Saturday, December 29, 2012

Update on the Sonora Wheat we planted

A lot is going on, just below the surface.  Digging up a vigorous clump of Sonora revealed some impressive growth, with stems of 9-10 inches and roots up to 6 inches long.

                                                       CLUMP                                                             AFTER WASHING

This was on December 28th marking 29 days since we planted the seed, a period of both light and heavy rains, plus a number of nights when the temperature went below freezing.  
Almost all individual plants showed a first and a second fully emerged leaf.   Wheat plants typically produce 7 to 9 true leaves before the final flag leaf unfolds, revealing the developing seed head.

Many plants had a secondary stem emerging from the seed.

In all these instances, the remains of the coleoptile sheath that protected the first shoot can be seen, like a shedded snakeskin.
And quite a few plants had an additional growth emerging from beneath the sheath of the 1st leaf.  It is guessed that either of these growths could be tillers, although guides suggest that tillers begin to appear about when the 4th leaf emerges on the stem.      

Root structures are complex and subtle.  It is not clear whether we are seeing both the initial radicle and subsequent coronal roots.  But it is guessed that both are present 29 days after planting, with such vigorous growth.

      A lot is going on, with all of our wheat.  Some of the action is just out of sight.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Stages in Wheat Growth

If you really want to watch eyes glaze over at your next dinner party, try describing the stages of growth that our wheat is going through in Agoura Hills.  You might assume that only we small-grain foster parents would want to know all the particular details.  But it is fascinating how this most important food crop gets from small seeds in the ground, up into a tall grass, with fruit that eventually provides food for our table.

Basically, we’re talking about germination, plant growth, and final seed development.  But knowing the details and sub-steps within these major stages gives the grower an opportunity to adjust fertilizing and irrigation, and better estimate the eventual yield.  According to some sources, there are at least five scales to measure wheat growth, with the one called Feekes listing eleven stages of growth, and Zadok dividing the growth sequence into one hundred steps.  Fascinating.  How could this not intrigue even the most jaded guest?  

The first surprise is what goes on underground before the first green shoot emerges.  The initial (radicle) roots emerge from the seed (caryopsis)
to be followed by a whole different set of (coronal) roots.  A scholarly journal describes how these help support winter wheat.

"The anchorage of winter wheat, Triticum aestivum L., is provided by a cone of rigid coronal roots which emerge from around the stem base. During root lodging this cone rotates at its windward edge below the soil surface, the soil inside the cone moving as a block and compressing the soil beneath. A theoretical model of anchorage suggested that lodging resistance should be dependent on the diameter of the root-soil cone, coronal root bending strength and soil shear strength."  Those roots are no slouches.  Both kinds can grow at nearly an inch a day, and, by the time the wheat is mature, the root system can extend 4’ to 8’ laterally, and downward. 

Now, before your dinner guests can change the subject, tell them how wheat begins growing upward.  It starts within a stiff protective tube of greenery, called the coleoptile.    That will get their attention. 

This tube not only protects the tender stem on its way up toward the soil surface, but it also plays a part in delaying the first leaf until surface temperatures and conditions are acceptable.   Pretty smart plant.  The moment when the first leaf emerges from its tube is Zadok stage 10.

As the stem grows, a series of leaves appear.

At about leaf number four (we’re now at 14 on the Zadok scale), tillers begin forming.  These are side shoots that emerge from the main stem, put down roots, and grow upward in parallel with the primary stem.  A few of them eventually set seed.  The whole process of stem elongation then becomes relatively normal, taking us through Zadok 37.  And it is here that the flag leaf appears.  It is the final and uppermost leaf, quite different from the previous 8 or 9 leaves, because it contains the embryonic seed head or spike.


When the head is just a swollen area (making the flag leaf look as though it is expecting), the plant is entering the boot stage, and our wonderful little grains of wheat are beginning to take shape.  From Zadok 41 to 58, the spike gradually emerges from its wrapping in the flag leaf, and those individual, would-be grain kernels begin flowering. 

