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Crop Plants – Grains And Grasses
Grains and grasses are a big part of the dried Flower market in Canada and the US. As Alberta growers we have a big advantage in production of grains, and we should be using this advantage fully. Many species, varieties and cultivars are useful.
Ask your Wheat Pool agent, or the provincial special crops experts for more information on general principles of cultivation and for cultivar names and characteristics. Check out sample plots at research stations and field trials for new varieties. Anything different, colored, with long awns, or nice clean heads, will be useful for ornamental purposes.
In general, these grains should be grown in the same way as wheat for the grain. They may require fertilizing, weed control and the usual care before and throughout the growing season. If we are growing just for the green stages, you may be able to apply less fertilizer, but the large, full heads produced by a well tended and fertilized crop will be the highest quality also.
Almost all grains can be picked young, while still green and immature,as well as gold, fully mature, and often in the intermediate stages too. Pick before the heads tip over, the stems must be as straight as possible. Watch out for glume blotch on the heads, especially on wheat, this can cause black spots and discoloration that is unattractive and reduces quality.
It is not necessary to line up the heads or to remove all the leaves. Use a large comb, or make a small rake-type comb for a table top, to comb out the worst of the leaves and small or broken stems, leaving the tall, clean stems behind. Stems should not be longer than 30″.
For smaller areas, a saw-tooth sickle is quite efficient. Cut handfuls and lay them together along the row. Make up double handful bundles and tie with a tight string or rubber band for drying. For even smaller areas, especially for the fancy grasses, a good pair of sharp pruners will do a good job and also give you the cleanest bundles.
Large bundles take longer to dry and may start to mold in the middle. A bundle about 8 – 10″ across is optimum and will dry in about 2 – 3 weeks. Drying will take longer if the weather is cool and damp. Grains should be hung upside down to dry just like Flowers, as the heads can tip over. This gives the best air circulation and the least mold. If you hang the bundles across a wooden slat to dry, this can open up the center of the bundle and reduce the problem of mold growing inside the bundle.
GRAINS AND GRASSES
Bunny Tails (Lagarus ovatus) have fuzzy round heads. An annual grass that grows direct from seed. Harvest by hand into full bundles after pollen bearing anthers have passed, while heads are still slightly green. Can also be harvested when mature (gold in color). Save 10% of mature crop for seed. Dyes well.
Canary Seed (Phalaris canariensis) Grown for bird seed. Easy to grow. Direct seed in rows, harvest like wheat and tie into large bundles for drying. Better when picked green, but gold is OK too. Seeds are available at the Wheat Pool. Good for dying. Very popular.
Corn Tassels (Zea) The male part of the corn plants at the top. Indian corn sometimes has red tassels. Pick early when green or not quite mature, to prevent shattering. Leave the leaves attached.
Flax (Linum) Very popular! Can be dyed and spray painted. Best to pick flax by hand and make small bundles because it tangles up too much if handled in bulk. Pick when seed pods are fully formed, good green or mature. Make bundles to fill your hand, then tie with an elastic and hang to dry. Cultivated, field flax is better than ornamental flax. The ornamental type is too fine and sparsely headed. The crop variety is much more dense, with more and larger pods.
Job’s Tears (Coix lachrymae) Very unusual grass. but can be difficult to grow here in Alberta. However it’s worth experimenting with! Common in seed catalogues. Save seed.
Millet (Setaria) Several types are available. Direct seed to grow but will self sow. Standard field crop varieties of white and red Millet are very good. Red millet develops an attractive red blush on the panicles when green and mature.
Some ornamental members of the millet family known as Panic Grass (Panicum violaceum) are also good. Seeds are available in catalogues. They are not much different from field crop millet, and the seed is much more expensive. Try Sudan Grass and Sorghum.
Foxtail Millet (Macrosetaria) is the birdseed millet, with a large dense panicle. You can plant the seed from bird seed packages of this type. All millet can be picked green or gold & is easy to grow. Likes full sun and heat. Best for central and southern Alberta but can be grown to green stage even in northern Alberta.
Harvest 15 – 20 stems in a handful, clean only a few leaves off the bottom. Hang to dry.
Many species and varieties grow wild all over Alberta. Several slough grasses are interesting. Pick when greenBarley rather than fully mature to avoid shattering. Bundles should be handfuls, no more than 30″, nor less than 12″ long. Quality is always important.
