Believed to have originated in Africa where it’s often referred to as “durra,” for thousands of years sorghum has been an extremely valuable food source for both humans and livestock alike. Today, it’s still one of the most commonly grown crops across the globe, particularly on the African continent. While there are many varieties of this valuable cereal available for cultivation, Sorghum bicolor is the species that’s most often planted for human consumption. Aside from being eaten in its whole kernel form, the seeds are frequently ground into a powder for use in baking breads, while the canes can be used in making molasses and syrups.
Able to withstand drought and poor soil quality better than most other major cereal crops, sorghum is a great crop for regions with harsh climates and/or infertile land. Sorghum can even help improve soil quality by breaking up dirt and adding nutrients such as nitrogen back into the earth, so consider growing this plant in your garden if you struggle with compact or low-nutrient soil.
Seed Depth: 1–2″
Space Between Plants: 1–2″
Space Between Rows: 18–36″
Germination Soil Temperature: 50–75°F
Days for Germination: 11–14
Sow Indoors: 2–3 weeks before the average last frost.
Sow Outdoors: Following the average last frost date when soil temperatures reach a minimum of 60°F.
Will grow in USDA Zones 4 and above, but grain production will be highest in Zones 7–10 as it performs best when temperatures are around 90°F for at least 2 to 3 months. Germination can occur at temperatures as low as 50°F, but growth will be much slower than if soil temperatures are at the higher end of the temperature range (i.e., 70–75°F). Plants are drought resistant once mature but require moist soil to germinate, so be sure to irrigate accordingly, especially if you live in a drier climate zone.
Natural: Full sun. Will tolerate partial shade in extremely hot climates.
Artificial: An HID lamp will help your plants thrive. Sorghum likes a lot of light, so aim for 16–20 hours of exposure. Anything beyond 20 hours can cause deficiencies in your plant, tho, so be sure to not overdo it!
Soil: This plant is highly valued in regions that have sub-par soil quality since it prefers soils with higher contents of clay. Sorghum will thrive in soils with a pH between 5.5 and 8.5 but a range of 6.0–7.0 is considered ideal.
Soilless: Will germinate in most soilless mixes but prefers ones that contain equal parts well-rotted manure and vermiculite.
Hydroponics: Plant starts will thrive in a hydroponic system.
Aeroponics: Will thrive in an aeroponic system.
Water: Requires low to moderate levels of water. Younger plants require moist soil to germinate, but this plant can sustain extended periods of drought as an adult. If you live in extremely dry areas, keep an eye out for curled leaves as this is a sign the plant is attempting to retain water and could use a light soaking.
Nutrients: Although not an exceptionally heavy feeder, sorghum does prefer higher amounts of nitrogen. Apply compost or manure prior to planting and approximately three weeks after your plants have emerged from the soil. A balanced phosphorous, potassium and nitrogen mix may also be applied prior to planting if your soil is generally nutrient deficient.
Mulching: A light mulching of grass clippings or straw can benefit your plants; however, wait until after seedlings have emerged to apply as young plants may have trouble pushing through.
Deficiency(s): Yellow leaves, especially in younger plants, may indicate a nitrogen or potassium deficiency. Leaves that turn dark green with red tips are a sign of phosphorous deficiency.
Rotation: A rotation of sorghum with soybean or cotton can help keep soil healthy and pest populations down.
Companions: Grows well with most varieties of beans and squash. Does particularly well with cowpeas, which kill weeds that tend to grow with sorghum.
Harvest: Can be harvested in mid to late autumn in most climate zones or before frosts set in. Harvest seed heads when seeds have become hard and dry and don’t give beneath your fingers when squeezed. Cut the seed heads off their stalk with a sharp knife or with clippers.
Storage: Store in a cool, dry space in an airtight container.
Fun Fact: In addition to being used as a food crop, fodder crop, and source for making various types of sweetners, sorghum is also grown and processed into ethanol in India and China. That’s one versatile plant!
Preserve: In most cases, seeds will require further drying post-harvest before they are threshed. Once seeds are completely dry to the touch, thresh and grind down to make flour.
The stalks may also be used to make molasses; however, this process is very labor intensive. If you still want to give it a try, check out our Helpful Links section for instructions!
Prepare: Because it doesn’t contain gluten, the flour made from sorghum is a great alternative to wheat flour for those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. It behaves in much the same way as wheat flour, so try it in your next baking adventure!
Nutritional: This plant is extremely rich in fiber as well as the vitamin(s) niacin and thiamin. It furthermore contains trace amounts of various minerals such as iron, copper, calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, and potassium. It’s also higher in protein that corn, which makes it a great addition to any diet.
Medicinal: As it is gluten free, sorghum can serve as a helpful substitute for those with sensitivities to gluten. Some studies have also suggested that it may be easier on the stomach for those that suffer from IBS.
Warnings: The leaves of this plant should not be eaten as they can contain toxic levels of hydrogen cyanide.
Sick of the same old stuff for dinner? Instead of quinoa or rice try cooking with sorghum kernels instead! We recommend this delectable chickpea, squash, and sorghum salad.