Although the plant has been growing now for several months, the flowering (inflorescence) stage takes only a few days. If you are beginning to lose your audience, here is another surprising thing about small grains:  the flowers open first at the center of the head and progress toward the top and the bottom of the spike.  This leads us to pollination (anthesis), which is when you can get the attention of those interested in sex.  Tell them, discretely, that most wheat is self-pollinating, and it is a very brief process, with pollination of individual florets completing in less than five minutes.  Thus it is quite rare that pollen from another plant enters the picture.  The process is completed for the entire crop in less than ten days, empowering a considerable percentage of the little grains along each stalk to begin maturation into tasty wheat berries (caryopsis once again), most of which are identical to the seed we planted.

The final stages of spike growth, Zadok numbers 71 through 100, are some months away for us in LABB.  As described in an article on the botany of the wheat plant, "the recently fertilized grain is creamy white in color and when squeezed exudes clear liquid. It grows rapidly, attaining its maximum length in about ten days, and becomes green in color as chlorophyll is formed. At this stage, the exudate becomes milky as starch grains are deposited. As growth proceeds, the endosperm becomes firmer (the soft dough and the hard dough stages) until, at physiological maturity, the green color is replaced by golden-yellow, which deepens as the grain desiccates to dead ripeness."  

So we can look forward to seeing the seeds swell, the colors deepen, and the individual berries be tested -- pressed between thumbnail and forefinger, as they progress from milk stage to dough stage to hard kernel stage.  They gradually firm up until Zadok stages 91 (“hard to split by thumbnail”), 92 (“cannot split by thumbnail”), and 93 (“kernel loosening in daytime”).  

And we all, including our dinner guests, will be pleased that harvest time has finally arrived.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Wheat Growing Terms


Following up on the December 19th posting: Some Clarification, here is some additional terminology and special vocabulary used in wheat growing. 

Lodging is the tendency of wheat to bow down when the weight of the maturing grain is too much for the plant to hold erect.  Weather can add to this effect.  If lodging is too severe, much of the grain is missed by mechanical reaping.
Lodging Ripe Wheat

Shattering is a characteristic of wild wheat, which releases its seed as it matures.  Some of the earliest breeding efforts, continuing to the present, endeavor to reduce shattering in commercial cultivars, inducing the grain to remain on the plant so it can be harvested rather than lost on the ground.  One of the older cultivars planted in our test bed, Gold Coin, is notorious for shattering, trying to perpetuate itself by broadcasting its seed instead of holding onto it so we can grind it and make bread.

Vernalization is the acquisition of a plant’s ability to flower or bear seed in the spring by exposure to the prolonged low temperatures of winter. After vernalization, some wheat requires additional seasonal cues (like longer daylight) or weeks of growth before it produces grain.  Winter wheat goes through vernalization in regions with colder winters than Agoura Hills to ensure that reproductive development and seed production occurs in spring and summer, rather than in the chill of autumn.  Some cultivars that will not develop without a certain number of ‘chill hours’ have reduced yield in the warmer areas of Southern California.  Our plantings at Maggie’s Farm are expected to grow through a successful vernalization.

Tillers and Tillering is a branching out process in many small grains like wheat.  Sometimes called stooling, the branches emerge from the main stem about the time the 4th leaf emerges.  Initially relying on the main stem for nutrition, tillers soon establish a system of roots and grow as identical plants, along side the main plant.  A publication from UC Davis reports that primary tillers can also have tillers of their own, giving plants the potential to produce more than 50 tillers.  (The whole bunch of tillers on one plant is called a stool.)  Usually only two to four tillers survive to produce fertile spikes.  You can see that tillers can double or quadruple the yield.
Sonora Wheat Tillering Well

Friday, December 21, 2012

Some Notes about SPELT.

According to the Ontario, Canada, Ministry of Agriculture, “Spelt is a species of wheat that has been grown since 5000 BC. Spelt, emmer and eincorn are considered to be "ancient" wheat species, since there has been very little breeding of these crops. All three are covered wheat species, which means the hull remains attached to the kernel after harvest, similar to barley.  Spelt was also called ‘dinkle’ by some early farmers.  In the early 1900’s there was up to 500,000 acres grown in the USA.” 
With the development of the combine, Spelt, requiring an extra step to remove the hulls, was replaced by uncovered wheat in many areas.  However, in recent years, it has become a major cash crop, especially for organic and artisanal small grain growers.