Rare grasses should not be collected, except perhaps for seed. When collecting wild, native plants, the rule is to pick only l/l0 of the stand, leaving the remainder for reseeding and for animals. See Alberta Native Plant Council Recommendations for Collectors.
Small quantities of grasses are best left alone. If there is only a small stand, this may be a rare grass, a native species, worth collecting the seed only, or just a sparse stand, not worth bothering with.
Oats are much better green than gold. They tend to shatter too much when mature. Any variety is good, try to get shorter types, with sturdy, dense heads.
Many seed companies offer mixes of ornamental grass seed. Often you can get varieties not offered separately. Save seed of the interesting ones. This is a good way to get started on grasses. If you are interested in volume, however, it’s better to buy a large quantity of individual types.
Ornamental grass offered in seed catalogues. May be too short a season in Alberta for this grass, but worth a try.
Quaking Grass (Briza maxima)
Very popular. Harvest same as other fancy grasses, into handful bundles. Best picked when still green as it will shatter when mature. Some slight cleaning to remove extra leaves at base. Save 10% of seed for next year. Try also Briza minima, a miniature version.
Reed Canary Grass (Phalaris arundinaceae)
Grown for forage in earlier days, and now escaped to grow around sloughs and wet areas. Easy to pick if found in large clumps. Collect an arm full of stalks, twist slightly and cut off at about 30″ long. Shake out the loose leaves at the bottom and comb slightly with your fingers to remove a few more bottom leaves. Tie a full handful with an elastic and hang to dry. Very good if picked green or with a purple blush. Don’t pick when golden, mature, shatters too easily.
Can be useful. Heads are usually long and thin, so not as showy as other grains. Don’t need to pick at full height.
Very popular. Fresh or dried. Can be collected with orange Flowers showing or just in bud. The all green, but full Flower heads are most popular. The ones with the orange Flowers are much less popular. Don’t grow the field crop, prickly variety, it is way too difficult to handle. Ornamental varieties have round leaves and are not prickly at all. Pick when green and Flowers are immature, not in golden mature stage. Seeds available from West Can – Calgary.
Timothy Grass (Phleum)
Pick when heads are formed, but still green, after pollen bearing anthers have passed. Will shatter when mature. Easiest to get a volume if grown for forage or seed, otherwise, the stands are too thin to make efficient picking.
This is a cross between wheat and rye. In general the heads are largerthan wheat and the awns are very short. This is very attractive in the green stage as well as the mature gold stage.
Many types are useful. All varieties can be picked green, immature, or mature gold. This is the most popular of the grains and grasses.
Bread Wheat has no awns. Try for varieties with clean heads with no awns at all, not even short ones. This is the standard wheat that most people expect to see & is commonly grown all over Alberta.
Durum Wheat long awns, usually black awns on gold heads. Also available with gold awns on gold heads or black awns on black heads. You can pick the heads when they are green, with green awns, this is very attractive, very popular.
Durum grows best in southern Alberta, because it is a tall variety and requires the heat to fully mature. Since we are harvesting for ornamental use, rather than the grain, we can use plants before they are fully mature, so even northern growers should be able to grow Durum for our purposes. Try Wakuma, something called Polish Wheat, Italian Wheat, Pelicia or Pellizzia, Russian Wheat. There are many varieties and cultivars of Durum that will give good results. Kyle is commonly grown now, but it does not have the black awns. It will still be good for a green wheat.
A new variety is available from Stokes (at a high price) that has black awns and black heads. This is a very exotic looking wheat. Try this one, and save seed for next year. Also watch the demonstration plots and field trials for any other black glume type wheat, barley or rye.
Start picking when the heads are full, but still green with green awns. Sometimes the awns will turn black while the heads are still green. This is a very good product. You may get gold heads with the awns still gold, this is OK too.
Canadian Prairie Spring Wheat not recommended. The awns are too short and stick out sideways from the head, making these difficult to use in arrangements. This is commonly grown all over Alberta.
Utility wheat there are a few types of utility wheat that have large, clean heads, with no awns. I have seen at least one variety with a very nice brown colored head. Look for interesting colors, shapes, large heads, small heads, etc.
Blue Sky Wheat Commonly used for ornamentals. Dark brown head makes it unusual, but the Canadian Prairie Spring type awns are difficult to work with and the heads tend to shatter.