Thirsty? Barley is one of the oldest grains grown by humans and is a main ingredient of beer. Yum! An easy to grow annual grass, this grain is a staple in many diets and is also used for animal feed and as an edible sprout. It prefers to grow in a cool season and matures quickly compared to other cereal grains. It’s also useful as a cover crop or for erosion control because it grows quickly and has a deep root system, particularly when grown over the winter. It’s also well adapted to high altitude and will grow in less than ideal soils, including disturbed sites.
Robust barley is a 6-row type of barley first grown in Minnesota in the early 1980s. It’s high yielding, tolerant of drought, and usually grown for malting but can also be used for pearling or as an animal feed. Other variety characteristics are semi-smooth awns (those fuzzy things at the ends of the stem), medium to tall height, and resistance to spot blotch disease.
Seed: Grain seeds are usually broadcast and raked into the soil rather than individually planted in neat rows. If you’ve got 100 square feet, you’ll use about 1/4 lb of seed.
Seed Depth: 1–2″
Space Between Plants: 2–3″
Space Between Rows: 6″
Germination Soil Temperature: 35–60°F
Days for Germination: 1–3
Sow Indoors: Not recommended for a seed crop. If growing as a sprout, you can germinate indoors at any time.
Sow Outdoors: In mid to late fall for a winter crop. As soon as the ground can be worked in late winter for a spring crop.
Grows best in cool weather but will not survive deep freezes. It’s well-adapted to high altitude growing and northern latitudes. In areas with mild winters, it grows best in the winter. If your summers are cool and short, plant as early as possible in the late winter or early spring for a spring crop.
Natural: Full sun.
Artificial: Will grow well under fluorescent or LED lights. Experiments have been done that provide continuous lighting 24 hours a day, but 12–18 hours daily should be sufficient.
Soil: Prefers well-drained loamy or light clay soils but is very adaptable and will grow in most soil types. It’ll tolerate soil salinity and alkalinity better than other cereal grains. A wide pH range of 6.0–8.0 will keep plants healthy and nourished.
Soilless: Use sprouting trays or a soilless mix for growing barley sprouts indoors.
Hydroponics: Thrives in a recirculating NFT hydroponic system.
Aeroponics: Thrives in aeroponic systems when grown as a sprout or young grass for juicing. This type of system is also used to grow barley ‘fodder’ for feeding to animals.
Water: Requires low to moderate levels of water and is somewhat drought tolerant. Too much water will lead to rotting, and only about half of commercially grown barley is irrigated.
Nutrients: Requires low levels of nutrients but does need adequate potassium and phosphorus in the soil. Add rock phosphate and greensand to soil before planting. Too much nitrogen will result in seeds that contain a high amount of protein, which is a problem if you’re growing barley to make malt.
Foliar: Will benefit from foliar feedings of nitrogen and phosphorus.
Pruning: When grown as a cover crop or for erosion control, mow your crop before mature seeds form to prevent or delay self-seeding.
Mulching: Use mulch when planting to protect seeds from pests. Mulch will also help control weeds while young barley is growing.
Pest(s): Barley is actually a pest suppressor, reducing the numbers of aphids, root-knot nematodes, leafhoppers, and armyworms is areas where it is grown. This is because of an alkaloid chemical it produces. It can also attract beneficial predatory insects. Some problem pests may include:
Disease(s): Disease shouldn’t be a big problem for the home grower, especially if you practice crop rotation. Possible diseases to watch for include:
Deficiency(s): Potassium and phosphorus deficiencies will cause slow growth.
Rotation: A 2- or 3-year rotation is recommended. Because of its quick life cycle, barley fits well into a double-cropping system and other types of rotation. Plant after one or two buckwheat cover crops to provide a nutrient rich and weed-free soil that barley will love. Avoid growing after wheat. Plant a crop of carrots after a barley cover crop to provide the carrots with protection from root-knot nematodes.
Companions: Grows well with annual legumes like beans or peas, beets, rye, and other grains. Avoid planting with Thompson Seedless Grapes.
Harvest: When seedheads are just beginning to turn yellow or brown and seeds are still slightly soft. Harvesting in the morning and before barley is fully mature will prevent shattering of the seedheads. Cut the whole stalk near the ground and hang bundles upside down or leave in the field under cover to dry fully. We recommend using a sickle for harvesting, since it’ll both impress and intimidate your neighbors! Win-win. This should take about 2 weeks, and grains should feel hard and crunchy when they are ready to be threshed and winnowed. If harvesting as a sprout, let it grow for 7–10 days, then cut the young grass near its base. Use right away in green smoothies or to make juice.
Storage: Dried, cured grains can be stored in a cool, dry area, in an airtight container. You can also keep the grain in the refrigerator or freezer to extend its shelf life.
Classification: Six row barley and two-row barley have been classified as different species in the past, but in recent classification all are grouped under the H. vilgare species.
Fun Fact: Studies of ancient Mesopotamia show that barley cultivation increased after the second millennium BCE, likely because it is more tolerant of saline soils than wheat.
Preserve: You can make your own barley malt for brewing beer. Weigh the grain, then soak overnight in cool water. Drain and allow to germinate in a well ventilated container in a dark, cool area for a few days, stirring regularly to prevent molding. When the shoot, also called an acrospire, is as long as the grain, transfer it to an airtight container, still turning the mixture once per day. Next, dry this sprouted grain in a dehydrator or oven set to low. When the weight of the grain is the same as your initial measure, its fully dry and ready to roast. A few days after roasting, your malted grain is ready to be used for brewing.
Prepare: Barley grains can be ground into flour using a mill, blender, or food processor. This flour can be used in recipes for bread, biscuits, or pancakes. It can also be used whole after hulling as a substitute for rice, as a porridge, or in a soup or pilaf recipe. Use a 1:2 ratio of grain to water and simmer for 30–40 minutes. Soaking before cooking will reduce the cooking time. Roasted barley can also be brewed as a tea. Sprouted barley grains are harvested to be juiced or added to smoothies for a green boost of nutrition.
Nutritional: Low in fat, barley provides iron, protein, and calcium. Also a good source of dietary fiber.
Medicinal: Because of its soluble fiber content, it is good for reducing the risk of heart disease and lowering cholesterol. The insoluble fiber is also beneficial for reducing risk of diabetes and colon cancer. Eating barley will also help to regulate blood sugar for up to 10 hours after eating.
Warnings: Barley contains gluten, so stay away if you have a gluten intolerance or Celiac disease.
Test your baking skill with this Whole Grain Barley Bread recipe.