There are both spring and fall seeded varieties of spelt, but most spelt is fall-seeded, and most varieties are awnless. Common spelt is susceptible to leaf rust, fusarium, powdery mildew, and loose smut similar to wheat. But in most years diseases have not been a serious problem on Ontario organic farms. Spelt is tall, with moderately weak straw, and is later maturing than most wheat varieties.

Spelt requires about 25-50% less nitrogen than wheat. Phosphorous and potassium requirements are similar to wheat or barley.   Recommended seeding rates are as high as 160-180 lb/acre, but in practice seeding rates vary from 125 to 200 lb/acre. The Ohio Agronomy Guide suggests a spelt seeding rate of 15 to 20 seeds per foot of 7-inch row. Winter wheat research would indicate that we need 20 plants per foot of row (7") for 100% yield potential. The seeding rate is determined by the percent viable germination of the seed, seed size, and by the personal experience of the grower in previous years.

As we found out on Maggie’s farm, spelt is a large seed, with its enclosing hull, and requires a relatively high seeding rate.  Too large to be seeded from a hopper, our spelt was broadcast by hand. 

No official test weight has been established for spelt, but recent tests show that with the hull attached it averages 27-30 lb/bushel. The test weight of hulled seed is close to that of wheat (60 lb/bu). A successful crop of spelt can yield 1.0 to 1.2 tonnes per acre. Most flour millers buy the grain dehulled, which requires grain elevators to dehull the grain with specialized dehulling equipment.

Spelt flour can substitute for wheat flour in many products (breads, pasta, cookies, crackers, cakes, muffins, pancakes and waffles).  The starch in spelt is more soluble than wheat and recipes containing spelt flour will frequently require less water (~75%) than when using wheat flour.   People with 'allergies' to wheat starch commonly report that spelt is easier to digest. Spelt does however contain gluten, and people with gluten allergies (celiac disease) are likely to be allergic to spelt, similar to wheat and other gluten grains.

One web site reports on spelt nutrition:  “Spelt is by nature a wholefood. Unlike wheat, where vital nutritional bran and germ are usually removed during milling, the vital substances of spelt are found in the inner kernel of the grain. However this does not mean that spelt makes a heavy loaf. In fact the exact opposite is true.  The real beauty of spelt is in its ability to make a really light, highly nutritious loaf with an appealing nutty flavor.  The protein in spelt is such that when the flour is turned into bread it bakes well and results in a very light, soft textured loaf with good keeping qualities which doesn’t shed crumbs when sliced. 

“Due to spelt's high water solubility, the grain's vital substances can be absorbed quickly into the body. The nutrients are made available to the entire organism with a minimum of digestive work. The body cells are then nourished, strengthened, and prepared for their optimal performance while the body is flooded with vitamins and other nutritional substances. Spelt contains more protein, fats and crude fibre than wheat and also has large amounts of Vitamin B17 (anti-carcinoma). It also contains special carbohydrates which play a decisive role in blood clotting and stimulate the body's immune system so as to increase its resistance to infection.   The total protein content of spelt varies from 13.1 - 14.28% depending on climate and soil conditions. It is higher than soft wheat (10.5%) and spring wheat (9.1%) but similar to durum wheat (13.8%).”

Environmental Benefits of Growing Spelt
Spelt is a relatively low yielding crop so doesn't take as much from the soil as more modern crops. It is therefore a more sustainable crop on a long term basis. Being low yielding it also thrives without the application of fertilizers even on relatively poor soils. Spelt is also very resistant to frosts and other extreme weather conditions and the grain's exceptionally thick husk protects it from pollutants and insects.  As spelt is a pure, original grain and not biologically modified in any way, it is very resistant to the crop diseases that often plague modern crop varieties and grows quite successfully without the application of herbicides, pesticides, or fungicides.    
Spelt is stored with the husk intact so it remains fresher over a much longer period than other grains.  It has been claimed that spelt’s hull is so strong that it can protect the grain from virtually every type of pollutant, even radioactive fallout. 

