for next season that I can share with my friends and family. 

The other cereal crop I tried my hand at growing was sorghum. While people may have heard of sorghum, many may not be familiar with it from a food perspective however, across the world particularly in developing countries it’s a vital cereal crop, used for feeding livestock and biofuel. Sweet sorghum is turned into syrup and in China it’s made into baijiu a clear spirit. Sorghum has been part of human cultivation for thousands of years with early records showing that it was an important food source in Egypt 8000 years ago that spread across Africa, Asia with native species right here in Australia. In Queensland hybrid sorghum has become a significant established commercial crop recently beating wheat in its value. Yet even now it has not really been considered as a plant to grow for the backyard gardener, with the idea of cereal crops as the domain of the big commercial growers and not something people think of for their backyards. As a home grower of sorghum I found there wasn’t a lot of information on planting for a smaller scale but I knew sorghum liked it hot and having a garden in Melbourne meant like amaranth it was suited to those long summer days when soil temperatures didn’t drop below 15C. I soon found sorghum was not maintenance intensive and spells of dry weather did not cause wilting.  The main consideration was choosing a sunny spot not exposed to winds as the forming grains have nothing to protect them from the elements.

In Melbourne sorghum is an annual in the summer months so planting time was important to keep it within the January to March period. Eight days after planting the sorghum came up and my first thought was how much it looked like corn or sugarcane with its tall leafy grass stems. This is not surprising as it’s a subfamily of Panicoideae and Andropogoneae which includes sugarcane. While the plant is not as colourful or attractive as amaranth I found my four plants filled my small square veggie patch nicely. When it came to harvesting the grains are clustered at the top of the plant and are slightly bigger than amaranth grains at between 3mm to 4mm in size. Like amaranth I made sure the grains were left in a dry bag and hung in an airy warm room for up to two weeks so that they were dry and not susceptible to mould. The great thing about harvesting was how was easy it was as the outer hull doesn’t need to be removed like wheat, and it retained its nutrients.  It just required cutting off the heads with all the seed clusters leaving a bit of the stalk left then shaking and gently thrashing the tops into a fine strainer until the grains rolled out. Once dry it was then able to ground to flour using my good old blender.

Sorghum grain is gluten-free providing another food source option for celiac sufferers and can be eaten whole. It’s nutrient rich with B vitamins, niacin, thiamine, vitamin B6, iron, manganese, calcium, phosphorus, potassium and plenty of protein. It can be popped like amaranth and it was great for making flatbread and best of all pancakes. Being able to step out into my backyard and grab some grain rather than purchasing a heavily processed bag of flour at a commercial grocery store felt really enjoyable and broke my some of my habitual ways soon loving how convenient it was to step out my backyard. A friend of mine who is a chef at a local café came over to help make pizza dough with the ground sorghum and we found it cooked well. I started to look into the different types of food that sorghum could be used for, everything from cookies, soups, pastas, breakfast granola,  brownies there’s even a recipe for banana bread one of my all-time favourites.

As gardeners we tend to stick with what we know as far as traditional edible crops and growing methods. Yet this may not be sensitive to and suitable for this country with its naturally poor soils and climate extremes. Besides nothing beats stepping out into my garden seeing the amaranth and sorghum fertile and growing happily and knowing exactly where my food has come from and what has gone into it.


Tips for growing amaranth

• Look for the cultivated varieties these have been tried and tested over years

•They like sun, and warm consistent temperatures so this usual means they’re an annual

•Pluck out the seedlings you don’t want to grow to give the others space, there are always plenty to spare

•Watch for the signs that the grain seeds are ready for harvest; flowers begin nod, turn a dull colour and are attractive to birds

•Remember they look great in the ornamental section too!


Tips for growing sorghum

•It gets to the same size as corn so make sure you have the enough room in your patch at the top and around the sides

•In colder climates grow it in summer when there are warm consistent temperatures

•In can be planted in small spaces as sorghum is self-fertile

•The grains are ready when the leaves and stalks have browned off

•Grains are brittle and can crack off the tops easily so care is needed when cutting

Kaye Roberts-Palmer