Eastern Europe may be where spelt is undergoing the most serious breeding and genetic testing.  One paper showed results of genetic testing on 30 different cultivars, under the auspices of the Research Institute of Crop Production Piešťany, Slovak Republic Genbank, and from Research Institute of Crop Production, Praha-Ruzyně, Czech Republik. 
French’s Hybrids, a seed company in Ohio, specializes in spelt.  Their website includes sections on the history, growing, harvesting, grinding, and bread-making with spelt. They are particularly enthusiastic about Maverick, which is one of the Spelt cultivars we planted in Agoura Hills.  French’s sells Champ, Comet, Oberkulmer, Sungold cultivars of spelt, but says this about Maverick:  Its protein content is very acceptable and its 5 year averages are well above Champ and Oberkulmer. In addition, Maverick has demonstrated far superior milling and baking qualities with very good flavor. Maverick also dehulls very easily. We have experienced up to 40% threshed out of the field with normal combine settings. Maverick is THE variety of choice for milling and baking!”

In Montana trials, 50 cultivars of spelt have been evaluated over the last two decades and Maverick had the 7th highest yield, while Oberkulmer ranked 40th.  
The website called highstakes farming, based in Idaho, says   “Spelt has a sweet, nutty flavor. It also has a higher fiber content than both hard white and hard red wheat. Though it is not wheat. This grain contains more protein than whole wheat flour and is easier to digest.”

Sounds like good stuff!! 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Some Clarification

In answer to some questions posed about wheat terminology, I am including here some basic information about common wheat terms. Feel free to chime in, anyone, if you have more/more accurate information here. I myself am new to the field.

Wheat classifications:

Red vs. White

As it turns out, white wheat is no natural thing. The Fresh Loaf tells us this: "Hard white wheat was developed from hard red wheat by eliminating the genes for bran color while preserving other desireable characteristics of red wheat. Depending on variety, red wheat has from one to three genes that give the bran its red cast; in contrast, white wheat has no major genes for bran color. The elimination of these genes results in fewer phenolic compounds and tannins in the bran, significantly reducing the bitter taste that some people experience in flour milled from red wheat. Nutritional composition is the same for red and white wheat."

Spring vs. Winter

In areas with those puritanical and wider ranging seasons familiar to early American settlers, these two types of wheat are traditionally planted in accordance with the name given to them. Spring wheat is planted in the spring, and harvested in the fall, while winter wheat is planted in the fall after harvest, lies dormant during the coldest winter months after sprouting, and then continues to grow in early spring and is harvested soon after. Because of our so-called "Mediterranean" climate here in SoCal, we can plant spring wheat during the winter, when there is beneficial rain; and this is exactly what we did. For this reason, spring wheats have generally dominated California wheat production, especially in the north, and especially hard red spring wheats, which are very popular for bread production. (Hard red winter wheat is what most all-purpose flour mostly contains). Most of our varieties are indeed spring wheats, with only a few of the test plots containing winter varieties. It will be interesting to see how the winter and spring wheats grow side by side.

Soft vs. Hard

Wheats could all theoretically be judged on a scale which determines their protein (and therefore gluten-producing) content. This is the distinction which "soft" and "hard" are trying to make. Softer wheats have less protein and are generally used for pastries and the like. Furthermore, they are almost all winter wheats. Hard wheats, because of their ability to develop gluten, are traditionally used for bread. Most of our varieties, as is to be expected, are hard wheats, and so will function better in the context of yeasted breads.

Monday, December 17, 2012

 This is the first of, I hope, a regular series of brief updates on Los Angeles Bread Baker news and events.
Holiday Cookie Exchange - Erik reports that it went well on the 15th. Though a small turnout, everyone had a good time. Erik spoke to the gardeners and said that we'd try to schedule the next Eagle Rock event -- possibly a pizza party in January -- to coincide with their next work day so more gardeners could participate.
Next Central Milling Order - Just after the holidays, David will be taking orders for Central Milling flour and grains -- as well as for brotforms -- for delivery by mid-January. He'll send out details.
Beginning Bread Class - There's a long waiting list for both of Erik's Beginning Bread Classes in January. Due to the high demand, he promises to open up additional classes. Keep an eye on the Meetup page.
Grain Growing Project - Many thanks to all who helped sow seeds out in Agoura during the past month. As you can see from both Paul Morgan's photos and posts in the Discussion and Photos section of the Meetup site (Thanks, Paul!) the heritage grains are doing quite well, and thanks to Saul Alpert'sLABB blog (Thanks, Saul!) we now know a great deal about what we've planted. We'll be checking on them periodically over the months. Andrea and Nathan are watching over them, though, until they're ready to harvest (in the spring), at which point we'll have a massive harvest party, bringing in the grain before the birds get it (this time)!
Artisanal Flour Milling - LABB member Nan Kohler is scouting Los Angeles locations for her stone-ground flour mill. She's entertaining suggestions for appropriate commercial spaces near downtown. Please contact her if you might have a lead.
California Homemade Food Act - Latest word from the Los Angeles County Department of Environmental Health is that they're committed to a January 1 launch of the program! You can find out more info about their preparations here. They should have model forms from the California Conference of Directors of Environmental Health sometime next week. And we should have word from the California Department of Public Health about how the Department intends to deal with the fact that they won't have their required Cottage Food Operators course ready until mid-2013, at the earliest. There's a facebook group devoted to the Homemade Food Act and its implementation. Join the conversationhere. If there's any interest among LABB members, we could have an event in January focusing on those who will be setting up their home-based baking businesses. Let us know if you'd be interested in participating.
And . . . we're looking for someone to teach a tortilla class. If that's you please drop Erik a line

To get announcements about all of our events please sign up for the LABB meetup ( Also, if you are signed up for the meetup, please make sure that you have your account configured to receive notices (under Account/Email and Notifications). We don't send out a lot of emails, so don't worry about your inbox flooding with bread related missives.

Comments? Questions? Suggestions? Post something here, in the LABB facebook page, or in the Discussion section of the LABB Meetup site. Thanks very much. Mark

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Test Plots

Remember planting on the 29th? Well, there is one major thing left to discuss: the test plots.

In the NW corner of the cultivated land, we marked out a test plot to hold twelve varieties of wheat which haven't been grown recently in our neck of the woods. The purpose is to see what grows well in our area, so that we might gather information that could be beneficial for future wheat growing in SoCal.

Of the twelve varieties we planted, 11 were donated by Dr. Stephen Jones, of Washington State University Agricultural Research Center. He is working on growing wheat in the most north western counties of Washington state, and although the climate there is quite different, his goals are similar to ours: to redevelop small and medium organic wheat farming on the West Coast. The information gathered from our project will hopefully aid him in his, as his research has in ours.

These 11 varieties were Surprise (soft white club), Poole (soft red wheat), Gold Coin (soft white winter wheat), Marquis (hard red spring wheat), Pacific Bluestem (hard white spring), JP (spring club wheat), Kelse (hard red spring wheat), Glee (hard red spring wheat), Clear White 515 (hard white spring wheat), Louise (soft white spring wheat), and ML EM118-Z-G (hard white spring wheat).

There is an interesting old bulletin on some of these varieties HERE.

The 12th variety was India-Jammu (hard white wheat), which came from Monica Spiller of Whole Grain Connection.

We had enough seed from each type of grain to plant two rows, about five feet in length. Each row was drill-planted. This means that narrow holes were "drilled" into the ground (i.e. poked with a stick), about 1-1.5" inches deep, approximately 2-3" apart. 2-4 seeds were then dropped into each hole.

This placed the seeds deeper than the seeds broadcast over the furrowed or unfurrowed land to the east. This could be one factor in their ability to germinate, and the speed at which they do so, especially in comparison to the abundant growth of the Sonora, Red Fife, and Glenn.

These seeds were then covered with a gentle raking to bury them and protect them from predators.

We are excited to see which of these strange varieties grows in the Southern California climate. The order of the rows was as follows, north to south:

ML EM 118-Z-G, Clear White 515, India Jammu, Louise, Kelse, Glee, Surprise, Pacific Bluestem, Goldcoin, Poole, JP, and Marquis.


When we went to check out the plots yesterday and plant, we took a careful look at the test beds to calculate their growth. Loyal LABB member Paul Morgan noted that

"In comparative terms, the five most prolific and fastest appearing species so far are:

1) JD, a 2009 Washington State Univ. release; soft white club
2) ML EM110-ZG hard white spring wheat
3) Louise, a soft white spring wheat, released in 2005 by WSU
4) India Jammu a hard white winter wheat, a landrace from India, released in U.S. in 2010. This is considered one of the most promising new wheats for our area.
5) Surprise. A soft white club that was grown extensively on the West Coast in the early 1900s. 
The remaining varieties had a modest start, with Marquis & Gold Coin very sparse, and almost no Pacific Bluestem."

We have lots of hope for all the varieties, and with the right conditions, we hope that they may prosper.  Although the small sample size will not give us too much specific data as to what to expect for larger plantings, it will at least allow us to judge which grains grew well enough to try again.

More Wheat Planting!

Yesterday, Tuesday December 11th, three members of LABB trekked back to Agoura Hills to plant some more wheat. The process is becoming more and more efficient, as new tools are invented to aid us mere mortals.

But before I get into what we did yesterday, let me show you what we saw. The wheat planted on the 29th sprouted, and is looking exceptional. All three kinds which were planted in the large beds (Sonora, Red Fife,
Glenn) look quite lush.

As you can see, the Sonora (left), which was furrowed before it was planted, is growing in neat rows, where as the other two beds grow uniformly.

Some areas are patchy, as in the foreground of this shot. We suspect this is where the device we used to turn under the seed built up dirt and dragged the seed out of the soil. These areas were often accompanied by areas with a high-density of growth, strengthening the above conclusion.

Yesterday saw the planting of three large plots, roughly 10' by 175', containing Oberkulmer Spelt, Maverick Spelt, and Sonora (the second plot of this variety so far planted). Two more plots were readied for seeding (they are being planted as we speak), planned to contain Red Fife, and Glenn. After this is accomplished, all the land in Agoura designated for wheat planting will be full!

This is the basic layout, not to scale:

From left to right, Sonora, Red Fife, Glenn, Oberkulmer Spelt, Maverick Spelt, Sonora, Red Fife, Glenn. The small rectangle in the lower right is a test plot. More on that in the next post.

Tuesday's planting was not much different from the 29th's. Because of the success of the furrows on the Sonora patch, we decided to furrow all the land. A little innovation turned the device used last time to turn under the seed into a plow. Screws and bolts were attached to holes in the metal frame, the bar closest to us in this picture:

These protruding bolts, spaced about 3" apart, when dragged across the surface of the earth, created narrow channels, perfect for planting. The cinder blocks were placed atop the frame in order to provide the weight necessary to keep the frame flush against the earth, and to keep the bolts buried, creating the desired effect. It was first dragged by two people:

But when Nathan brought out the tractor to re-till some soil, which remained clotted, we took advantage of the motor power.

The seed was distributed as before, using  two 20lb Solo hoppers, except in the case of the Uberkulmer Spelt, whose seeds were too big to fit through the gate in the hopper, and was dispersed by hand. The spelt was purchased from French's Hybrids. Uberkulmer is a California Landrace variety, and Maverick is a modern variety. It will be interesting to see them growing side by side. The seeds had both been treated with an anti-fungal chemical, and appeared red out of the bag. Here is a photo of the Uberkulmer, with its large seeds:

No trace of this chemical will be left on the wheat harvested in the spring.

The furrows, once seeded, were hand raked to bury the seed, both to give it its proper germination environment, and to protect it from birds. When all was done, the land divided beautifully, green and brown:

There's not much more for us to do but to wait until the harvest in early spring, and meanwhile learn all about wheat varieties and their culinary uses.